MUD LAKE, Idaho
— The buttes standing above the Snake River Plain provide a rare glimpse into
eastern Idaho's distant past, if you know what to look for.
Today, the Arco desert is a sparse expanse filled with sagebrush, dust and few humans. But that's a relatively recent development. For some 13,000 years — until the turn of the last century — the area was lush and home to a thriving economy.
"It's deceptive to see it so dry and desolate today," Idaho National Laboratory archaeologist Brenda Ringe Pace said. "But water really does transform the landscape . back then this was a huge wetland that was a magnet for people, wild game, migratory birds and fish."
For thousands of years, Native American tribes — the ancestors of today's ShoshoneBannock Tribes — lived here as migratory hunter-gathers during the spring and summer months.
The evidence of their existence is scattered across what today is the site of Idaho National Laboratory. Federal protections on the land have safeguarded many of those archaeological sites from vandalism that has occurred at other Idaho historic tribal sites.
"Many of our ancestral sites are already gone due to looting or people bringing artifacts home with them," said Carolyn Smith, cultural resource coordinator. "We are very protective of the area . and it's fortunate that today INL is under a controlled environment where they can watch over those particular sites of our ancestors."
Smith works for the Tribal Department of Energy Agreement-in-Principle program and is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes.
Those protections also have afforded historians a relatively untouched glimpse into the past. It isn't always an easy view, though, since an untrained individual might never notice they were standing in a prehistoric campground. The only surviving remnants of ancient travelers are bones and stones.
Spear tips and arrowheads, grinding stones, fire pits and bits of primitive pottery are buried layer upon layer, marking the passage of generations of people. The eroding banks of the empty Big Lost River are a microcosm of prehistoric history. Families have camped here for thousands of years and erosion continues to reveal the remains of tools.
"Here we can see a microscopic view of what people did at their fireplaces," Pace said. "They were maintaining tools, cooking, eating and probably entertaining kids." But the sites also are a puzzle, Pace said.
"We only get the stones and bones. We don't get the stories that were told or the things that have disappeared over time. It's only a partial view," she said. But even incomplete, historians have pieced together significant portions of the story.
Archaeologists guess the Snake River Plain was attractive because of Big Southern Butte. The geologic formation is a natural source of obsidian — a black volcanic glass that forms sharp edges when broken. The ancient tribesmen shaped obsidian into all manner of tools and weapons.
Area buttes also were of strategic importance. Large piles of uncharacteristic stones are evidence of ancient hunting blinds. These circular rock walls are believed to have been used as sentry posts to observe those traveling in the area and track game animals for hunting.
"On a place like this you can see all the way across the valley to where the lake would have been," Pace said. "All of them are at really strategic spots providing really amazing views."
There also are uncharacteristic oddities to be found in the desert, such as olivella shells taken from the Pacific Ocean about a thousand miles to the west. It's evidence of the large trading networks that existed even in ancient times. Further evidence is that obsidian from Big Southern Butte has been recovered as far away as Mississippi.
"When we think about hunter-gatherers 8,000 years ago, there is a tendency to simplify them and think they are primitive," Pace said. "But these networks shock us into realizing that even that long ago there were connections all over the country to places as remote as eastern Idaho."
For the Shoshone-Bannock, the sites and their artifacts are less of a mystery. The modern-day tribesmen are very cognizant and protective of the fact their ancestors lived and died at some of the ancient sites.
"Our people are still here, so we don't have to do any analysis to see how our people lived or thought. We know how they lived," said Willie Preacher, tribal DOE program director. "A lot of it was done with stories told from elders to their children and it went on and on until today."