Sneak Peek: 60 Years of Archeology in Yellowstone

Archeologists out walking in a field
Archeologists walk in grid formation while doing a boundary survey in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park.

Photo © D. MacDonald

from Yellowstone Science 25(1)

by Tobin Roop

Wild, pristine, untrammeled. When thinking about Yellowstone, a vast and amazing back-country, large carnivores, ungulates, iconic geysers, and geothermal features fill the imagination. However, 11,000 years of Yellowstone’s human history is for most people a hidden text. As we approach sixty years of archeological research in the park, we know a great deal more about how ancestors of today’s Native American tribes lived in Yellowstone. Decades of careful scientific research on thousands of archeological sites, such as Osprey Beach and Fishing Bridge Village, provide a window into what it was like to live in this area before it was “discovered” by Europeans. Obsidian Cliff, a designated National Historic Landmark, was one of the most important stone quarries in North America, its stunning black glass traded over thousands of miles for millennia. On a more somber note, one recently documented site in the park is a high-altitude bivouac where a band of Nez Perce camped in 1877 as they fled the United States Army in one of the last great acts of resistance during the Indian Wars of the west. Yes – that’s right: that terrible event is captured in an archeological site dating to five years after the creation of the worlds’ first national park. Not long after the park was established, burgeoning commercial ventures, and administration by the U.S. Army and the National Park Service are represented by archeological sites, including trash dumps, abandoned buildings, and privies.

Philetus Norris, serving from 1877 to 1882 as the park’s second superintendent, collected prehistoric artifacts, often documenting and sketching them. He shipped many of those artifacts to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., where they remain today. He did this even as the park actively pushed Native Americans out of Yellowstone and discouraged acknowledgment of native occupation. Artifacts were seen as novelties to be collected, and not as resources worth protecting. For many late-19th century Americans, glimpses of Native American tools and campsites were simply reminders of a recently pacified west where the vast majority of Native Americans had been forcefully moved to reservations. Yellowstone was no different.

In 1948, Smithsonian surveyors initiated the long history of formal archeological work in Yellowstone. The contemporary advent of radiocarbon dating allowed researchers to construct fine scaled cultural histories across the continent, including the Northern Rockies. This was followed by the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. This seminal legislation required consideration of cultural resources, including archeological resources, into government planning efforts and park management. In Yellowstone, archeological surveys and excavations are undertaken in preparation for park development projects. Over the following decades, a body of thousands of archeological sites has been documented and protected in Yellowstone, though to-date, roughly 86 square miles, or just 2.5% of the park, has been surveyed. Alongside this work are traditional stories and place names from many tribes whose ancestors had for millennia visited and lived in Yellowstone. Collectively, this information helps us more accurately understand the human history of one of the most treasured landscapes in the world and challenge the myth of a “wild” place discovered by Euro-American explorers.

Prehistoric and historic archeological resources in Yellowstone inform and challenge how we think about this ecosystem. Yellowstone, more than any place in the lower 48, has come to symbolize “wildness.” Yet, how do we reconcile a narrative that this place is “wild” with the clear implication that wild means without human presence – when the evidence clearly refutes this? What is “wild” about a place that was the center of a continental wide obsidian trade for thousands of years. How has recent research by park staff and university partners helped us better understand the long and complex human history of Yellowstone?

How do the stories of native peoples about Yellowstone challenge our assumptions? That is the story for our next issue of Yellowstone Science.

Last updated: August 18, 2017