Reconstructing Ancient Human and Ecosystem Responses to Holocene Climate Conditions

Science Center Objects

This research project will reconstruct Holocene climatic conditions to better understand human adaptation and response to past environmental variability. 

Greater Yellowstone Area ice patches, northwestern Wyoming

Greater Yellowstone Area ice patches, northwestern Wyoming

(Credit: Greg Pederson, USGS. Public domain.)

The investigators will use an array of archaeological materials and climate proxies from Northern Rocky Mountain ice cores to better understand human use of alpine environments during periods of environmental change.  This project will provide new insights into what the large-scale environmental changes were, how such changes impacted humans, and what strategies humans used to respond and adapt to these changes.  The project will involve a collaboration among tribal communities, universities, agencies, and land managers, with students from tribal colleges and universities being educated and trained to help constitute the next generation of researchers, natural resource managers, and educators.  Tribal elders, tribal community members, and students will be brought together to discuss the significance and meaning of the archaeological artifacts from the context of tribal oral traditions and histories and to document and share the findings.

The diverse assemblages of plant, animal, geologic, and archaeological material rapidly emerging from melting ice patches in higher-elevation areas can provide a wealth of information about past environmental conditions and human use of alpine resources.  Coupling biological and geochemical records preserved in ice patches with evidence from archaeological sites presents a rare opportunity to document and evaluate human response and adaptation to large-scale climate patterns and pronounced climate events.

Researchers retrieving ice cores from an ice patch

Researchers retrieving ice cores from an ice patch located on the Beartooth Plateau, Wyoming. 

(Credit: Greg Pederson, USGS. Public domain.)

Research Questions and Objectives

The research focuses on four core questions:

  1. What is the long-term climate history of high-elevation regions, and how do they reflect large-scale patterns in the climate system? 
  2. How did changes in climate and environmental conditions influence human and animal use of the alpine zone? 
  3. What were the long-term strategies of indigenous North Americans in response to extreme droughts and cold, wet periods? 
  4. What do the array of materials exposed from melting ice patches reveal about human capacity for change? 

These questions will be addressed by evaluating archaeological artifacts, ancient wood, and environmental and climatic proxies (e.g., oxygen isotopes, black carbon, continental dust, charcoal, and pollen) found frozen in ice cores within ice patches.  The ice-core reconstructions will be compared with records of past hydroclimatic changes from adjacent lake-sediment sites.  A subregional index of intensity of human use will be developed by documenting temporal intervals of increased presence/absence and abundance of archeological materials.  The project's research outcomes will provide new information about human response to climate and environmental change, thereby advancing basic understanding of the resilience of socioecological systems.

Three images showing the integration of the paleoecological and archaeological ice-patch record

Integrating the paleoecological and archaeological ice-patch record into a regional archaeological record will include both examination of the surface record associated with alpine ice and with previously excavated collections from archaeological sites; a) artifact-based documentation of surface stone tools; b) associations of surface stone tools with changes in ice-patch area and ancient organics provides context for use intensity evaluation; and c) stratigraphic sequence from site 48PA201 (Mummy Cave), which contains a key sequence of both stone and organics spanning over 10,000 years.

(Credit: Larry Todd, GRSLE. Graphic courtesy Larry Todd, GRSLE)

Outreach and Tribal Engagement

The integration of research, outreach and education, and involvement of diverse communities is critical to our research program. The importance of exploring past human activity with tribal communities is paramount. We intend to integrate tribal students and communities throughout all phases of the research project; providing educational, field and laboratory technical opportunities for tribal students. Additionally, we will host elder culture workshops led by Native American elders from regional tribes including Crow and Eastern Shoshone. Senior personnel Dr. Shane Doyle, who is a Crow tribal member, will act as tribal liaison and will help facilitate outreach efforts focused on showcasing the breadth and diversity of artifacts emerging from melting ice patches. We will work to bring tribal elders, tribal community members and students to the field to discuss the ice-patch archive and to place this in the context of tribal oral traditions and histories. Tribal elders from the local communities will be invited to interpret and comment on the research findings from their perspective, providing guidance and wisdom for young scholars and researchers alike. An important part of this research is to directly involve tribal communities in how the ice-patch archive lives on in cultural pathways and livelihoods.

