Grand Teton
Historic Resource Study
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The Prehistoric Peoples of Jackson Hole
By Stephanie Crockett
Figure 1. Standing on the east shore of Jackson Lake, rancher and amateur archeologist W. C. "Slim" Lawrence stands near a prehistoric fire hearth, November 1936. At the time Lawrence gathered artifacts, the property on which he collected was privately owned. It is illegal to collect archeological artifacts within Grand Teton National Park. National Park Service

During the 1930s, a Jackson Hole ranch foreman named W. C. "Slim" Lawrence began to collect artifacts along the north shore of Jackson Lake. Over the next 30 years, Lawrence's collection grew to number in the thousands and would help illuminate approximately 11,000 years of human habitation in a place we now call Jackson Hole. [1] The artifacts recovered by Slim Lawrence, combined with subsequent professional archeological research, allow us a glimpse of what life would have been like for the prehistoric inhabitants of Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole [see Figure 1].

Professional archeological investigations began with intensity in Jackson Hole during the 1970s. At this time, large-scale investigations were conducted by archeologist Gary Wright and his colleagues from the State University of New York at Albany. Wright and his associates formed an archeological "model" of prehistoric life in Jackson Hole—a hypothesis about the lives of the area's early peoples. [2] This chapter will briefly describe this model and its importance in later research. Using Wright's model as a framework, clues to the general subsistence and travel patterns of Jackson Hole's early populations are explored. Finally. because American Indian peoples do not exist solely within the realm of history, and tribes—such as the Wind River Shoshone—are still culturally tied to Jackson Hole, a final section of this chapter includes a discussion of these modern cultural ties.

An Archeological Model of Prehistoric Life in Jackson Hole

Throughout prehistory, the people of the mountain and foothills environments of northwest Wyoming subsisted as hunter-gatherers. As such, the early people of Jackson Hole most likely resided in the valley on a seasonal basis. Highly mobile, these individuals took advantage of ripening plants and migrating game animals. Prehistoric people also needed an intimate knowledge of the landscape and the behavioral patterns of game animals. However, anthropologists postulate that wild game, although essential to the prehistoric diet, was less predictable and, therefore, of secondary importance. By contrast, the abundance of edible and medicinal plants was critical to the survival of these people. Observation of such plant species on and around archeological sites has led to the development of a predictive archeological model of prehistoric life in and around Jackson Hole.

Basically, archeological models take a general theory and apply it to a limited set of conditions. By observing this limited set, the archeologist can then test his/her hypotheses. Using a model, archeologists can predict where certain types of archeological sites can be found. For example, archeologist Gary Wright and his colleagues formulated a model of "High Country Adaptations." [3] Wright and his colleagues observed the available edible and medicinal plant species within the Jackson Hole region, and then determined where prehistoric peoples may have traveled and settled based on the availability of these plant resources.

Wright's model is based on the theory that the areas earliest humans utilized the valley floor of Jackson Hole in the early spring, then moved to higher elevations during the summer and early fall to follow ripening plants. The first spring plant foods on the valley floor ripened between the third week in April and the middle of May. Early season root crops included spring beauty, bitterroot, Indian potato, biscuit root, and fawnlily, as they are commonly called. All of these plants have fleshy taproots, corms, or bulbs, are available throughout the spring and summer months, and continue to bloom just behind the receding snows at subsequently higher elevations. Archeologists know that American Indians historically harvested these plants for their roots before or while in bloom, when the nutrient content is high and the plant is readily observable on the ground surface. Thus, according to Wright's model, prehistoric people moved into Jackson Hole by late May or early June, and subsisted predominantly on root crops through the month of June. [4]

According to Wright, the people living in the northern part of Jackson Hole probably spent their early summers at the mouth of the canyons in the northern Tetons. These people established large "base camps" at the head of Jackson Lake, at elevations of less than 7,000 feet above sea level (asl). Archeological evidence supports this theory, as a wide variety of tools, hearths, and roasting pits have been recovered from probable base camp sites, such as the Lawrence Site, on Jackson Lake. The Jackson Lake base camps were apparently used for a variety of activities, such as tool making, food processing, and even fishing, as evidenced by the notched stone artifacts probably used as fishing net weights [Figure 2]. [5]

net weights
Figure 2. Fishing net weights. Typically, these weights are approximately 4 to 5 inches across. Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Wright's model also suggests that, as the snow melted, "specialized parties" traveled into Webb, Owl, and Berry Creek Canyons to collect ripening plants. Although Wright had yet to conduct systematic research of high-altitude areas in the park, he theorized that the sites left by these gathering parties would be relatively small and contain specialized "tool kits." Presumably, these sites were occupied for a shorter time by fewer people, all of whom performed the specialized tasks of plant gathering, plant processing, and some game hunting.

