The Lost History of Yellowstone

Author : omarkhayat69
Publish Date : 2021-01-13

The Lost History of Yellowstone

After 14 summers excavating in Yellowstone National Park, Doug MacDonald has a simple rule of thumb. “Pretty much anywhere you’d want to pitch a tent, there are artifacts,” he says, holding up a 3,000-year-old obsidian projectile point that his team has just dug out of the ground. “Like us, Native Americans liked to camp on flat ground, close to water, with a beautiful view.”

We’re standing on a rise near the Yellowstone River, or the Elk River as most Native American tribes called it. A thin wet snow is falling in late June, and a few scattered bison are grazing in the sagebrush across the river. Apart from the road running through it, the valley probably looks much as it did 30 centuries ago, when someone chipped away at this small piece of black glassy stone until it was lethally sharp and symmetrical, then fastened it to a straightened shaft of wood and hurled it at bison with a spear-throwing tool, or atlatl.

“The big myth about Yellowstone is that it’s a pristine wilderness untouched by humanity,” says MacDonald. “Native Americans were hunting and gathering here for at least 11,000 years. They were pushed out by the government after the park was established. The Army was brought in to keep them out, and the public was told that Native Americans were never here in the first place because they were afraid of the geysers.”

MacDonald is slim, clean-cut, in his early 50s. Originally from central Maine, he is a professor of anthropology at the University of Montana and the author of a recent book, Before Yellowstone: Native American Archaeology in the National Park. Drawing on his own extensive discoveries in the field, the work of previous archaeologists, the historical record and Native American oral traditions, MacDonald provides an essential account of Yellowstone’s human past. Tobin Roop, chief of cultural resources at Yellowstone, says, “As an archaeologist, working in partnership with the park, MacDonald has really opened up our understanding of the nuances and complexities of the prehistory.”

MacDonald sees his work, in part, as a moral necessity. “This is a story that was deliberately covered up and it needs to be told,” he says. “Most visitors to the park have no idea that hunter-gatherers were an integral part of this landscape for thousands of years.”

In the last three decades, the National Park Service has made substantial efforts to research and explain the Native American history and prehistory of Yellowstone, but the virgin-wilderness myth is still promoted in the brochure that every visitor receives at the park entrance: “When you watch animals in Yellowstone, you glimpse the world as it was before humans.” Asked if he considers that sentence absurd, or offensive to Native Americans, MacDonald answers with a wry smile. “Let’s just say the marketing hasn’t caught up with the research,” he says. “Humans have been in Yellowstone since the time of mammoths and mastodons.”

Shane Doyle, a research associate at Montana State University and a member of the Apsaalooke (Crow) Nation, burst out laughing when I read him that sentence from the brochure. But his laughter had an edge to it. “The park is a slap in the face to Native people,” he said. “There is almost no mention of the dispossession and violence that happened. We have essentially been erased from the park, and that leads to a lot of hard feelings, although we do love to go to Yellowstone and reminisce about our ancestors living there in a good way.”

* * *

On the road between the Norris Geyser Basin and Mammoth Hot Springs is a massive outcrop of dark volcanic rock known as Obsidian Cliff, closed to the public to prevent pilfering. This was the most important source in North America for high-quality obsidian, a type of volcanic glass that forms when lava cools rapidly. It yields the sharpest edge of any natural substance on earth, ten times sharper than a razor blade, and Native Americans prized it for making knives, hide-scraping tools, projectile points for spears and atlatl darts, and, after the invention of the bow and arrow 1,500 years ago, for arrowheads.

For the first people who explored the high geothermal Yellowstone plateau—the first to see Old Faithful and the other scenic wonders—Obsidian Cliff was a crucial discovery and perhaps the best reason to keep coming back. In that era, after the rapid melting of half-mile-thick glaciers that had covered the landscape, Yellowstone was a daunting place to visit. Winters were longer and harsher than they are today, and summers were wet and soggy with flooded valleys, dangerous rivers and a superabundance of mosquitoes.

MacDonald made one of the most exciting finds of his career in 2013 on the South Arm of Yellowstone Lake: a broken obsidian projectile point with a flake removed from its base in a telltale fashion. It was a Clovis point, approximately 11,000 years old and made by the earliest visitors to Yellowstone. The Clovis people (named after Clovis, New Mexico, where their distinctive, fluted points were first discovered in 1929) were hardy, fur-clad, highly successful hunters. Their prey included woolly mammoths, mastodons and other animals that would become extinct, including a bison twice the size of our modern species.

The Clovis point that MacDonald’s team spotted on the beach is one of only two ever found in the park, suggesting that the Clovis people were infrequent visitors. They preferred the lower elevation plains of present-day Wyoming and Montana, where the weather was milder and large herds of megafauna supported them for 1,000 years or more. MacDonald thinks a few bands of Clovis people lived in the valleys below the Yellowstone plateau. They would come up occasionally in the summer to harvest plants and hunt and get more obsidian.

