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Geologic Publications for Mount Rainier

Environment, prehistory and archaeology of Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

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Author(s): Greg C. Burtchard

Document Type:
Publisher: National Park Service
Published Year: 2003
Pages: 229
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Mount Rainier’s upper elevation landscapes have been used seasonally by hunting and gathering people for at least 3,400 and perhaps as many as 8,500 years. However, the importance of montane landscapes to prehistoric people has only recently become widely recognized in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps because of elevation, unpredictable weather and rugged terrain, places like Mount Rainier were regarded by many as only marginal to subsistence and settlement strategies that focused instead on lowland settings east and west of the Cascades.

By the 1970s, a growing body of reported archaeological finds was beginning to suggest a higher level of prehistoric use of the mountains than heretofore appreciated. Even though only one Mount Rainier site had been formally recorded (a rockshelter on Fryingpan Creek), employees and visitors for years had collected and reported chipped stone artifacts from various locations. While they remained unconfirmed, 11 of these finds were noted in some form at Park headquarters in Longmire. In addition to these hints of prehistoric use were various written accounts and commonly accepted stories that alluded to presence of Indian people on the mountain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Formal interest in Mount Rainier’s prehistoric record increased in the 1980s. During this decade, two additional sites were recorded formally (a lithic concentration near Frozen Lake and a second rockshelter in Berkeley Park). Test excavations at the rockshelter returned fragmented bone and chipped stone remains. Radiocarbon ages suggested repeated use of the shelter between about 2,000 and 900 years ago. Other sightings of archaeological remains continued to accumulate, raising the number of unconfirmed archaeological locations from 11 to over 20—almost all in subalpine and alpine settings on all sides of the mountain.

Efforts to formally organize and expand Mount Rainier’s prehistoric database began in 1990 and culminated in the present project. The Mount Rainier project reported here and in site forms bound separately as Archaeological Resources of Mount Rainier National Park (Burtchard and Hamilton 1998) was designed to 1) consolidate and field evaluate the accumulated body of reports and other site data relevant to the Park’s prehistoric archaeological record; 2) expand on that corpus of information through new archaeological reconnaissance designed to sample a variety of landforms and environmental zones on all sides of the mountain; and 3) use those data to generate an overview of the Park’s archaeology and prehistory, and develop research guidelines for continuing archaeological resource management. The two volume format is intended to separate site specific technical information from more general considerations of Mount Rainier’s geology, ecology and archaeology offered here.

Consolidation of previously reported finds and new archaeological reconnaissance was completed by the author and Stephen Hamilton during a six week period between August 1 and September 21, 1995. New archaeological surface reconnaissance covered approximately 3,550 acres in survey parcels selected to maximize landform diversity, open exposure and access efficiency.

Reevaluation and new reconnaissance efforts documented 14 previously unrecorded sites and 18 isolated finds. Added to sites recorded previously, these results brought to 22 the number of known archaeological places documented through the close of 1995. Twenty of these were prehistoric sites (four with historical components) and two were historical sites. Records for all 40 of these sites and isolated finds, including site maps, photographs and relevant topographic maps, are included in the project’s companion Archaeological Resources volume. It should be noted, however, that survey and site testing efforts taking place under Park auspices after the 1995 calendar year are not included here.

The present volume also summarizes reconnaissance field procedures and results. However, its primary concern is directed toward clarifying implications of these data for long-term human use of Mount Rainier National Park. The initial chapters discuss Holocene geology and environmental patterns, drawing attention to the manner in which these events and patterns conditioned hunter-gatherer use of the mountain during the prehistoric past. In essence, these arguments hold that, because they support relatively abundant populations of economically useful animals and plants, subalpine and alpine environmental zones have been the prime focus of human activity throughout the prehistoric past. High maturity characteristics of dense maritime forests and salmon poor, lahar prone, Mount Rainier river valleys were used primarily as travel routes and irregular foraging areas where tree cover was broken by fire or other forest disturbing events.

