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.

The gully-trap method took more planning, and reduced the risks to the hunters. The herding method probably involved every able-bodied person in the group, including women and older children, said Bement.

The bison are from a cow-calf herd, he said, adding that "10 to 15 bison would probably feed the same number of people as one or two mammoths."

The animals were butchered at the site. First the legs were cut off and passed up to people on the rim, who stripped the meat from the bone. The main part of the carcass was processed at the bottom of the gully.

Whether all the meat was consumed immediately is unclear. There is no nearby evidence showing that it was processed and dried for later consumption, but the sun would have been hot and winter was coming, said Bement.

"The site is proof that Clovis hunters had developed gully-style bison hunts much earlier than previously thought," said Bement. "Before this it was thought that the hunting style emerged only in the Folsom period."

Folsom culture and technology followed the Clovis era, and lasted from about 10,800 to 10,200 years ago. Whether the two cultures overlapped, and whether the Folsom culture evolved from the adaptations the Clovis made to a changing environment or the Clovis simply died out and were replaced by the Folsom, are also hotly debated issues.

Overkill versus Climate Change

Another point of contention is the role of the Clovis in the extinction of the large mammals of the Ice Age, sometimes referred to as megafauna.

When the Clovis first arrived, North America was home to mastadons, beavers the size of bears, giant sloths, camels, mammoths, and other large mammals. Less than 1,000 years later, these giant creatures were on the brink of extinction. Proponents of the overkill theory argue that the animals were hunted to extinction by humans.

Others argue that the extinction resulted from the loss of food and habitat associated with climate change.

"The [Jake Bluff] bison kill provides ample proof that Clovis people were actively hunting bison. Why didn't they become extinct?" said Russell Graham, a paleontologist and chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. "We have no evidence that they were hunting camels or horses, or many of the other Ice Age megafauna that did become extinct."

The find "puts another chink in the armor of the overkill fight," he said.

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