Prehistoric People May Have Lived Above Timberline Year Round

Mar 11, 2016

Central Wyoming College students set flags in the Fitzpatrick Wilderness in the Wind River Range.
Credit Todd Guenther

Researchers at Central Wyoming College in Riverton are studying the possibility that prehistoric people may have lived year round above timberline in the Wind River Range.      

Anthropology Professor Todd Guenther says until recently the conventional wisdom was that prehistoric hunters spent most of their time at low elevation and only summered at high altitudes where they hunted bighorn sheep. 

But his research shows that 12,000 years ago in the Shoshone National Forest’s Fitzpatrick Wilderness near the Dinwoody Glacier, people likely spent all year at high altitude feeding off a bison kill.

“What we’ve got in this upper Dinwoody area suggests that not only were there bison up high but the whole village—so not just groups of young male hunters but the whole village—was up there to put on a bison jump and then process that meat and have thousands of pounds of jerky when they’re done,” he says. “Because if you had thousands of pounds of meat, you’re not going to spend all your calories packing it on your back down to the Wind River. I think you could just stay up there.”

Guenther says the bison kill he’s studying, where prehistoric people drive the animals off a cliff, is possibly the highest altitude “bison jump,” ever documented. He says people were likely hunting a smaller version of the modern day bison, one that lived at high elevations and has since gone extinct.

Guenther says the area is located near the “High Rise Village” site—where archeologists believe ancestors of the modern-day Shoshone tribe built shelters and lived there much of the year. He says they plan to conduct more archaeology studies of the area next summer.

Guenther will speak on the topic this Saturday at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson.