Dr. George Frison, right, jokes around with fellow atlatl club members Bruce Bradley and Dennis Stanford at Saratoga circa 1983/84. (Courtesy Russel Richard /Wyoming Atlatl and Social Club)

The University of Wyoming and the state lost a legend with the passing of Dr. George Frison on Sept. 7 at age 95. Thanks in large part to him, Wyoming folks can understand that big game hunting is an unbroken thread of our culture that runs from the Ice Age right up to the present.

From Fort Bridger to Farson, from Sunlight Basin to Hell Gap, Frison wove together the rich story of hunting migratory game in Wyoming’s human heritage.

Dr. George Frison demonstrates the use of an atlatl, a spear-throwing tool that preceded the bow and arrow in hunting in the Wyoming region, in this archival image. (Courtesy Russel Richard/Wyoming Atlatl and Social Club)

Amazingly, all this came after serving in the Pacific during WWII, surviving an injury from a Kamikaze attack and returning home to run a ranch and start a family with his beloved wife, June. After selling the ranch, Frison decided to start a new chapter of life as an archaeologist. At age 37! It’s never too late to try something new, right?

One of Frison’s greatest accomplishments was showing the genius of ancient hunters as revealed by their hunting strategies and technology. He pieced together the puzzle of ancient hunting practices from mammoth kill sites, bison jumps, bighorn sheep traps and nets, pronghorn driveways, mule deer ceremonial sites and more. 

In one memorable experiment, Frison took an atlatl spear thrower and obsidian knives to Africa to test how well they pierced elephant hide. The field test confirmed that Wyoming’s “stone age” mammoth hunters had a sophisticated and fully-functional toolkit for taking down the 13-foot-tall behemoths. 

When Frison looked at the landscape, he saw it as a hunter because that’s what he was. He developed his hunter’s eye and curiosity of ancient hunting while growing up on a ranch near Tensleep in the Bighorn Basin during the Great Depression. He lived near one of the old trails that American Indians used to cross the Bighorn Range, traversing a once-rich bison summer range that was still abundant with projectile points left by hunters of the past.

After earning a PhD at University of Michigan, he went on to enjoy a rich 58-year career that included excavating countless sites, training some 70 graduate students, building relationships with avocational archaeologists and volunteers, personally funding research and education and writing books for popular audiences. 

He was Wyoming’s first state archaeologist, and founder of the University of Wyoming Anthropology Department. He only stopped coming into the office this past spring when the university closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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His hand-picked uniform of jeans, a pearl-button snap shirt and a King Ropes hat was unmistakably Frison. You wouldn’t know it from this humble getup, but he was a globally recognized scholar. Wyomingites can proudly point to him as our homegrown talent who was named to the National Academy of Sciences. He was the first UW scholar ever to receive that honor when it was bestowed on him in 1997. 

If you’ve ever been curious about how the hunters of the past survived, I heartily recommend Dr. Frison’s books, including “Rancher Archaeologist: A Career in Two Different Worlds” and “Survival by Hunting: Prehistoric Human Predators and Animal Prey.”

Happy trails, “Doc” Frison. You taught us so much, and your legacy of knowledge lives on.

Gregory Nickerson

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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  1. We all have lost a wonderful chronicler of
    History and will be missed by many!!
    Thanks for this beautiful tribute to one who
    Was so deserving!!

  2. Addendum: In what may be the longest continuously inhabited area in the Americas, running roughly between Golden,CO, the north fork of the Platte, the conjunction of the north and south forks of the Platte and the Red Desert, man has lived for at least 13000 years. Little has changed since the end of the last ice age. The mammoth, camel and some of the forests are gone, but the rest looks in many ways as it did when the first humans walked the land. George helped tell their story. See it for yourself before it’s gone. There’s no other place quite the same between the Bering Strait and Tierra del Fuego.

  3. George Frison was huge. Without him there would be no Wyoming archaeology. The same can be said for much of the Rocky Mountain region. Without George, many would never have heard of, or learned about, the Pelican Lake, McKean, Besant, Avonlea or even the better known Folsom and Clovis Complexes and Cultures who resided in the Rocky Mountain west, including directly under UW and downtown Laramie! Thanks for the knowledge, George.

    You never know what you’ll find next time you dig a hole in your yard.

    Happened recently in Boulder with yet another Clovis cache.

    Rock on, George. We’ll miss you.

  4. George Frison was an outstanding human being and one Wyoming should be extremely proud of as a native son of their state. He was revered by all that knew him, professionally or otherwise.

    I have had the honor of serving on his namesake board, the Frison Institute at the University of WY, the last several years. I had gotten to know him through being involved with the Powars II site in WY and a little before that with a Folsom site in the Red Desert. He was an example of what has been tagged as the Greatest Generation of Americans. He was a treasure to the world of Plains archaeology and will be greatly missed.

  5. You were loved and respected by all who came into your orbit. Thanks for doing what you did so well!

  6. What an outstanding man, and scientist Dr. Frison was. He proved it is never too late to learn.
    And it is good to see Greg Nickerson back in WyoFile. He does a great job and I hope he does more.

  7. WHAT A WONDERFUL, INTERESTING MAN.
    WE ARE ONE OF THE MANY LUCKY PEOPLE WHO MET HIM AND LISTENED TO HIS LECTURES IN WORLAND.
    I LIKED HIS REMARK TO US ONE DAY. “”I NEEDED TO QUIT TEACHING WHEN I COULD NO LONGER REMEMBER WHICH CAVES MY STUDENTS WERE IN.””.
    HE ALWAYS SHARED A WEALTH OF BAKGROUND INFORMATION WITH OTHERS

  8. Happy to see your byline again, Greg. Thanks for honoring George Frison. We knew him well in Washakie County. He always was generous with his time and knowledge, especially with guidance for the Washakie Museum and Culutral Center.

    I was brought up with George Frison as a model of how to weave together your knowledge and experience from the chapters before to create a unique expertise in the chapters to follow.

    Don’t you love it that George Frison grew up hunting on their ranch and ended up pioneering all kinds of major insights into paleo-indians and how they lived their lives.

    BTW, George’s mother was one of our baby-sitters when my sibs and I were growing up in Worland. My brother is still in Worland. So is the house of George’s uncle, Paul Frison, the author, which was on our way to school.