“Native Americans were the first hard-rock miners in Wyoming and it was arduous work,” says MacDonald. “We’ve found more than 50 quarry sites on Obsidian Cliff, and some of them are chest-deep pits where they dug down to get to the good obsidian, probably using the scapular blade of an elk. Obsidian comes in a cobble [sizable lump]. You have to dig that out of the ground, then break it apart and start knapping the smaller pieces. We found literally millions of obsidian flakes on the cliff, and we see them all over the park, wherever people were sitting in camp making tools.”

Each obsidian flow has its own distinctive chemical signature, which can be identified by X-ray fluorescence, a technique developed in the 1960s. Artifacts made of Yellowstone obsidian from Obsidian Cliff have been found all over the Rockies and the Great Plains, in Alberta, and as far east as Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario. Clearly it was a valuable commodity and widely traded.

On the Scioto River south of Columbus, Ohio, archaeologists identified 300 pounds of Yellowstone obsidian in mounds built by the Hopewell people 2,000 years ago. It’s possible the obsidian was traded there by intermediaries, but MacDonald and some other archaeologists believe that groups of Hopewell made the 4,000-mile round trip, by foot and canoe, to bring back the precious stone.

“In 2009, we found a very large ceremonial knife, typical of the Hopewell culture and unlike anything from this region, on a terrace above Yellowstone Lake,” he says. “How did it get there? It’s not far-fetched to think that it was lost by Hopewell people on a trip to Obsidian Cliff. They would have left in early spring and followed the rivers, just like Lewis and Clark, except 2,000 years earlier.”

Another tantalizing relic, found inside a Hopewell mound in Ohio, is a copper sculpture of a bighorn ram’s horn. Then as now, there were no bighorn sheep in the Midwest or the Great Plains. But if Hopewell people were making epic journeys west to get obsidian, they would have seen bighorns in the Northern Rockies, and the animals were particularly abundant in Yellowstone.

* * *

Twenty miles long and 14 miles wide, Yellowstone Lake is the largest natural high-elevation lake in North America. MacDonald describes the five summers he spent on the remote, roadless southern and eastern shores of the lake with a small crew of graduate students as “the most exciting and also the most frightening experience of my career.” Today we are standing on the northern shore, which is accessible by road. A cold wind is blowing, and the water looks like a choppy sea with spray flying off the whitecaps. “We had to use canoes to get there and load them with all our gear,” he recalls. “The water gets really rough in bad weather, much worse than you see today, and we nearly got swamped a few times. One of our crew got hypothermia. We had to build an illegal fire to save his life. Another time my guys were stalked on the beach by a cougar.”

Grizzlies are his biggest fear. MacDonald always carries bear spray in Yellowstone, never walks alone and is careful to make plenty of noise in the woods. One night at the lake, he recalls, he and his crew were eating steaks around a campfire when they saw a young grizzly bear staring at them from 200 yards. That night they heard his roars and barks echoing across the lake; they surmised that the bear was frustrated because a bigger grizzly was keeping him away from an elk carcass a quarter-mile distant.

“The next day he attacked our camp,” says MacDonald. “He peed in my tent, pooped everywhere, destroyed the fire pit, licked the grill, just trashed everything. We stayed up all night making noise, and thankfully it worked. He didn’t come back. I still have that tent and it still reeks of bear pee.”

They also had trouble from bison and bull elk that occupied their excavation sites and declined to leave. They endured torrential rains and ferocious electric storms. Once they had to evacuate in canoes because of a forest fire. “We all had the feeling that the gods wanted us out of there, and we kept finding amazing stuff. There were basically sites everywhere.”

Among their discoveries were a 6,000-year-old hearth, a Late Prehistoric stone circle (or tepee base) lying intact under a foot of dirt, and a wide variety of stone tools and projectile points. Excavating a small boulder with obsidian flakes littered around its base, they knew that someone, man or woman, boy or girl, had sat there making tools 3,000 years ago. “I think both genders knapped stone tools, because they were in such constant use and demand,” says MacDonald.

MacDonald’s team found evidence of continual human occupation on the lakeshore for 9,500 years, starting with the Cody Culture people, whose square-stemmed projectile points and asymmetrical knives were first discovered in Cody, Wyoming. More than 70 Cody points and knives have been found in Yellowstone, with the greatest concentration at the lake. “The climate was getting hotter and drier and it was cool up here in summer. As the bison migrated up to the higher elevations, Cody people almost certainly followed them.”

Over the following millennia, as the climate warmed, the modern bison evolved and human populations rose in the Great Plains and Rockies. Yellowstone became a favored summer destination, drawing people from hundreds of miles away, and the lakeshore was an ideal place to camp. There is no evidence of conflict among the different tribal groups; MacDonald thinks they probably traded and visited with one another.

The peak of Native American activity in Yellowstone was in the Late Archaic period, 3,000 to 1,500 years ago, but even in the 19th century it was still heavily used, with as many as ten tribes living around the lake, including Crow, Blackfeet, Flathead, Shoshone, Nez Perce and Bannock.

Today, as sedentary people, we equate “living” in a place with long-term or even permanent settlement. But for hunter-gatherers who follow animal migrations, avoid climate extremes and harvest diffe

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