I found my first arrowhead when I was 13 on a backpacking trip high in the Wind River Range, situated at 11,000 feet, just on the edge of an alpine meadow surrounded by moose, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and the occasional coyote. Ten years later I found myself in the exact same spot, this time leading an archaeological expedition in search of new prehistoric villages located above 10,000 feet. The location of that first arrowhead marked one such village – one of 13 we would find during the next few weeks.
Four years prior, Dr. Rich Adams from the University of Colorado discovered a huge and completely unexpected, 2,000 year old village located in the northern part of the mountain range. Dubbed ‘High Rise’, this archaeological site consists of nearly 80 circular stone ‘houses’ and thousands of artifacts that were situated on a slope steep enough to be a black ski-run. As a young archaeology student I joined him the next summer and began a fascinating journey amongst mountains and archaeology.
Since then, Rich, myself, and a small team of archaeologists have worked for seven years in the high-mountains of Wyoming and have recorded nearly a thousand prehistoric sites spanning the past 11,000 years. In my research, I am particularly interested in how past humans around the world came to live in mountainous areas and how they adapted to survive there. It is one thing to go climbing or backpacking at 12,000 feet for a week, but it takes an entirely different skill-set and deep familiarity with the mountains to sustain whole families up there for entire summers. Returning back to prehistoric villages the Wind River Range, we have been lucky enough to find evidence of how groups 2,000 years ago lived in this high-altitude landscape.
During our work at the High Rise village, we noticed a large number of grinding stones scattered amongst the ‘houses’ located amongst a thick Whitebark Pine forest. After finding butchered animal bones in excavations we know that the inhabitants of the village maintained a diverse diet, but the large number of grinding stones and the location of six more villages we discovered that summer – all located in Whitebark forests – suggested that the pine nuts were especially important. These findings led us to believe the grinding stones might have been used to grind the Whitebark nuts for food, something that has been identified in California and Nevada. In 2010, the summer I returned to the spot of my childhood arrowhead discovery, I wanted to test our Whitebark theory.
If Whitebark pine nuts were truly an important food for prehistoric groups and entire villages were constructed for their harvesting, there should be others! Using a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) computer model, I created a program that identified other areas in the Wind River Range where Whitebarks would have been prevalent throughout the past thousand years. Using a horse-train to carry our equipment, we hiked for two days deep into the Winds to take a look. Much to our excitement, we discovered 13 prehistoric villages all located exactly where the model said they should be: amongst dense Whitebark pine forests at approximately 11,000 feet in elevation. In addition, ample numbers of grinding stones and projectile points littered the ground of every village. At first glance, much as they are important in today’s Rocky Mountain ecology, it would seem that Whitebark pine nuts were a large drawing force for prehistoric humans in Wyoming.
Now that we have discovered so many new alpine archaeological sites, there is a lot of work to be done. How long ago did people begin to live in the Winds? What was life like in these high-altitude villages? How long have pine nuts played a crucial role in mountain ecology? These are all questions we hope will be answered down the road. Alpine archaeology is a relatively recent focus around the world, which means that while lowlands, deserts, and jungles have been worked on for several decades, high-altitudes remain widely unexplored. As spring looms in the distance and the mountains stare at me through the window, I am making new plans for this summer to both return to the Winds and venture into the Tetons to see what new discoveries await. Stay tuned!