Wyoming’s Past

6July 2020: 12:00 noon (apprx. 1 hour)

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Wyoming is a great place to study time. We have exceptional geological and paleontological records that set the stage for the more recent times studied by archaeologists (the time when humans are present). While driving around Wyoming, you may sometimes see signs that talk about times when the rocks you see were formed (for example, driving through Wind River Canyon). The Geological Society of America provides and updates (as new information is uncovered) a general time scale for the Big Events during the first 4 billion years of Earth’s history. In the study of humans and our closest ancestors, archaeologists mostly work only the most recent periods (late Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene — at the very top of the yellow Cenozoic column at the left side of this scale). Last dinosaurs lived during the end of the Creataceous (66 million years ago) and the earliest evidence of stone tool using human ancestors is only about 3 million years ago, which goes back to an earlier lesson; archaeologists do not study dinosaurs — they’re way too old.

  • Think about the events you’ve learned about this history of your town, and of our State, and United States History. How much time have you been taught about what happened in the last 50 years? The last 100? The last 5000? The last 10,000?
  • Think about why technology changes. What do you think have been the biggest changes in technology in your lifetime? What would you say have been the most important technologcial innovations over the full course of human history?
  • One of the technologial changes that leaves a distinctive record in Wyoming’s past is the change for a devise thrown dart (using an atlatl) to using a bow and arrow. What reasons might there be for such a change? How might you research the archaeological record to evaluate your ideas about the change? Make and try using an atlatl.
A quick introduction to what an atalatl is and suggestions on how to make your own.

The atlatl is a technology that has a long history of use, but very little current understanding or awarness. The shift from atlatl to bow and arrow marks one of the key technological shifts that can be recognized via changes in stone point shape and size. Learning about the atlatl technology helps not only to think about past hunting techniques and tactics, but also as one of the ways to help learn about how to recognize temporal change based on stone tools.

The human record on earth and in Wyoming is very recent in comparison to the Earth history events. Archaeology, however, studies only the most very recent (about the last 3 million years) part of the time scale.

Geological time scale. You can download a pdf version of this scale from the Geological Society of America.
A good deal of what has been learned, published, and available as a basis for learning about Wyoming archaeology is the result of work done by Professor George Frison and his colleagues. Much of this information is presented in the three editions of his classic book Prehistoric Hunters.

The chart below (from Frison et al. 2010), some the basic timeframe that has been constructed by several generations of archaeologists working in Wyoming. The dates (as radiocarbon years before present – RCYBP) are shown on the left, the names give to some of the projectile points in the middle section, and the general time period designations show in the right hand column. To the left of the chart are three larger time groupings (Paleoindian, Archaic, and Late) and on the right are some of the types of points associated with the different times.

Wyoming and NW Plains chronology (modified from Frison et al. 2010: Figure 2.1).

While each of these timelines give an good overview of our current understanding of the tempo of past changes, it is sometimes not easy to grasp the magnitude of the time scales involved. One of the ways that has worked for introducing people to the time depth of Wyoming’s archaeolgocial past is to give examples based on distance rather than years. This video gives an overview of one such spatial timeline for Wyoming (and incidently has the ‘value added’ of being another introduction to the metric system) where the State’s past is view from a perspective of one year of time corresponding to one millimeter distance.

Looking at time as distance and putting written history in the context of archaeologial time.
Next Lesson: Stone Tools