During the late summer, the large base camps moved up into the higher valleys of the northern Tetons. These base camps would be at an elevation of approximately 8,000 feet. From here, specialized parties gathered plants as they ripened in the highest mountain meadows. By late summer, the high mountains would have been thoroughly exploited, at which time the entire group moved westward into Idaho for the winter. [6]

A similar but separate model has been formulated for the southern half of Jackson Hole. Here, prehistoric people collected root and herb crops more acclimated to the drier benches and hillsides of southern Jackson Hole. These plants included sego lily and arrowleaf balsam root. Prehistoric people in southern Jackson Hole probably also harvested plants along the eastern side of the valley. Having wintered in the Wind River, Green River, or Bighorn Basins in northwest Wyoming, these groups entered the valley from the east, through the Gros Ventre drainage. This is evidenced by the high amounts of Green River cherts that have been found on archeological sites along the southeast end of the valley. [7] As the plants ripened and the season progressed, prehistoric people followed the maturing plants into the Gros Ventre Range to the south. By winter, they had moved into the warmer and dryer inter-montane basins east of Jackson Hole.

During the summer, the prehistoric people in and around Jackson Hole were primarily occupied with gathering plants, but they also hunted. Their travel patterns were in proximity to migrating animals such as mule deer, elk, and big horn sheep. [8] Indeed, bison supplemented the diet of Jackson Hole's prehistoric people. This evidence comes from bison bones recovered from sites within Grand Teton National Park and at the southeast end of the valley. [9]

With this archeological model as a framework for understanding the travel and general subsistence patterns of prehistoric peoples, it is now time to move on to the archeological data, most of which has been recovered since the formation of Wright's model.

The Archeological Record of Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park

The earliest human inhabitants of North America probably arrived from Asia, via the Bering Strait Land Bridge. This bridge connected the continents during the last Ice Age, for a period extending from 75,000 to 10,000 years B.P (Before Present). Archeological evidence from Eastern Siberia suggests that the first humans migrated into the New World no more than 22,000 years ago. Archeologists continue to seek evidence for an earlier arrival, but the current record suggests that by 12,000 years ago humans were living as far east as Maine and as far south as Costa Rica. [10]

The earliest evidence of humans in Jackson Hole dates to approximately 11,000 years ago. By this time, the massive ice sheet that had blanketed much of Jackson Hole had retreated from the valley floor. Through analysis of fossil pollen found at the bottom of area lakes, we know that plant communities consisting of shrubs and herbs had colonized the silt and outwash soils left behind by the receding glaciers by 11,200 years ago. Willows and juniper may have been present during this time period but, in general, the lower elevations of Jackson Hole were probably much like the high alpine meadows of today, with sparse vegetation and a short growing season. It was in this environment that the first humans ventured into Jackson Hole. [11]

So, who were these first intrepid humans to follow the receding glaciers into this high country?

The Paleoindian Period (12,000 to 8,000 B.P.)

The earliest Jackson Hole artifacts made by human hands date to the Paleoindian period. This time period ranges between 12,000 and 8,000 years ago. During this time, the archeological record suggests that humans hunted with finely flaked, lanceolate-shaped, stone spear points. These points were hafted to a large spear that was either hand-thrown or projected by the use of an atlatl.

The atlatl is a simple but ingenious device that greatly enhanced hunting technology during this early period [Figures 3 and 4]. The atlatl is a carved wooden throwing stick, which was used in conjunction with a finely-flaked spear point, hafted to a short wooden dart shaft. The dart was attached to a larger spear that, in turn, was propelled by the atlatl. The atlatl throwing stick was fitted with a thong or socket to steady the butt of the spear, and was generally weighted by a smoothed bannerstone to add force to the throw. The atlatl thus became an extension of the hunter's arm to increase the velocity of the spear. This hunting technique was used across North America for at least 10,500 years, until the development of the bow and arrow about 2,000 years ago. [12]

Figure 3. The atlatl was used for throwing short spears or darts. Tracks Through Time: Prehistory and History of the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site, Southeastern Colorado. (National Park Service and U.S. Army)

Figure 4. Atlatl throwing stick, detail. Fingerloops and weighted bannerstone on lower left. Stephanie Crockett

The earliest North American people to use the atlatl are referred to as the Clovis and Folsom cultures. These names are from the New Mexico towns where evidence for these earliest Americans was first discovered. The terms also describe the stone spear points used by these early hunters. Archeological evidence suggests that Clovis and Folsom peoples had a diet that relied heavily on large mammals, such as the now extinct species of North American camel, horse, bison and, for the Clovis hunter, the North American elephant known as mammoth. Clovis and Folsom sites have been found throughout the Rocky Mountain West, and as close to Jackson Hole as the Big Horn Basin near Cody, Wyoming. Isolated Clovis and Folsom spear points have also been found in a number of locations in the Green River Basin. [13]

Based on the paucity of artifacts found in Jackson Hole that date from this time period, it is impossible to know how long these populations lived in the area. Part of a Folsom spear point was found at an elevation of 9,000 feet, [14] in the Upper Gros Ventre drainage, which flows into Jackson Hole from the east. A lanceolate spear point was discovered at a site near present-day Astoria Hot Springs at the south end of Jackson Hole, while a spear point resembling the Clovis style was recovered from the Lawrence Site on the shores of Jackson Lake. To date, however, no remains of Clovis or Folsom prey have been found in Jackson Hole. [15]

