Origins | Geology | Pre-European Archaeology | European Exploration
Yellowstone National Park has a rich history, beginning with the birth of the Rocky Mountains, and continuing to the present day as the world's first and most famous national park. However, for as much of Yellowstone's history that is known, it is not likely a tenth of what is really there to discover. A major part of Yellowstone's history - for which little research has been done - involves the first people in Yellowstone, who have been overlooked by the academic community for years in favour of the cultures of the basins and plains of America.
The Paleo-Indian Period: The First Humans
The first evidence of humans dates to 10,900 years ago, in the form of an obsidian, fluted spearhead1. More of these were found in association with giant bison bones, indicating that they were probably made by a Paleo-Indian hunter-gatherer, part of a group that followed the rapidly disappearing species of mammoth and giant bison into the valleys of the park. As most of the spearheads are found in the basin areas, they were likely adapted to a nomadic lifestyle of hunting and foraging on the plains.
Move to the Mountains
A sudden change in lifestyle occurred at the end of the Younger Dryas, about 9,000 years ago. The shift to a drier climate drove many of the large game animals out of existence, so the humans had to adapt. They were successful in hunting smaller game in the mountains, such as deer and bighorn sheep, and their technology advanced to produce a more intricate spearhead for the smaller animals.
The Archaic Period: Putting Down Roots
The Archaic Period in Yellowstone began 8,000 years ago, with small, semi-subterranean dwellings known as pit houses, and earth ovens for cooking. Corresponding to this improvement in technology came even more advanced spearheads, with notches to better attach to the spear shaft. This sort of lifestyle continued for a long time - almost 6,500 years. Naturally, the spearheads from this period are more common in the park than from any other period.
Roughly 1,500 years ago, technology once again advanced as the population of the park increased. The spearheads and atlatl (spear-thrower) were replaced by the bow and arrow of contemporary Native Americans. Sheep traps and bison corrals partially replaced large hunting expeditions. Finally, for the first time in Yellowstone, pottery was used to store and prepare food.
Oral histories date modern tribes in the area between 1400 AD and 1700 AD. Numerous artefacts such as pottery support those accounts. The Crow inhabited the country east of the present-day park, while the Blackfeet occupied the area toward the north. Other tribes, including the Shoshone (which may be descendents of the original inhabitants of the mountains), Bannock, Nez Perce and Kiowa, travelled through the park frequently to hunt the bison on the plains of present-day Wyoming and Montana. Stone circles thought to be teepee rings, wickiups2, and lean-to structures are testament to their temporary stays in the park. Although the Yellowstone River valley offered little protection from attacks by warring tribes, travelling through the valley was preferred to slogging through the mountains. After some time, an agreement was reached that afforded travellers a certain amount of protection, and the route they used became known as the Bannock Trail.
It is important to note that the river whose headwaters lie in the park is surrounded by monstrous yellow cliffs. Because of this, the Native American Minnetaree tribe called the river 'Mi tsi a da zi', which is literally translated as 'Rock Yellow River'. French fur-trappers interpreted this as 'Yellow Rock' or 'Yellow Stone'.
In the early 1700s, the introduction of horses caused a split in the lifestyles of the Native Americans in Yellowstone. While some groups chose to acquire horses and were able to travel faster and further on hunting expeditions to the plains, others opted out and adapted to life in the mountains. A specific group of these followed the bighorn sheep migrations using dogs to transport hides, food and other provisions. Since the bighorns made up a significant portion of their diet, they are known as the Tukudika, or the Sheep Eaters. They are renowned for the sheep-horn bows they crafted by soaking the large, curled horns in hot springs.
Yellowstone has a rich pre-European human history. Thousands of artefacts have been found but, amazingly, only about two percent of Yellowstone National park has been surveyed for archaeological sites. Fortunately, more projects are in the works, and there has been a recent push to preserve the pre-European archaeology in the park for the future.