Link: The archaeology of Yellowstone

2 minute read

Smithsonian magazine has a feature article by Richard Grant describing the archaeology of Yellowstone National Park: “The Lost History of Yellowstone”. The story focuses on the work of archaeologist Doug MacDonald, who has worked to document archaeological sites in the park while studying the prehistoric connections of Yellowstone with other parts of North America.

Some of the most important archaeological findings relate to Obsidian Cliff, a unique formation near the northern edge of the Yellowstone Caldera that contains enormous amounts of the volcanic glass.

“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.”
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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.”

This kind of work has great importance not only for understanding the particular history of Yellowstone but also for developing a broader understanding of connections between ancient human societies. Most artifacts are not traceable to the same extent as obsidian, and most of the materials used by ancient groups were not valued as highly. The extensive trade networks and possible long-distance mining trips of ancient people were the Apollo programs of past societies, built upon a base of subsistence and helping to tie societies together across more than a thousand miles.

As the article emphasizes, it is important to overturn the myth that Yellowstone is a “pristine wilderness”. Humans have been part of this landscape for more than 11,000 years, and the government removed indigenous peoples from the park boundaries as part of the history of the place.