Debunking the myth that the great national park was a wilderness untouched by humans
After 14 summers excavating in Yellowstone National Park, Doug MacDonald has a simple rule of thumb. “Pretty much anywhere you’d want to pitch a tent, there are artifacts,” he says, holding up a 3,000-year-old obsidian projectile point that his team has just dug out of the ground. “Like us, Native Americans liked to camp on flat ground, close to water, with a beautiful view.”
We’re standing on a rise near the Yellowstone River, or the Elk River as most Native American tribes called it. A thin wet snow is falling in late June, and a few scattered bison are grazing in the sagebrush across the river. Apart from the road running through it, the valley probably looks much as it did 30 centuries ago, when someone chipped away at this small piece of black glassy stone until it was lethally sharp and symmetrical, then fastened it to a straightened shaft of wood and hurled it at bison with a spear-throwing tool, or atlatl.
“The big myth about Yellowstone is that it’s a pristine wilderness untouched by humanity,” says MacDonald. “Native Americans were hunting and gathering here for at least 11,000 years. They were pushed out by the government after the park was established. The Army was brought in to keep them out, and the public was told that Native Americans were never here in the first place because they were afraid of the geysers.”
MacDonald is slim, clean-cut, in his early 50s. Originally from central Maine, he is a professor of anthropology at the University of Montana and the author of a recent book, Before Yellowstone: Native American Archaeology in the National Park. Drawing on his own extensive discoveries in the field, the work of previous archaeologists, the historical record and Native American oral traditions, MacDonald provides an essential account of Yellowstone’s human past. Tobin Roop, chief of cultural resources at Yellowstone, says, “As an archaeologist, working in partnership with the park, MacDonald has really opened up our understanding of the nuances and complexities of the prehistory.” [ … ]