Wednesday, December 3, 2014

High Tetons surrender clues about prehistoric residents

Archaeologists find evidence of widespread use by Indians

Quite a bit of what Matt Stirn, Rebecca Sgouros and a crew of volunteers found in the high Tetons remains to be told.

Partly because archaeology is a science, and the bits of data they found over two two-week expeditions on the west slope of the Teton Range still need to undergo intense study before any conclusions can be drawn.

And partly because the locations of these heretofore unknown, and unexplored, high-elevation archaeological sites are secret.

“At a few sites we found very little,” said Stirn, who with Sgouros runs the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum’s new archaeology program. “They were picked over. ... Mountain archaeology is so fragile as it is, because of the environment, we really need as much information as we can gather. When artifacts are taken, that prevents us from answering questions.”

But the very fact that there are sites — some picked over, some yielding troves of evidence about Native American use and habitation of the high country dating back perhaps as early as 11,000 years ago — is exciting news.

Not that long ago archaeologists thought indigenous people of the region made short visits and spotty use of resources above 10,000 feet. The harsh conditions and unpredictable weather, it was assumed, would have mostly discouraged humans fromall but brief visits to forage or for spiritual purposes.

But then a team that included Stirn started finding evidence that American Indians not only pitched camps in the high country of the Wind River Range but also established alpine villages that were possibly used for thousands of years. Besides widespread projectile points, they found large grinding stones that may have been used over generations as well circular depressions that, upon closer inspection, proved to be remnants of structures.

This summer Stirn and Sgouros applied techniques in the Tetons similar to those used in the Winds. With a small group of students from the University of Wyoming and the University of Montana, over two weeks in the mountains — a rainy one in August and a snowy one in September — they found ample signs not only of prehistoric people making short visits there but of families going up to spend an entire summer.

“And probably the spring and fall, too,” said Stirn, who with Sgouros served as project director of the expeditions. What they found “painted the mountains as less marginal, a less harsh picture,” he said.

Archaeological surveys in the Tetons go back to the ’70s, but new technology and new ideas about how prehistoric people might have used the area inspired a new round of inquiry. The result, Stirn said, is 30 previously unrecorded sites probably ranging from 11,000 years ago to “proto-history,” or about when “new Americans” began to enter the picture.

The findings stand to dramatically change archaeologists’ ideas about how ancient residents of the region used the mountains.

Bowl is a rare find

Artifacts found include stone points and tools, soapstone fragments and one complete vessel.

“That’s very rare,” Stirn said of the bowl. “That’s not something we find every day.”

The bowl was found between some rocks beneath some shrubs and nearly covered by dirt. Only the round ring of its lip was visible. Stirn and Sgouros hope the dirt preserved some signs of what the bowl was used for. Because soapstone is porous, any fats the bowl may have contained could have sunk into the vessel’s pores and been preserved. They hope biomolecular testing, to be performed in England, will find such signs, which could reveal how old the item is and also offer clues about what its makers ate.

Sgouros said bighorn sheep or pine nuts would not be unexpected.

Also of interest are artifacts made of stone from the Absarokas near Dubois.

“Stone can travel a ways,” Sgouros said. “We’re guessing [the tools’ makers] moved all over the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. During the winter I’d guess they went to the Snake River Plain toward Idaho. … That’s something not just us but other archaeologists who work at high-altitude sites are trying to find out: where occupants spent their winters.”

Stirn said a lot of artifacts found at Wind River sites are associated with Plains Indian cultures in Nebraska and Kansas, while Teton artifacts are more in the style of the Great Basins of Utah and Idaho.

“So somewhere, the Tetons or the Winds, is that divide between the Great Basin and Plains cultures,” he said. In addition to doing a lot of walking around looking at the ground, the team also zeroed in on ice patches. In many places around the world permanent ice patches are shrinking due to a warming climate. As a result, a lot of material is working its way out, including artifacts made from organic material that, had they not been frozen for the past thousand years or more, would have decayed long ago (see sidebar).

“There’s all this other stuff in there,” Sgouros said, referring not only to the treasures waiting to be found in the ice but to other artifacts waiting to be found elsewhere.

The team has a five-year permit with public land agencies to continue its work. “Our main goal this first season was to see what was up there,” Sgouros said. “Now that we’ve accomplished that we can answer other questions.”

Next: compare east and west

For example, Stirn said, they’d like to plot sites and compare the east side of the Tetons with the west side. “What we consider steep and difficult terrain probably was nothing for them,” he said. “It would be interesting to ask: Did the severity of the topography on Jackson side of Tetons cause problems? Or maybe not. Both answers would be interesting.”

Also, a high priority is to work with the U.S. Forest Service to come up with a plan to preserve and protect the sites. Some areas are frequented by hikers and horse packers. While for the most part looting appeared to be minimal, there’s no real way of knowing what has been disturbed or even removed.

“There are productive ways that anyone can interact with and study the past in a way that doesn’t damage it,” Stirn said, “including working as volunteers with us or other projects.”

“There’s so much left to study,” Sgouros said.

The team plans to present its findings at one of the historical society’s Voices of the Valley events later this fall, possibly in early November.
Anderson, Richard. 2014. “High Tetons surrender clues about prehistoric residents”. Jackson Hole News & Guide. Posted: October 15, 2014. Available online:

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