Whether the first humans to settle North America arrived from Asia via land bridge or boat, from Polynesia via raft to South America, or from Europe across the Atlantic, is a subject of hot debate. While archaeological evidence suggests that some parts of North America were settled over 12,000 years ago, earliest evidence of human occupation in Jackson Hole dates to 11,000 years ago. At this time, a massive ice sheet was retreating from the Jackson Hole Valley making the area inhabitable for the first time. Over the next 11,000 years, despite fluctuating temperatures and climates, the Tetons and Jackson Hole area were continuously occupied. This region represents an important cultural landscape for indigenous peoples.
The Protohistoric Period is brief, and dates between 1700 and 1850 AD. This period marks the start of contact between Europeans and Native Americans and ends with relocation of many tribes onto reservations. The first Euro-Americans to arrive in Jackson Hole were mountain men hunting beaver and other fur-bearing animals, later trappers and explorers. In Jackson Hole, the Rocky Mountain fur trade is generally conceived of as starting around 1804 and ending around 1845. Through trade with these new visitors, an abundance of new European goods, like metal, cloth, and glass became valuable materials for making tools or objects of personal adornment. Horses were also introduced to the area, probably around 1750, were highly valued for warfare, trade and transportation.
Soapstone, or steatite, is a soft metamorphic rock, a kind of talc, that is found in a number of naturally occurring ‘quarries’ in the mountains of the Greater Yellowstone area. Because this rock is soft enough it can be easily scratched with a fingernail and yet retains high and low temperatures for long periods of time, soapstone became an important resource for carving cooking and serving vessels. Oral histories with the Shoshone tell us that soapstone carving was a matrilineal activity—some bowls were passed down from grandmother to daughter, granddaughter or great granddaughter. Archaeological research and oral traditions both suggest that these bowls were used to cook soups or stews that might combine meat, fish, and various wild edible plants.
Moving With The Seasons
The seasons throughout Wyoming are diverse and severe with short, hot summers, and long, cold winters. In order to take advantage of plant and animal resources, hunter-gatherer groups moved constantly following animal herds and seasonal plants. When anthropologist Dimitri Shimkin studied the Shoshone in the early 1900s, he observed that the larger Wind River Shoshone, comprising 2,000 to 3,000 members, would often split up throughout the year. During the fall and winter, the tribe separated into three to five smaller groups called ‘bands’ during the winter and spring months. These bands could consist of up 100 to 200 people. In the summer, each band might split again into smaller extended family groups consisting of 10 to 30 closely related individuals. These smaller groups, often consisting of extended families, would spread across Wyoming into the mountain and plains to hunt, gather, and acquire resources. When the autumn season returned, they would reunite with their kinsmen.
Native Peoples of The Greater Yellowstone
When the earliest trappers and mountain men came to Jackson Hole and the Greater Yellowstone area, they encountered bands of Native Americans living in and visiting the area seasonally – taking advantage of the rich natural resources of the valley. The Shoshone (or Snake Indians as they were sometimes called by Whites) were one of these groups that called this region home. In 1835, trapper and explorer Osborne Russell described his encounter with local Natives: "Here we found a few Snake Indians comprising 6 men 7 women and 8 or 10 children who were the only Inhabitants of this lonely and secluded spot. They were all neatly clothed in dressed deer and Sheep skins of the best quality and seemed to be perfectly contented and happy" - Ibid., p. 26. The Mountain Shoshone, who spent much of their time high in the mountains were, generally speaking, considered the only permanent residents of what is now Yellowstone National Park. These loosely affiliated bands called themselves “Tukudika” or “Sheep-Eaters”, after their main food source, wild Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. The Plains Shoshone included the “Kucundika” or “buffalo hunters.” The “Agaidika” or “Salmon Eaters,” residing largely on the western side of the mountains along the Salmon River, names themselves after their primary food source. Commerce and relationships between these bands was fluid; one could spend time with the Tukudika during one season, then join relatives living on the Salmon River for another. Other tribes who claim the Yellowstone area as part of their ancestral homelands include the Crow and Kiowa, but also the Blackfoot and Salish/Kootenai.
The Myth of The Bird Points
It was originally thought that the small projectile points (some less than ½ inch tall) were used to hunt birds or other small prey. Experimental archaeology has, however, proven that this was not the case. Small projectile points were made for the bow-and-arrow, and could have successfully taken down any of the larger mammals in the area, even bison.
The Reservation Era
To learn about the Reservation Era in Wyoming: CLICK BELOW
"The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same"
While the last 11,000 years saw significant environmental and climatic changes, on the whole, there was little cultural change from the Paleoindian Period to the Late Prehistoric period. Local residents moved seasonally throughout the landscape, spending the warm months exploiting alpine resources and the colder months on the valley floor or further afield. In addition to deer, elk, bighorn sheep, bison and antelope, marmot, ground squirrel, and fish would have been important food sources. Gathering and processing edible plants during the summer would have supplemented this meat diet. Unlike other parts of the world, local peoples did not practice agriculture or create permanent settlements until after contact with Euro-Americans forced them out of the mountainous regions of the Greater Yellowstone and onto reservations.
Late Prehistoric Period
The Late Prehistoric Period began approximately 1500 years ago. This period is characterized by a significant change in hunting technology—the invention of the bow and arrow. The bow and arrow completely replaces the atlatl as weapon of choice. In addition to the bow and arrow, pottery and soapstone bowls begin to appear. Archaeological evidence of large village sites in the neighboring Wind River and Absaroka Mountains suggests that large family bands would spend their summer and falls collecting and processing white bark pine nuts.
Late Archaic Period
The Late Archaic lasted from 3,000- 1,500 years ago and sites from this era are commonly found in the Jackson Hole area. At this time spear points shift from stemmed to corner-notched styles. Evidence from archaeological sites suggest that just like the previous 9,000 years, Late Archaic life was centered around hunting, gathering, and seasonal movement. The improved climate most likely encouraged greater population numbers which is reflected in a spike in site density at this time.
Plant Roasting Pits Reveal Diet of Early Humans
In the 1920’s JHHSM founder and amateur archaeologist Slim Lawrence noticed rock pile structures all around Jackson Lake. The land that Slim was exploring is now submerged under water due to the construction of the Jackson Lake Dam, completed in 1916. The water level of the lake was periodically lowered into the 1930’s for maintenance. Excavation of these structures revealed pits lined with quartzite cobbles that contained significant amounts of charcoal, burnt plant remains, and charred fire-cracked rocks. These structures have been interpreted as large roasting pits or subterranean ovens that would have been used to roast a combination of tubers such as yampa and camas, and possibly meat. Charred plant remains included a variety of berries, grasses, tubers, and roots, and carbon dating reveal that these pits first appeared in the Early Archaic period.