As part of the Camp Monaco Prize we developed a traveling exhibit “Archaeology Out of Ice” highlighting the preliminary hydroclimatic reconstructions from the ice-core and tree-ring samples, as well as a human dimension as revealed through the identification of ancient hunting equipment (e.g., dart and arrow shafts, basketry and other organic tools). The exhibit was purposefully opened on the Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming, since most of the archaeological material recovered at receding ice patches in the GYA is culturally related—ancestral—to Native American peoples.  The exhibit has also been seen at the Western Heritage Center (WHC) in Billings, Montana, and the Gallatin History Museum in Bozeman, Montana.  It will be on display at the Jackson Hole History Society Museum in Jackson, Wyoming (August 8 through early October 2018) and at the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne from mid-October 2018 through August 2019.  Thereafter, the exhibit will go to the Utah State University Museum in Logan for the month of September 2019, with the content being continually updated and enhanced.

Senior personnel Shane Doyle (Executive Director of Native Nexus Consulting) and Co-PI Craig Lee visited area tribes to discuss ice-patch research and found strong interest among the Crow, Eastern Shoshone and the Shoshone-Bannock tribes in the information on cultural histories that ice-patch artifacts reveal. Doyle will facilitate contact with tribal cultural committees who are interested in documenting and sharing information with tribal members about the artifacts revealed by retreating ice patches. 

Investigator presentations will illustrate the relevance of the ice-patch record to understanding human environment interactions in alpine ecosystems worldwide.

Project Resources

Presentations and Outreach

  • C Lee, K Puseman, GT Pederson, M Forney (2016) Organic Artifacts and Environmental Reconstruction -- Reflections on 10 Years of Ice Patch Research in the Greater Yellowstone Area, Northern Rocky Mountains, USA. Presented at Frozen Pasts: 4th International Glacial Archaeology Symposium, 12-16 Oct 2016, Innsbruck, Austria.
  • McWethy, D., C. Lee, G.T. Pederson, J. McConnell, L. Todd, S. Doyle, N. Chellman, D. Stahle (2018) Reconstructing Ancient Human and Ecosystem Responses to Holocene Climate Conditions in the Northern Rocky Mountains. Presented at 2018 Mountain Climate Conference (MtnClim), 17-21 Sep 2018, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, Gothic, CO. 
  • Chellman, N, Pederson, G.T., McConnell, J., Lee, C., and D. McWethy (2018) Permanent ice patch records of Holocene climate in the Beartooth Mountains. Presented at 2018 Mountain Climate Conference (MtnClim), 17-21 Sep 2018, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, Gothic, CO.



Project Personnel  

Principal Investigators

Dave McWethy – Earth Sciences Department, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT

Craig Lee – Montana State University, Bozeman, MT and U. of Colorado Boulder (INSTAAR)

Greg Pederson – U.S. Geological Survey, Bozeman MT

Joe McConnell – Desert Research Institute, Reno, NV

Lawrence Todd – Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO

Senior Personnel

Shane Doyle – Native Nexus, Bozeman, MT

Rachel Reckin – U.S. Forest Service

Nathan Chellman - Desert Research Institute, Reno, NV (PhD candidate)

Graduate Students


Synthesis Collaborators

Bryan Schuman – University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY

Robert Kelly – University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY

Jeffery Stone – Indiana State U., Terre Haute, IN

Jasmine Saros University of Maine, Orono, ME


USGS Land Resources (Climate R&D) and Ecosystems Mission Areas, the National Science Foundation Geography and Geospatial Sciences Program (GSS), and The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation; Buffalo Bill Historical Center’s Draper Natural History Museum; University of Wyoming’s Biodiversity Institute; Bridger-Teton, Custer, Gallatin and Shoshone national forests; US Forest Service Northern and Rocky Mountain regions; US Forest Service Remote Sensing Applications Center (RSAC); Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee (GYCC); Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone national parks; Rocky Mountain Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit (RM-CESU); Buffalo Bill Historical Center – Cody Institute for Western American Studies