Research uncovers park’s first campers
BILLINGS – The lure of sleeping beneath the stars at Yellowstone National Park apparently is nothing new.
Long before nylon tents and posh RVs, some of the park’s earliest visitors arrived in the early summer on foot and camped on the shores of Yellowstone Lake.
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.
“The stuff that we found in the park is like opening another window,” said Ann Johnson, Yellowstone’s lead archaeologist.
Not only is the site the least disturbed of any Cody Complex location, it also lends credence to theories that the people did more than roam the plains to hunt bison.
Researchers who have excavated portions of the Osprey Beach site believe the stopover in Yellowstone may have been part of a seasonal migration that included portions of what are now Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. While they were in Yellowstone, the evidence indicates, they killed bears, deer, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and rabbits.
The campers may have spent days or weeks on the beach, making tools, honing spears or darts and possibly fashioning clothes out of animal hides.
“There were a wide variety of tool types, which suggests these people were doing a lot of activities,” Johnson said.
Johnson and others working at Osprey Beach recently completed a report on their findings.
Although the acidic soil has eaten away bones and wood at the site, the surviving artifacts offer tantalizing details about early human life on Yellowstone Lake, one of the highest-elevation lakes on the continent.
The Cody Complex was first defined in 1951 at a bison-kill site near Cody, Wyo. The Horner site, named after the landowner, included tools, projectile points and sharpened stones that came to be known as “Cody knives.”
For years, the Cody people were identified primarily as bison hunters in the plains. Osprey Beach is changing that perception.
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.
Johnson and others 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 may already have been taken from the area illegally.
But that isn’t to say the organized excavations weren’t fruitful.
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 may 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, through a technique pioneered by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, showed evidence of rabbits, canids (dogs or doglike 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 may have been used to tie tools together, researchers said.
The archaeologists were careful to note the origin of the materials found at the site.
Yellowstone’s early campers may have been drawn to the area, in part, because of the vast supplies of obsidian at Obsidian Cliff.
The volcanic rock, largely free of imperfections, 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.
It’s no surprise that the early visitors would have set up camp on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. The spot had ready access to water, materials for shelter and animals to eat.
“I would think it makes a good place to make a living,” Johnson said.
The camp probably buzzed with activity.
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.
It’s also reasonable to think that the campers built some type of raft to get to one or more of the islands in Yellowstone Lake, Johnson said.
Six of the seven islands on Yellowstone Lake have archaeological sites and one includes artifacts from the Cody Complex people.
“They probably had watercraft of some variety,” Johnson said.
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.