As we move forward in time to approximately 10,000 years ago, the evidence for human occupation begins to increase and the picture of life in Jackson Hole becomes a little clearer. By this time, Englemann spruce and subalpine fir were on the landscape, and the whitebark pine, with its edible seeds, was quickly spreading throughout the region. Archeologists continue to refer to this as the Paleoindian period, yet the spear point styles have changed. Names such as Agate Basin, Hell Gap, and Cody (see time line) are used to describe some of the stone tools used during this time period. Although the styles changed slightly, spear points were still large and probably projected by the atlatl throwing stick.

time line
Jackson Hole time line. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window) National Park Service

More durable than bone, wood, and fiber, stone artifacts are often the only evidence that archeologists have to trace cultural and technological changes through time. In addition to stylistic changes, variations in the raw materials used to make stone tools can be an important indicator of cultural change. Throughout the Jackson Hole and Yellowstone region, volcanic activity deposited a valuable stone material that was used frequently by prehistoric people. Millions of years ago, as rapidly cooling lava flowed through underground fissures, a natural semi-translucent glass was formed. Subsequent glacial activity helped expose outcrops of this volcanic glass, known as obsidian. Obsidian's fine flaking qualities and ability to keep a sharp edge made it a popular raw material for prehistoric toolmakers.

Obsidian affords an added bonus for archeologists in that each volcanic flow has unique chemical elements. Through a technique called x-ray fibrescence, scientists can identify the exact chemical elements of a particular obsidian artifact. Under this procedure, the obsidian artifact is exposed to high-intensity x-rays. Different elements in the obsidian absorb and release these x-rays at different rates, which can then be measured. When plotted on a graph, the chemical "fingerprint" of an obsidian artifact is revealed. Scientists then compare this finger print to obsidian from natural outcrops across the region. A match of chemical components indicates the source for the obsidian in that particular tool.

Several large outcrops of obsidian have been found throughout the region [Figure 5]. These sources include Obsidian Cliff in Yellowstone National Park, Bear Gulch in the Targhee National Forest, the Fish Creek sources in southern Jackson Hole near Wilson (commonly referred to as the Teton Pass sources), Wright Creek near Malad, Idaho, and the Grassy Lake and Conant Pass outcrops at the northern end of the Tetons. Paleoindian obsidian artifacts found in Grand Teton National Park chemically match some of these sources. X-ray fluorescence testing reveals that the most popular obsidian source for early Jackson Hole toolmakers was nearby Teton Pass. Obsidian Cliff in Yellowstone, Targhee National Forest and Wright Creek were also used, although to a lesser degree.

Figure 5. Obsidian sources. (click on image for an enlargement for a new window) National Park Service

Because Teton Pass is the source for the majority of Paleoindian obsidian artifacts in Grand Teton National Park, archeologists believe that humans entered the Jackson Hole valley via the south end, near the pass. However, the fact that the remainder of the artifacts came from a wide variety of regional sources indicates that Paleoindians were a highly mobile people. The distance between Obsidian Cliff, the most northern source, and Wright Creek, the most southern source, is more than 175 miles. [16] The Paleoindian peoples who frequented Jackson Hole apparently had an intimate knowledge of resources available throughout a rather large geographical area.

Bone is rarely preserved in archeological sites. As a result, excavations have revealed little if any evidence to indicate what species of game Paleoindians hunted while in Jackson Hole. Archeological sites just east and northeast of Jackson Hole suggest that around 10,000 years ago two separate cultural groups emerged in the region. One group adapted to the mountain and foothills environment, while the other adapted to the open plains. The groups living in the mountains, such as the Tetons, Wind River, or Gros Ventre Ranges, hunted mountain sheep and some mule deer. Meanwhile, the plains-adapted peoples developed sophisticated, communal bison-hunting techniques.

Traveling in groups, the plains hunters trapped great numbers of bison in arroyos (dry creek beds), sand dunes, or artificial corrals, where they killed them with hand-held spears or atlatls. In the mountains, hunting was done by smaller groups. Archeological evidence from the Absaroka mountains northeast of Jackson Hole, as well as studies of modern-day mountain sheep, indicate that mountain-dwelling hunters used nets to capture big horn sheep. The hunters strung a net, large enough to capture three sheep, across a known migration path. As the sheep became entangled in the net, the hunters killed them with clubs. A Paleoindian trapping net made of juniper bark cordage has been found in the Absaroka mountain range. Mule deer are a less predictable species, and were probably hunted individually with the spear and atlatl [17]

Plant materials have also been recovered from the Paleoindian period. Archeologists have found the remains of plant foods such as seeds, berries, roots, leaves, and bulbs dating to the Paleoindian period in cave sites northeast of Jackson Hole. Paleoindian food cache pits have also been found in the mountains of northwest Wyoming. These contained the remains of sunflower (Helianthus annus), prickly pear (Opuntia polyacantha), and amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus). [18] Consequently, we can assume that Paleoindians in Jackson Hole ate these plants, and supplemented their diet with mountain sheep and mule deer.

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Last Updated: 24-Jul-2004