Bison Kill Site Sheds Light on Ice Age Culture

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
July 22, 2002

Archaeologists digging in Oklahoma have uncovered a bison kill site that could settle a long-running debate about whether early Paleoindians in North America hunted only the big game of the Ice Age—primarily mammoths—or had a wider hunting repertoire.

The find might also lend fuel to the debate about whether the extinction of large Ice Age mammals was the result of overhunting or climate change.

Early archaeological theories held that the Clovis people, the earliest known culture in North America, followed big game across the Bering land bridge into North America, hunted mammoths almost exclusively, to extinction, and then died out themselves. The Clovis era extends from about 11,500 years ago to about 10,800 years ago.

The bison kill site at Jake Bluff, tentatively dated at about 10,750 years old, adds to a growing body of evidence that the Clovis had an eclectic diet and employed sophisticated hunting strategies. Two distinctive Clovis projectile points recovered at the site were fashioned of flint quarried in the Texas Panhandle, so the researchers know the group had traveled at least several hundred miles.

"The find shows that the Clovis people hunted a wider variety of animals than previously believed and had more developed hunting skills," said Leland Bement, an archaeologist at the University of Oklahoma and chief scientist on the dig.

Dennis Stanford, a paleoarchaeologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, agrees.

"A lot of people believe the Clovis people were mammoth-hunting specialists," he said. "This site will definitely prove that they were more generalized. Clovis sites have been found all over North America in many different environments; alligator bones have been found at a Texas site, and fish bones along the Delaware River. Basically, they hunted and ate anything that moved."

Hunting Changes

The bison kill site at Jake Bluff also adds to the evidence that as mammoth populations declined, Clovis hunting technology evolved accordingly.

Early mammoth hunters frequently preyed upon old, injured, or very young animals using the surround technique. The surround technique involved trapping an animal in a bog or swampy area, surrounding it, and spearing it to death. Only one or two animals were killed at a time, and the process could be extremely dangerous.

At Jake Bluff, hunters used the arroyo or nick point technique. A band of hunters herded 10 to 15 bison into a dead-end gully known as an arroyo; then, hunters sitting 8 to 10 feet (3 meters) above on the rim of the gully speared them.

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