One way to proceed is to take one aspect of life—travel, for example—and see what we can find out and how some answers emerge. It is just possible that our teenager, standing on the Rocky Mountain Front 8,000 years ago, was traveling by foot on this continent’s major prehistoric interstate: the Old North Trail. If you unfold a map of North America, you’ll see that the Continental Divide, what Blackfeet people call the “Backbone of the World,” runs from the Arctic through Mexico. It’s a series of scattered ranges that we’ve labeled the Rocky Mountains.
A growing number of archaeologists join native people in believing that humans began traveling along the eastern edge of the Rockies at least 12,000 years ago. The ice fields of the last major Ice Age were still melting and receding all across North America. The east-facing slopes of the Rockies, then, like now, enjoyed warmer Chinook winds that had created an ice-free corridor from the far north into Montana.
Foothills are an “edge ecosystem” between forests and plains, with characteristics of both. Because of this they have a wider array of plants and animals than either the forest or the prairie and they are a good source of wood, water, and shelter.
The Old North Trail was located in an edge ecosystem but it was not a single-lane highway. It would have been a braided path like intertwining game trails until the late 1800s, when settlers began to fragment the route with newer roads, forts, railroads, and ranches. For 12,000 years, the Old North Trail was a true transcontinental highway over which people traveled the length of the continent to exchange goods and, perhaps, customs. Human feet provided all locomotion until 2,500 hundred years ago when dogs and dog travois began to carry some freight. Horses would not have stepped onto the Trail, at least in this region, until roughly 250 years ago.
So picture our prehistoric teenager traveling from Calgary to Mexico City. Picture him on the road for months or years, seeing everything from what we think of as Glacier National Park to the volcanoes of Mexico. Picture him transporting obsidian from Yellowstone National Park south to trade for coastal shells. Picture him traveling away from the Trail more than twenty miles to hunt antelope or elk for food and skins. Picture him helping his family set up a conical shelter of branches.
Do we know enough to trust such pictures? What do we know? How do we know it?
Archaeologists began their explorations of the distant past by paying attention to the oral traditions recorded by early government surveyors, guides, and traders. Early anthropologists mention a Foot-of-the-Rockies trail, a big Indian Trail paralleling the Rockies, and other north-south trails.
In about 1900, a bright, young, college graduate, Walter McClintock, spent more than three years with the Blackfeet recording their memories, ceremonies, and beliefs because he feared that the existence of this tribe, which had once dominated the northern Plains, was threatened both by United States policies and by new settlers.
In The Old North Trail, McClintock quoted an elder, Brings-down-the Sun: “There is a well-known trail we call the Old North Trail. It runs north and south along the Rocky Mountains. No one knows how long it has been used by the Indians. My father told me it originated in the migration of a great tribe of Indians from the distant north to the south, and all the tribes have, ever since, continued to follow in their tracks.” Brings-down-the-Sun described trail landmarks as well as specific journeys his ancestors took to visit people with dark skins.
By the 1960s, Montana archaeologists were recording prehistoric and historic sites around the state. Some sites were found by accident—a rancher noting stone tools coming out of a cut bank or hikers turning over a projectile point—but most sites are found through systematic field surveys before public construction projects, such as roads or dams, are begun. Archaeologists set up lines, or transects, at regular intervals across the area that is about to be disturbed. Then they walk along those routes noting any lithic (stone) tools or flakes, tipi rings, bones, or fire-cracked rocks. They record each artifact or feature that offers evidence of previous human activities.
Though less than five percent of the state has been surveyed, more than 23,000 sites have now been documented, at least minimally. Less than half of one percent of discovered sites have been examined in detail. Far fewer have received the intensive scrutiny of excavation.
Excavating a site is time-consuming and expensive. It involves precise measurements, many photographs, and painstaking removal of soil around each artifact so that the relationship of one artifact to another is not disturbed. Lab work takes even longer. Because of this, little excavation has taken place in Montana, so archaeologists mostly rely on preliminary surveys.
Archaeologists begin with research questions that guide their analysis. They look for similarities and differences in materials, analyze the use of those materials, and prepare bone and wood for specialists who conduct radiocarbon dating and many other tests. They confer with other specialists such as soil scientists to understand the context of the site.
On any transportation corridor, archaeologists first look for trail ruts. This would be easy if, from walking on the ground or flying over the Rocky Mountain Front, we could spot linear depressions, worn places in rock, or stream crossings scarred by frequent use. But this usually isn’t the case. Even 10,000 years of human hiking is unlikely to leave a clear imprint so it is commonly accepted that such traces date from the Late Prehistoric Period, around 2,000 years ago.
Nevertheless, University of Calgary archaeologist Dr. Brian Reeves has identified a few sets of such depressions and scars in the area north of Augusta on up into Canada. He located these trail tread marks based on the memories of Indians and ranchers who saw them fifty or more years ago when they were more visible. He’s flown over and walked them as well. He was able to document dog travois, horse travois, and wagon wheel markings.