Environmental discussions also include consideration of Holocene climate change with implications for human land-use patterns. A Holocene climate curve charts changes through time, and predicts effects to Mount Rainier floral patterns with consideration of implications for resource abundance and, hence, human use of the mountain.

This volume also provides an historical summary of the archeology of Mount Rainier National Park and adjacent parts of the southern Washington Cascades. The Mount Rainier section provides a detailed account of the Park’s archaeological history. Rick McClure’s synopsis of archaeological research in the nearby Cascades places the Park’s prehistoric cultural resources within a broader context. His contribution also draws attention to implications of a suite of radiocarbon dates spanning circa 8,500 year period.

The fourth chapter outlines field procedures and summarizes results of the present project. Included are results of Steve Hamilton’s lithic analyses conducted during the project. These data suggest substantial functional variability among Mount Rainier’s archaeological sites, including indications of residential, butchering, hunting, and lithic reduction locations. The chapter also addresses temporal indicators in the extant site database and site distribution patterns as they relate to various environmental and landform characteristics. Results indicate a strong site association with upper forest ecotone, subalpine and alpine habitats, and land-use extending at least to 3,400 years into the prehistoric past.

Chapter 5 establishes the interpretive framework for the prehistory of Mount Rainier and the southern Washington Cascades through 1) a site type taxonomy, and 2) long-term regional subsistence and settlement model. The site type taxonomy incorporates present data with that from similar montane contexts to propose a ten-part preliminary model. Based in part on extant lithic assemblage data, the model distinguishes a series of limited task locations (e.g., short-stay hunting camps, butchering sites and lithic procurement and reduction places) in subalpine and alpine context tethered to residential base camps situated at the ecotonal margin between upper forest and subalpine habitats.

The second model addresses development and change in regional subsistence and settlement systems through time, emphasizing implications for Holocene land-use patterns on Mount Rainier. The presentation reviews related ecological approaches toward modeling land-use strategies in Northwest montane environments, and offers a newly refined forager to collector model for Mount Rainier and the southern Washington Cascades. In essence, it suggests that Mount Rainier’s upland habitats were incorporated into a normal seasonal subsistence round by early Holocene foragers, employing a strategy of high residential mobility, with minimal dependence on over winter storage. Primary attractors to Mount Rainier are believed to have been large ungulates—principally elk and deer—supplemented by other animal and plant resources—such as goats, game birds, marmots and huckleberries—sharing the subalpine habitat. During the mid-Holocene, increasing population density and elevated resource pressure is believed to underlie a region-wide shift to critical reliance on mass harvest and over winter storage of lowland resources—especially salmon. Group sizes became larger and more nearly sedentary, and social and redistributive mechanisms more complex. Acquisition of montane resources increasingly relied on limited task sub-groups emanating from and returning to the lowland villages. The model anticipates continuing use of Mount Rainier throughout the Holocene, but with tasks redirected toward territorial protection of upland resource areas supplemented by limited use high value resources such as goat and perhaps marmots. Mass harvested and dried huckleberry gathering is expected to date to the very late Holocene, primarily post-dating introduction of the horse between 400 and 200 years ago.

The report closes with specific research recommendations designed to expand and refine Mount Rainier’s archaeological record, and to examine further implications of the site type/distribution and subsistence/settlement models offered here. Recommendations are also made for enhancing public interpretation of the Park’s emerging prehistoric record. I hope that the report will draw attention to the importance of high elevation landscapes to prehistoric people in the Pacific Northwest. I also hope that it will stimulate thought and discussion about the intricate relationships between environment, population, and resource variables as they relate to development and change in human land-use systems, and that it will offer some insight into how these patterns apply to montane habitats in the Pacific Northwest.

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Suggested Citations:
In Text Citation:
Burtchard (2003) or (Burtchard, 2003)

References Citation:
Burtchard, G.C., 2003, Environment, prehistory and archaeology of Mount Rainier National Park, Washington: National Park Service, 229 p..