High Rise Village, a prehistoric Native American hamlet more than 10,000 feet up into the Wind River Range in northwestern Wyoming. The Winds, as the mountains are known, are not an easy place to collect data. Researchers have trekked across glaciers and scaled cliffs in their search for new villages, contending with “everything from flash flooding to forest fires to bear encounters,” says Matthew Stirn, a University of Sheffield-Britain graduate student who has helped locate many villages.
(Photo: None None)
Topic Early Native American villages
Archaeologists uncover secrets of high-altitude Wyoming villages where Native Americans would go in summer to hunt and collect pine nuts for winter.
To an outsider, the Wind River Range of Wyoming does not seem a hospitable place. Glaciers dot the peaks, and snow can fall even in August. But in the thin air above 10,000 feet, archaeologists have discovered a host of sky-high prehistoric villages, including one that may be the oldest mountain settlement in North America.
Researchers will report 13 new Wind River villages in an upcoming issue of The Journal of Archaeological Science, bringing the total number to 19. Such high-altitude settlements are extremely rare in North America, and scientists plan to study plant remains from the villages that may help them understand the prehistoric peoples who moved to the roof of the world.
“To find honest-to-God villages up there … was astounding,” says Colorado State University archaeologist Richard Adams, whose team identified the first one. “They’re on the crest of the continent. Who’d have thunk it? Nobody expected this.”
The sheer number of sites is “shocking,” says archaeologist David Hurst Thomas of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who is not involved in the Wind River work. “And this (research) is … expensive, it’s hard, and it’s a killer on the knees.”
The Winds, as the mountains are known, are not an easy place to collect data. Researchers have trekked across glaciers and scaled cliffs in their search for new villages, contending with “everything from flash flooding to forest fires to bear encounters,” says Matthew Stirn, a University of Sheffield-Britain graduate student who has helped locate many villages. “It’s as close to extreme archaeology as you can get.”
The job has gotten easier, thanks to a formula Stirn developed to predict where villages are likely to be, based on factors such as altitude and the presence of whitebark pine, a tree that produces large quantities of fatty nuts. Stirn’s formula guided the team to the newly reported villages, which contained the vestiges of ancient lodges and everyday objects such as grinding stones.
The artifacts in the new villages are much like those at the largest Winds village, discovered several years before the most recent batch. Christened “High Rise,” it sprawls down a mountainside so steep that Adams compares it to an intermediate ski run. At 26 acres, it’s the biggest alpine village in North America and was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Amid the ruins of the 60-odd lodges at the site lie sewing tools,stone arrowheads and body paint. A piece of pottery made from local clay and a fragment of bowl made from local stone mean that women were probably crafting objects up at High Rise, Adams says.
All those remnants — many also found at other villages — suggest these weren’t just short-term hunting camps. Instead they were high-altitude resorts where entire families lived for months at a time, hunting and collecting pine nuts for the winter. The villages are awash in stone food-grinding tools, which could have been used to extract nuts from the pine cones. People probably wouldn’t have left those valuable tools at the high villages unless they planned to return.
“There seems to be a predictable draw that brings people back to the same place year after year,” says archaeologist Laura Scheiber of Indiana University, who excavates other high-altitude sites. “Children are learning from their parents and grandparents, ‘This is the place we go at this time of year.'”
The age of the oldest villages is unknown, but it’s clear that some were built at least 2,700 years ago, and High Rise may be 4,000 years old, Adams says. That would make it the oldest alpine village in North America. There’s evidence that people lived at High Rise on and off for at least 2,000 years running. The Sheepeater Shoshone, the Native American people who built the Winds villages, used them until they were confined to reservations.
Researchers puzzle over why prehistoric people headed for the hills in the first place. Perhaps changes in climate made food scarcer in the lowlands, or perhaps immigrants drove people off their traditional territory. Nor do scientists know whether the Wind River people came up with the idea of high-mountain settlements on their own or heard about it from others. But Wind River has helped put to rest the old stereotype that prehistoric peoples stuck to the lowlands.
The range “was the place to be in the summer. … It is just exhilarating to be there, and the living was easier than in the basin,” Adams says. “I think they were up there having fun.”
A modern-day replica of a “wickiup,” the branch-and-bark structures that High Rise residents built as homes.(Photo: Handout)
By Traci Watson, Special for USA TODAY 9:27 a.m. EDT October 20, 2013