30 October 2004
Yellowstone Park dig yields picture of ancient camp
Some of the Yellowstone park's earliest visitors camped on the shores of Yellowstone Lake (Wyoming, USA). While they were there, some 10,000 years ago, they made and repaired tools, hunted, prepared hides and may have rafted out to one or more of the lake's several islands. When they left the beach, they left behind evidence of their stay. But over time those tools, flakes of stone and blood residue disappeared in the heaps of soil - a buried story waiting to be told. Archaeologists working at the site now believe they know at least part of the story.
The site provides a clearer picture of ancient wanderers known as the Cody Complex people, early people of North America who initially were believed to inhabit only plains and foothills. Not only is the site the least disturbed of any Cody Complex location, but it also lends credence to theories that the people did more than roam the plains to hunt bison. Researchers believe the stopover in Yellowstone might have been part of a seasonal migration that included portions of what is now Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. While they were in Yellowstone, the evidence indicates, they killed bears, deer, bighorn sheep and rabbits.
First noted on the shores of Yellowstone Lake in 1958, the Osprey Beach site was partially excavated in 2000 and 2002. It's still unclear how far the site extends along the beach. Archaeologists are reluctant to disclose the exact location of the site out of concern that artifacts might be stolen. Park officials say hundreds or even thousands of artifacts might already have been taken from the area illegally.
Over the course of two digs, archaeologists found seven Cody knives, including two made of green chert from the Absaroka Mountains, eight projectile points, five shaft abraders used to straighten spear shafts, five tools to make awls, two scrapers perhaps used to tan animal hides, and an adze, which might have been used to split wood, bone or other soft materials, according to researchers. Scattered in the soil were flakes and chips apparently left behind while repairing or making tools. Perhaps more interesting was the blood residue found on several of the artifacts. An analysis of blood protein showed evidence of rabbits, canids (dogs or dog-like animals), bighorn sheep, deer and bear. Noticeably absent was any sign of bison, which researchers say could simply be the result of a small number of samples being tested. On one blade, the analysis showed evidence of rabbit protein along the stem, an indication that rabbit sinew might have been used to tie tools together, researchers said.
Yellowstone's early campers might have been drawn to the area, in part, because of the vast supplies of obsidian at Obsidian Cliff. The volcanic rock was an ideal raw material for making spear points and other tools. Artifacts from Obsidian Cliff have been found as far away as the Mississippi River and Texas and into Canada. Of the 38 obsidian pieces at Osprey Beach that were analyzed, more than half were from Obsidian Cliff. Others were from Bear Gulch in northeastern Idaho, Teton Pass near Jackson Hole and several sites in and around Yellowstone.
That variety of raw materials, along with the array of animals apparently hunted at Osprey Beach, has furthered speculation that the campers were seasonal wanderers -- going from one place to the next, finding ways to adapt and survive. Researchers figure that the site was used by two or three related families. They camped on the shore but out of the wave zone. Back then, the lake in that location was probably about 16 feet higher than it is today.
Rather than just focusing on big game hunting, the campers busied themselves with other tasks, according to the report prepared about the site. Aside from butchering and hide preparation, the inhabitants spent time producing wooden shafts, spear points and knives. Researchers also speculate they might have worked animal skins into lodge coverings and clothes.
There is still a lot that's not known about Yellowstone's earliest visitors - including how long they stayed at Osprey Beach, whether they fished or used plants for food, and exactly where they went during their seasonal travels. There are no plans at present to conduct more digs at Osprey Beach. Park officials say the site is eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Sources: Billings Gazette, Casper Star Tribune (27 October 2004)