Prehistoric campsite unearthed in Montana

Despite all of the technological advances hunters have seen developed in the last 50 years — no-scent sprays, exceptional optics and weatherproof clothing — today’s sportsmen share some common traits with the people who stalked animals hundreds and thousands of years ago. 

University of Montana and Passport in Time volunteers excavate at the Little Trail Creek site last year. In one pit, on the last day of excavation, a piece of a Paleo-Indian point was discovered that could date back 7,500 years [Credit: University of Montana]
The similarities have been highlighted on a bluff overlooking the Yellowstone River just north of Gardiner. 

There, along Little Trail Creek, archaeologists have found evidence of people honing arrowheads for a hunt, of successful hunters butchering and dining on a variety of big game and of some old-school hunters hanging onto outdated technology after newer gear had been developed. 

“One of the interesting aspects of the stone tool assemblage is the recovery of both Late Archaic atlatl dart points and Late Prehistoric arrow points within the two features dated to 1,100-1,340 years ago,” said Doug MacDonald, an associate professor at the University of Montana’s Department of Anthropology. 

“Supposedly, the atlatl wasn’t being used anymore at that time,” he said. 

Up until now, most experts thought atlatl use ended around 1,500 years ago. But the UM and volunteer researchers found 11 dart points and four arrowheads at the same level dated to 1,340 years ago. 

“Must have been a bunch of old-timers not wanting to adopt the new sophisticated bow/arrow technology,” he said. 

The evidence was revealed in a dig last summer in which the university and the Gallatin National Forest were partners. The Forest Service manages the land that is still used by hunters as a base camp to set off for the uplands above the bluff. 

The artifacts found may lead to some kind of protection of the site by the forest. The findings, together with other surveys around the Gardiner Basin since 2007, are also helping archaeologists develop a more complete picture of prehistoric occupation and use of the area. 

Good campsite 

The Little Trail Creek site, located at about 6,000- feet elevation, appears to have served as a spike camp for hunters — utilized mainly as a place to gather to hunt nearby cliffs for bighorn sheep, as well as for butchering and skinning wildlife after successful hunts. 

“We found just a dramatic amount of artifacts,” said Justin Moschelle, an archaeologist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs who organized the project. 

UM archaeologist Lisa Smith excavates at the Little Trail Creek site on the Gallatin National Forest last year. The work yielded a wealth of artifacts, mostly from stone working [Credit: University of Montana]
Twelve 1-meter squares of ground turned up more than 3,800 artifacts. More than 3,500 of the artifacts were lithic, mainly flakes from ancient hunters sharpening rock arrowheads and dart points. 

“Obviously it’s a perfect spot for a campsite long ago, or people wouldn’t still be using it today,” Moschelle said. 

Glacial moraine on the south side of the bluff provides a natural wind block. The creek offers a nearby water source. And the bluff is flat, perfect for pitching a camp. 

Long used 

In addition to the possibility that atlatls were used much longer than previously believed, the researchers also found the base of what’s believed to be a Paleo-Indian point buried deeply at the site that could indicate use of the area much earlier. Paleo-Indian bands were some of the first people to occupy North America following the last ice age about 11,000 years ago. 

“It’s definitely human-modified, but it looks like the base of a point, similar to one on display at the Gardiner Ranger District office,” Moschelle said. “If that’s true, it could push the site back to 7,500 years or older. That part was pretty neat.” 

MacDonald said he would like to further investigate earlier use of the area by Clovis people, so-named because of their association with a certain style of artifact. He noted that one of North America’s most important Clovis sites is located not far away, just south of Wilsall in the Shields River valley. That site has been roughly dated to between 8,000 and 10,500 years old. 

Rock sources 

At the Little Trail Creek site, the majority of the rock used for arrowheads and dart points came from two locations — both of which are about 20 miles away, inside nearby Yellowstone National Park. Obsidian Cliff provided the most popular material, obsidian, based on what was found at the site, followed by chert from Crescent Hill at the eastern edge of the Blacktail Deer Plateau near Tower Junction. Materials that came from other areas indicate trade conducted to the west into Idaho and southwest Montana and east to the Bighorn Basin and as far as the Dakotas. In the cliffs above, Moschelle even discovered a piece of petrified tree from farther up the Paradise Valley that had been hauled to the site for making tools. 

“So they definitely did pack in lithic material,” Moschelle said. 

In addition to the multitude of rock chips created while making tools, the researchers found more than 280 artifacts that were the remains of animals the hunters had butchered and in some cases eaten, including elk, sheep and deer. 

Based on what was found where, different areas of the bluff seemed to be used for different tasks. Hide scrapers were found in one spot. Larger animal bones were unearthed separately from medium-sized animal bones, possibly indicating the success of one group at a certain time of year compared to another, MacDonald said. 

“It really comes down to timing, what they were successful hunting,” he said. 

No-trace camping 

Interestingly, Moschelle said that remains of campfires found indicated that they had been covered over when left. A lot of charred material was found underneath rocks, indicating the users may have practiced what’s known today as “no-trace camping,” or leaving little sign of human occupation. 

“It almost seems like they occupied that area to hunt, process the animals and then cleaned up camp and went down to where the rest were camping along the river,” Moschelle said. 

Numerous other campsites have been found along the west side of the Yellowstone River below, near the old town of Cinnabar, including one place where several tools were cached at least 1,000 years ago. 

“That whole valley was extensively used by Native Americans through all of prehistory,” MacDonald said. “The late prehistoric was an active period.” 

Author: Brett French | Source: Mtstandard [April 29, 2012]

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