A small group of archaeologists are blazing a path into places like Wyoming’s Wind River Range, the Tetons and Montana’s Beartooth Plateau, rewriting the understanding of prehistoric people’s use of what are now high elevation wilderness areas.
“We really need to be thinking about the Rocky Mountains in a way that we haven’t been thinking about them,” said Bonnie Pitblado, an anthropological archaeology professor at the University of Oklahoma.
“By Clovis time (about 13,500 years ago), we have clear, clear evidence people are in the New World and they are in the Rocky Mountains and know them intimately,” she added.
Pitblado was one of 11 researchers gathered at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West earlier this month to speak at a conference of scientists who share an interest in high altitude archaeology. Their work is shedding light on what had long been a dark spot for investigation of prehistoric sites in North America. What they are documenting — from stone tools and arrow points to soapstone bowls and woven cordage and basketry, to large campsites, animal traps and even bison jumps — are forcing academics to rethink long-held theories — namely that the high country was too inhospitable to be inhabited.
“You need to change the way you think,” said Todd Guenther, professor of history and archaeology at Central Wyoming College in Riverton, Wyoming.
Guenther’s study of a bison jump found at an elevation of about 10,500 feet, which he said has received “a lot of push back,” is not inconceivable given other cultures’ activities at high elevations.
“My dad’s family came from the highest places in Norway,” he said, a harsh, extremely cold climate where hunters survived by following migratory reindeer herds. Why couldn’t early Americans have lived similarly?
“If you had food stored up, it’s not a scary thing. It’s just being outdoors,” he said.
An 1821 journal entry by Jacob Fowler noted that early Americans may have been more adapted to the cold, so why not their ancestors? While camped along the Arkansas River in Colorado in late November Fowler saw “… the Indian Children from toddlers to tall boys are out on the Ice by day light, and all as naked as they came into the World.”
Pitblado noted that a DNA analysis performed on the remains of what’s known as the Anzick child, found in Montana’s Shields Valley in 1968, ties early Americans and their ancestors to residents of eastern Russia and Mongolia who also lived at high elevations.
“They were happy in the mountains,” she said.
Based on the genetic findings, Pitblado said, “We have all of the evidence in the world … that those progenitors of Clovis were mountain people.”
The scientists are also finding that the high country wasn’t the same as we now see it. Old whitebark pine stumps have been dated to 1,100 to 2,100 years ago in places that are now 500 feet above where trees are growing now, Guenther said.
“These were happy, well-fed whitebark pine,” he said.
That points to the possibility that the high country was warmer for a period of time, maybe encouraging occupation when lower elevations were stricken with drought.
So far, research of these mountain archaeological sites has been minimal, partly because the work only started about two decades ago, but also because the area to cover is so vast and difficult to reach.
Larry Todd, archaeology professor emeritus at Colorado State University, has conducted surveys in the Absaroka Mountains of Wyoming since 2002. In 15 field seasons his team had permission to explore about 650,000 acres of the Shoshone National Forest that agency officials believed was barren of artifacts.
“When we talked to the Forest Service they said, ‘Knock yourself out because there’s nothing there,’” Todd said.
Although Todd and his crews explored only about 1 percent of that large swath of country, they recorded more than 175,000 prehistoric artifacts.
“That sounds like a lot but I want you to take this with a grain of salt,” Todd said, since the entire project area is only 3 percent of the much larger Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Another factor that limits research is the remoteness of the region.
“It’s physically demanding and logistically complex,” Todd said.
Researchers have to backpack and have horses haul in their gear and food to elevations that may be 11,000 feet above sea level where they will camp out and work for 20 days. That points to how well-equipped and knowledgeable early Americans were about living in these same areas. They knew what they were doing, Todd said.
Getting people and gear into the mountains isn’t cheap. A typical summer in the Absarokas may cost about $20,000, Todd added, noting that the expense of high elevation archaeology is another logistical problem. That cost doesn’t include any testing of artifacts that may be needed, with those costing anywhere from $300 to $700 apiece.
Even though their research has been limited, what Todd and his colleagues have documented in the mountains has been impressive, yet he’s concerned.
“The record up there is remarkable and under remarkable threat,” he said.
Wildland fires are burning more frequently, intensely and larger than at any time in recent history. On one hand wildland fires can make it easier to see some artifacts while destroying others, such as wickiups — small shelters made of wood.
A warming climate is also melting mountain ice patches that, as they recede, are revealing spectacular organic artifacts, including arrow shafts, bighorn sheep skulls and baskets.
Since ice patches don’t move like glaciers, they are repositories of some of the most impressive recent finds.
“The thing that is fun or exciting about it is you get to see nonhunting technology,” said Craig Lee, a research scientist at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.
The problem is the ice patches are receding so fast that researchers can’t reach them all in time to find and record 10,000-year-old artifacts before they are destroyed.
A new wilderness
So researchers are hurrying to document as much as they can as quickly as possible. What they’ve revealed so far is changing some long-held archaeological beliefs.
“This volume of activity in the alpine area speaks to a long-term symbiotic relationship between humans and their environment,” Lee said.
Lee pointed to the irony that wilderness areas, which are largely free of humans and development, are now revealing extensive human occupation for thousands of years. The 1964 Wilderness Act was meant to preserve places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
“Wilderness preserves the best evidence for trammeling around,” Lee said, a place populated by humans, perhaps year round, living off a “seasonally enriched biome.”
Wilderness is also a place where humans are encouraged to “leave no trace,” such as campfire rings or even where they pitched their tent. Yet ancient humans left thousands of artifacts scattered across the landscape along with numerous lodge pads — the sites where they camped.
“The density of human occupation is incredible,” Guenther said.
“So there’s a lot of cool stuff to be found at high altitudes,” said Robert Kelly, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming. “And let’s face it, it’s a cool place to work.”
But there are still so many questions yet to be answered, such as why did use of high elevations seem to rise and fall? Was the cause drought or overpopulation?
“Why (did they) go up there?” he asked. “We don’t know the answer.”
The scientists do know one thing, though.
“So the take-home message is … it’s been pretty silly for us to not have thought about the importance of mountains” to ancient people, Pitblado said. “We have all of the evidence in the world that those progenitors of Clovis were mountain people.”