Tipi rings are more visible and durable. They are one of Montana’s most often found artifact of prehistoric residences. These irregular circles of stone, often half-buried, once held down hides at the edge of tipis. When tipi occupants moved, they rolled the stones away from the bottom edge and left them where they lay.
Archaeologists use the size of ring sites to estimate how large the tipi was. Larger tipis became more common after Indians had dog travois to pull long tipi poles and heavy hides. Many rings in one area might mean that a large group of people camped together or that the site was used repeatedly. How deep the soil is around the stones and whether or not stones are covered with lichen helps archaeologists understand how recently stones were used or whether they were used more than once. Sometimes stone hearths and rocks cracked by fire survive. Sometimes the placement of stones allows us to determine which direction the tipi faced.
As you might expect, numerous tipi rings along the Old North Trail give archaeologists a lot to evaluate. They indicate that people were present along the corridor frequently and they offer clues that help us date when those people were present. They also give us information about what these early people looked for when picking a campsite: proximity to water, views of the landscape, and seasonal access to plants and animals.
Archaeologists can figure out quite a lot about the diet of early people by identifying animal species from bone fragments discarded after meals. They can determine whether our prehistoric teenager’s family ate birds or rabbits more than antelope. They can even tell us whether the family ate fawns, calves, or mature animals, which tells us more than just what they ate. The presence of immature animal bones, for example, tells us that the site was used in the spring or early summer.
If there are many layers of bone and food debris, we reason that many generations of people used the same site. Some seeds and pollen survive well enough to offer strong clues about both what prehistoric people ate and at what season. Bones, charcoal, and other organic substances lend themselves to radiocarbon dating.
When archaeologists have the funds to conduct intense site examinations, they look not only for precise information about plants and animals but also for lithic materials that have been worked by humans. These might include whole or damaged stone knives, projectile points, or flakes of stone that fell to the ground as our prehistoric teenager’s dad shaped a chunk of stone, or a core, into a point.
Not all groups made their tools and weapons in the same way, and the traditions changed through time. Archaeologists have identified about twenty lithic traditions in Montana that carry names such as Clovis, Folsom, Besant, and Avonlea. The style, or tradition, of a point or knife allows us to take a reasoned guess as to when it was made.
Archaeologists can also analyze the source of the stone. Prehistoric people quarried the stone that they used for tools. While they may have occasionally worked rocks they found near at hand, evidence suggests that they preferred particular kinds of materials for particular uses. Some stone kept a sharp edge and some could be worked and reworked easily. Prehistoric people located quantities of chert from limestone formations or obsidian from black volcanic rock and turned those sites into quarries that were mined over thousands of years.
Close to the Three Forks of the Missouri, for instance, archaeologists have spent more than fifteen years studying the Schmitt quarry. They can document its use over 11,000 years, analyze engineering skills and tools used, and track the diet of quarriers, who sometimes dropped down to the Missouri to gather fresh water mussels for a change from their usual diet of game and plants.
Since every rock has a “signature,” something like a DNA profile, geologists are learning to trace stone to its source. Right now, geologists can source volcanic materials such as obsidian and basalts. They are still working on how to source other materials such as chert. When we find obsidian materials at Fort McLeod, Alberta, that we know originated in the Yellowstone Park area, we have reason to believe that these materials traveled along our prehistoric highway. Chert that appears in a 2,000-year-old burial at Waterton Lakes National Park may soon be able to be traced to a Montana quarry. This may help us chart seasonal migration and trade routes more precisely.
Within easy range of the Old North Trail as it passes to the west of Great Falls, archaeologists have located major concentrations of buffalo jumps. For two or three thousand years, hunters directed herds of buffalo over low or stair-stepped cliffs. Dead or dying buffalo then could be processed in assembly-line fashion, creating large supplies of meat, bone, and hide. This style of hunting required a lot of community cooperation and indicates a well-developed communal life.
In the north-central Montana sections of the Old North Trail, Dr. Reeves and other archaeologists have also documented cairns of carefully stacked stones. Cairns remain a mystery to archaeologists. Some have been identified as burial sites, but in most cases, we don’t know their function.
When we try to put ourselves in the footsteps of a prehistoric teenager along the Old North Trail, cairns may come closer than other features in suggesting that he was concerned with more than survival. Based on what we can learn from oral traditions, cairns are likely to have marked direction or distance, served as communication posts, pointed to sacred mountains, or encouraged people to be mindful of spiritual concerns.
I remain, as I began, unable to tell you what you and I would like to know most about a prehistoric teenager, to get into his thoughts, and to feel the world as he felt it. Nonetheless, what little information we have from oral traditions and scientific research can still help us travel back 12,000 years in time.
I am glad to know that there is credible evidence to suggest that our prehistoric teenager may well have seen the residents of Mexico or developed a taste for trade goods from the ocean. Such knowledge reminds me not to settle for stereotypes about my predecessors here.
All photos courtesy of the State Historic Preservation Office, Montana Historical Society.