A Probable Pre-Clovis Bison Butcher Site in Washington

Archaelogists believe they’ve found evidence of a bison butchered by humans 14,000 calender years ago.  In 2003 workers digging a pond on Orcas Island, which is adjacent to Vancouver Island in the Pacific Northwest, uncovered a complete skull of an extinct bison (Bison antiquus) along with 97 bones from the same animal–the most complete specimen ever found.  One of the workers kept it in a box in his toolshed until 2005 when he finally turned it over to Stephen Kenady, a local archaeologist. 

Map of Orcas Island.  These islands used to be part of the mainland during the Ice Age when the ocean receded due to an increase in glacial ice.  Many fossils of Pleistocene mammals have been discovered in the region, including other bison fossils, giant ground sloth, and giant short-faced bears.  Low acid bogs are abundant here, explaining the abundance of fossils.  The Paisley Cave pre-Clovis site, where 14,000 year old human coprolites were discovered, is also nearby.

Upon examination of the bones, Dr. Kenady, Randall Shalk, and Robert Mierendorf determined the animal had been butchered by humans.  The taphonomy of the bones–green fractures and cleaver-chopped bone–strongly matched those of other known butchered bones from Clovis and post-Clovis archaeological sites.    Bones from the best edible cuts were missing–another clue.  And the bones weren’t scratched as if they’d been water transported which would be an explanation for how they could resemble being butchered.  The scientists believe the animal either was killed by humans or died naturally on a frozen pond in winter.  During spring the ice melted, and the bison sank to the bottom of the pond to become buried under mud when the body of water silted over and became a low acid bog.

Skull of Bison antiquus.  This species of bison had horns intermediate in size between extant modern bison (Bison bison) and the also extinct long-horned bison (Bison latifrons).  From google images.

Photo I took of a long-horned bison housed at the Georgia College Museum in Milledgeville.  This fossil was found at Clark Quarry near Brunswick and is the only complete skull ever found in the state of this species.

Photo I found of long-horned bison horns from google images.  I added this one because I like the size comparison with the person in the picture.

The modern bison is smaller than both Pleistocene bison species.  Bison antiquus was on average 25% larger, meaning they grew to 7 and 1/2 feet tall and 2400 pounds.  Bison latifrons was even larger.  There are a number of possible reasons why Pleistocene bison grew larger.  The Pleistocene environment may have been a richer foraging environment, and they needed to grow larger to battle large carnivores such as giant panthers, saber-tooths, and dire wolves.  The smaller size of the modern bison may be an adaptation enabling them to run longer distances to avoid human hunters.  The evolution of a smaller size may mean they reach sexual maturity and can breed faster to keep up with the toll of human hunting.  The extinction of large carnivores, and the ascent of human populations likely shaped this evolution to a smaller size.

Both species occurred in Georgia, and they overlapped geographically and temporally.  Bison latifrons may have been a lowland swamp species much like African water buffalo; Bison antiquus may have been an upland species, preferring hilly dry regions.  It saddens me that today there are no wild bison left in the southeast.


Lepper, Bradley

“Pre-Clovis Butchers of Bison antiquus”

Mammoth Trumpet 26 (3) July 2011

See also from my June 2010 archives–“Were there three species of bovine roaming the southeast during the Pleistocene?”


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4 Responses to “A Probable Pre-Clovis Bison Butcher Site in Washington”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    Good article. I think 14K to 15K years ago seems to be about the limit we’ve been able to set for any decent numbers of humans to be in North America. It didn’t take them long to start killing off the tremendous number of megafauna that flourished here before they arrived.

    It hasn’t been that long since the woodland bison vanished from the South. There’s been talk from time to time of returning it to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a free-roaming inhabitant. But I doubt it’ll be done, since there’s too much urban sprawl crowding out the park. People would complain if a one-ton herbivore walked in their yard. (Unless is was a domesticated bovine.)

    • markgelbart Says:

      There’s not much good habitat in the Great Smoky Mountains today for bison. I don’t think the Park Service would be too keen on controlled burns that might endanger all that old growth forest.

      One place where they could and should reintroduce them is Roan Mountain Bald. Currently, they’re trying to keep that space open with hand mowing and goats. Seems like bison would be a better more natural fit.

      I wrote an article about a study scientists did determining when the megafauna population began to decline. I can’t remember which archive it’s in. What they did was look at sediment in three ponds in upstate New York. They carbon dated it and measured the amount of dung fungus spores in the sediment. Dung fungus spores are a proxy for megafauna populations. The scientists found that megafauna populations began to decline about 15,000 years ago, corresponding in age to when humans probably first arrived. The decline occurred at different times for the different sites, ruling out climate change as a factor in their decline. The scientific article, or at least the abstract , may be available online. It’s “Landscape Paleoecology and Megafaunal Extinction in southwestern New York State” by Guy Robinson in Geological Monographs.

      Incidentally, dung fungus spores increased to Pleistocene levels when Europeans introduced livestock.

  2. James Robert Smith Says:

    Read THE CALL OF DISTANT MAMMOTHS and Leakey’s THE FIFTH EXTINCTION for good takes on what humans have done to the megafauna of this planet. I talk to a lot of people who refuse to look upon Native Americans as anything other than the peaceful primitives living in sync with Nature. Like humans everywhere else, they ate their ways across two continents killing everything they could hunt. The most vulnerable species died out completely before their spears, arrows, atlatls, and fire.

    I was at Roan Mountain last week and they had just mowed the balds, the grass lying in wide, even layers. It would be exciting indeed to see bison there again.

    The type of bison they’ve talked about bringing to the Smokies is one that they would bring in from a couple of parks in Canada. These do well in forest settings and are the closest breed to what was our eastern woodland buffalo. They talked for a while of releasing some experimentally in Cataloochee where the elk were first introduced. The elk seem to be doing well there, and I see them in number every time I visit that part of the park.

  3. Mark Says:

    There are already bison close to the Smokies. There is a small herd kept just south of Brentwood, Tn….you can see them from I-65, just east of the interstate (at least they were there last year). They look like small dark VW’s parked on a dusty hillside from a distance. Elk were released in Tuscaloosa and surrounding areas back in the 30’s…they were all taken out within a few years though. Shame.

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