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By Dr. Cody Newton

13,000 BCE – 1500 CE  Human groups have been in North America for at least 15,000 years based on evidence from archaeological sites in the southeastern and Pacific northwest regions of the continent. Genetic evidence indicates these first groups have ancestral ties to northeast Asia.

The first unequivocal evidence of human presence in the Yellowstone River drainage occurs with the Clovis technological complex recognized by large distinctive lanceolate points with basal thinning flakes or flutes that were mounted on spears or atlatl darts. The Clovis period dates to the late Pleistocene epoch or ca. 13,000 years ago and lasted around 400 years. Clovis artifacts are often found in association with extinct megafauna such as mammoths, camels, and horses indicating these hunters were highly mobile and specialized in large mammal procurement. At the LaPrele Site located near Fort Fetterman, a Clovis group killed and/or butchered a mammoth and were making clothing based on the presence of several bone needle fragments.

Recognized by their distinctive large lanceolate and stemmed points, several sometimes-overlapping human populations occupied the region after the end of the Pleistocene. These groups are known by their distinctive projectile point types with names such as Goshen, Folsom, Hell Gap, Agate Basin, Alberta/Cody, Frederick, and Jimmy Allen. For the next 4,000 years following Clovis, these groups appear for the most part to have been highly mobile hunter-gatherers that primarily subsisted on bison with bison kill sites being the largest and most prominent archaeological examples of these Paleoindian groups. Evidence also exists of increasing Paleoindian occupation of the mountains and intermountain basins and utilization of high altitude resources. The Sisters Hill Site, located west of the Crazy Woman Creek crossing of the Bozeman Trail next to the Bighorn Mountains, is a campsite occupied by Hell Gap, Alberta/Cody, and later Paleoindian groups intermitted for 1,500 years. These were hunter-gatherer groups subsisting on rabbit, porcupine, pronghorn, mule deer, and bison.    

Changes in Earth’s orbit led to a period of warmer summers and colder winters in the Northern Hemisphere known as the Mid-Holocene Warm Period. Lasting from roughly 7,000 to 5,000 years ago the increased seasonality and warmer summers in the region led to conditions that are more arid than today and is coeval with Early and Middle Archaic period human groups. These groups—known as Early Archaic, McKean, and Oxbow—used smaller stemmed and notched stone dart points, but continued to subsist by hunting and gathering. Archaeological evidence indicates an increasingly sedentary lifestyle centered on persistent resource patches including those in the mountains due to the deteriorated environmental conditions of the Mid-Holocene Warm Period. Semi-subterranean habitation structures known as housepits appear in southern Wyoming that reflect the decreased mobility and “hunkering down” near water, plant, and/or animal resources. Ground stone use for plant processing and hot rock baking features to cook plants indicate that these groups were exploiting more plant resources than previous Paleoindians—a likely response to resource stress brought on by the drought-like conditions. 

Following the amelioration of conditions brought on by the Mid-Holocene Warm Period, human populations steadily increased leaving an archaeological signature evident throughout the region. By the Late Archaic Period (ca. 3,000–1,500), these hunter-gatherers, who used side and corner-notched dart points, built sophisticated trapping structures (i.e., corrals) to procure bison, and bison jumps appear throughout the northern Great Plains. From beginnings in the Early Archaic Period, bighorn sheep and mule deer continue to be hunted in the mountains using stone and/or wood drivelines and hunting blinds. Hot rock earth ovens common in the Late Archaic Period indicate large-scale use and increased nutrient extraction efficiency from these plant resources. Campsites denoted by the presence of stone circles, which are the non-portable remnants of dwelling structures, are common during this time. Documented stone circle sites containing large numbers of these features demonstrate the emergence of tribal level societies. At the Ruby Site near the Pumpkin Buttes, Besant hunters constructed a wooden corral and driveline complex to trap large numbers of bison around 1,600 years ago.

From approximately 1,500 to 400 years ago, archaeological evidence from the Late Prehistoric Period indicates increasing human populations who followed much the same lifeways as previous Archaic groups. Large stone circle campsites, roasting pits, and bison kills, particularly jumps, as well as mountain-based subsistence continue to characterize prehistoric lifeways. However, the primary hallmark of this period is the introduction of bow-and-arrow technology, which largely replaced earlier atlatl-and-dart use. Groups archaeologically known as the Avonlea using small side-notched arrow points mark the first appearance of this technology. Ceramic cooking vessels also first appear early in the Late Prehistoric, but ceramic traditions appear limited due to hunter-gatherer mobility. The first widespread evidence of bone grease extraction and pemmican production from hunted bison indicates that protein extraction and storage was an important survival strategy. Bison jumps such as Piney Creek located in proximity to Fort Phil Kearny and the Grapevine Creek jump near Fort C.F. Smith are examples of Late Prehistoric bison hunting and processing likely carried out by the ancestral Crow.

The appearance of the horse, the arrival of glass and metal trade goods, as well as eventual contact with European explorers ushered in an era of profound change for the Shoshone, Arapaho, Crow, Lakota, and Kiowa hunter-gatherers who inhabited this region. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, the development of equestrianism brought about large-scale changes in hunting methods, territoriality, and social organization amidst and between these groups. Coeval with knowledge of Europeans and limited access to European trade goods, Native group adaptations during the next 100 to 150 years reflected this new reality. Post-equestrian changes in mobility and pressure from European colonialists to the east and south resulted in a very dynamic period of tribal movement, ethnogenesis, and societal fusion/fission that is ephemeral and difficult to track in the archaeological record. However, written accounts from early European and Euro-American explorers, trappers, and traders provide some insight into this transformational period albeit one that generally lacks a nuanced understanding of Native American perspectives and lifeways.

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