Human occupation of the greater Yellowstone area seems to follow environmental changes of the last 15,000 years. How far back is still to be determined— there are no known sites in the park that date to this time—but humans probably were not using this landscape when glaciers and a continental ice sheet covered most of what is now Yellowstone National Park. The glaciers carved out valleys with rivers that people could follow in pursuit of Ice Age mammals such as the mammoth and the giant bison. The last period of ice coverage ended 13,000–14,000 years ago, sometime after that, but before 11,000 years ago, humans were here on this landscape.
Archeologists have found physical evidence of human presence in the form of distinctive stone tools and projectile points. From these artifacts, scientists surmise that they hunted mammals and gathered berries, seeds, and plants.
As the climate in the Yellowstone region warmed and dried, the animals, vegetation, and human lifestyles also changed. Large Ice Age animals that were adapted to cold and wet conditions became extinct. The glaciers left behind layers of sediment in valleys in which grasses and sagebrush thrived, and pockets of exposed rocks that provided protected areas for aspens and fir to grow. The uncovered volcanic plateau sprouted lodgepole forests. People adapted to these changing conditions and were eating a diverse diet including medium and small animals such as deer and bighorn sheep as early as 9,500 years ago.
This favorable climate would continue more than 9,000 years. Evidence of these people in Yellowstone remained uninvestigated long after archeologists began excavating sites elsewhere in North America. Archeologists used to think high-elevation regions such as Yellowstone were inhospitable to humans and, thus, did little exploratory work in these areas. However, park superintendent Philetus W. Norris (1877–82) found artifacts in Yellowstone and sent them to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Today, archeologists study environmental change as a tool for understanding human uses of areas such as Yellowstone.
More than 1,850 archeological sites have been documented in Yellowstone National Park, with the majority dating to the Archaic period. Sites contain evidence of successful hunts for bison, sheep, elk, deer, bear, cats, and wolves. Campsites and trails in Yellowstone also provide evidence of early use. Some of the trails used in the park today have likely been used by people since the Paleoindian period.
Some of the historic peoples from this area, such as the Crow and Sioux, arrived sometime during the 1500s and around 1700, respectively. Prehistoric vessels known as “Intermountain Ware” have been found in the park and surrounding area, and these link the Shoshone to the area as early as approximately 700 years ago.
People seem to have increased their use of the Yellowstone area beginning about 3,000 years ago. During this time, they began to use the bow and arrow, which replaced the atlatl, or spear-thrower, that had been used for thousands of years. With the bow and arrow, people hunted more efficiently. They also developed sheep traps and bison corrals, and used both near the park, and perhaps in it. This increased use of Yellowstone may have occurred when the environment was warmer, favoring extended seasonal use on and around the Yellowstone Plateau. Archeologists and other scientists are working together to study evidence such as plant pollen, landforms, and tree rings to understand how the area’s environment changed over time.
Archeological resources are the primary and often only source about humans in Yellowstone.
Timeline of Human History in Yellowstone
The human history of the Yellowstone region goes back more than 11,000 years.
European Americans Arrive
In the late 1700s, fur traders traveled the Yellowstone River in search of Native Americans with whom to trade.
Expeditions Explore Yellowstone
Formal expeditions mapped and explored the area, leading to the nation's understanding of the region.
Managing the national park has evolved over time and dealt with some complex issues.
Last updated: August 4, 2021