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Courtesy of the National Park Service Yellowstone Web Site

Many myths exist about Yellowstone. However, none is more persistent than the notion that American Indian groups rarely ventured into the area because of their fear of the numerous geysers. This was not the case. Our current understanding suggests Native Americans have called the area that was to become Yellowstone National Park home for over 10,000 years.

Archeologists have only recently begun to investigate and understand how prehistoric groups used upland and mountain environments, for only a short while ago many researchers believed that these areas were too harsh to support a significant number of people. As such, the mountains were considered marginal and somehow unimportant to the major cultural developments that were occurring in the basins and on the plains.

Paleo-Indian Period (12,000 to 8,000 years ago)

The earliest evidence of humans living in Yellowstone is provided by a Folsom projectile point discovered in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The point, which dates to about 10,900 years ago, was manufactured from obsidian geochemically sourced to Obsidian Cliff, Yellowstone. This landform is the remnant of the Obsidian Cliff flow 180,000 years ago, and is the predominant resource for tool manufacture in the park, a resource which was recognized very early in the course of human habitation of the area.

These large, fluted spear points have been found in the surrounding basins in association with extinct bison bones. Seasonal forays by small groups of people to hunt bison, mountain sheep and deer, and also to collect plant foods, were made during this time.

More substantial evidence of occupation is provided by numerous projectile point types, such as Agate Basin and Hell Gap, dating to about 10,000 years ago. About 9,000 years ago, a mountain-oriented lifestyle developed. This archeological tradition is characterized by lanceolate spear points with contracting stems and concave bases. These people subsisted on a more diverse array of plant species, as well as numerous large and small mammals. It has been suggested that a climatic shift to warmer and more arid conditions may have caused this increased utilization of the mountains.

Archaic Period (8,000 to 1,500 years ago)

Continuation of the broad-based economy begun during late Paleoindian times is a hallmark of the Archaic cultures. A change in projectile point technology from lanceolate points to stemmed, side-notched and corner-notched points is also characteristic of this archeological tradition. During this period, evidence of semi-subterranean structures, called pithouses, appear in the archeological record of the region. Other innovations include earth ovens for preparing foods. These cooking hearths were constructed by digging a pit in the ground and filling it with heated rocks. Meat, roots from camas, bitterroot, or yampa, tuna, the fruit of the prickly pear, and the seeds of plants such as goosefoot and waterleaf were prepared in these hearths.

The Archaic Period is quite lengthy, 6,500 years. This may help explain why projectile points attributed to the Archaic Period are found more often then those from other periods. Late Archaic corner-notched form is found more often than any other in the park.

Late Prehistoric/Protohistoric-Historic Period (1,500 to 100 years ago)

Radiocarbon dates derived from cultural deposits suggest an increase in use of the area by native groups during the last 1,500 years. This period is best characterized by the development of the bow and arrow, which replaced the earlier atlatl, or spearthrower, of Paleoindian and Archaic times. Innovations in hunting, through the use of sheep traps in the mountains and bison corrals on the plains, also occurred. The use of steatite (soapstone) vessels and the development of the pottery probably also increased the efficiency of these groups in preparing and storing foods.

During historic times, a number of tribes are known to have used the Yellowstone area. However, the one group most closely associated with the park is the Shoshone. Trappers and early explorers of the region provide first-hand accounts of small bands of Shoshone in the park. However, it is uncertain when the Shoshone entered the region. Linguistic evidence from the Great Basin suggests a recent migration of Numic-speaking peoples about A.D. 1500, although some scholars suggest that archeological evidence indicates the Shoshone are the descendants of people who lived in the mountains for thousands of years.

Stone circles, possibly representing tepee sites, wickiup and lean-to structures, still exist in the park today. These are haunting evidence of the people who called Yellowstone their home for thousands of years.

The story of the prehistory of Yellowstone National Park is slowly coming together. To date, only about two percent of the park has been surveyed for archeological sites, and only a few exploratory excavations have been conducted. Archeologists are now finding evidence of groups of people who intimately knew the treasures of our first national park thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. The knowledge that we can glean through exploration of the past may help us to understand contemporary issues for better management of the park.



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