Where the Mastodon and the Buffalo Roam

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Courtesy Library of Congress


It's hard to imagine a beast more American than the American bison. Consider our past 300 years together:

  • 1700s: Millions of these one-ton ungulates roam North America; their annual migrations dictate the lives of many Plains Indian tribes.
  • 1800s: Expansion by white settlers causes bison habitat destruction; and commercial trading leads to over-hunting of the animal
  • 1820s: Bison are driven to extinction east of the Mississippi
  • 1832: Celebrated western artist George Catlin predicts continent-wide extinction of American bison
  • 1889: A North American survey counts 1,091 bison
  • 1915: Four bison preserves established
  • 1960s: Commercial bison ranching begins
  • 1995: Over 300,000 bison live in ranches and ranges throughout North America
  • 2011: 60,000 bison processed for American consumption

Today, nearly 400,000 bison roam the ranges and ranches of North America.

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Courtesy Library of Congress


Long before horses and Winchesters, bison shared an ancient and intertwined history with North America's human inhabitants. Last June, Time Team America learned just how deep those roots run when we visited Badger Hole bison kill site in Northwest Oklahoma. The bones we investigated were not only much bigger than those of modern bison, they were 10,000 years older.

IMG_2807_web.jpgThe bones belonged to bison antiquus - the ancient bison. They were 30 percent larger and carried a pair of horns that measured 3 feet from tip to tip.

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Much like their descendants, these bison thrived in North America. For over 10,000 years they were the most common large herbivore in the western hemisphere.

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All Rights Reserved, Bailey Archive, Denver Museum of Nature & Science


Despite their daunting size, bison antiquus were still hunted by humans. By studying bone beds like Badger Hole we know that Paleoindians developed sophisticated strategies to herd, trap, kill and slaughter these animals. Spearheads and projectile points found amongst the bones of bison antiquus suggest that Folsom people were heavily dependent on the bison antiquus for their survival.

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Were it not for these bison kill sites archaeologists would know far less about the Folsom people who left little evidence of their existence beyond their hunting technology. Thus, discovering bison history reveals human history.

Even the earliest known art object ever found in North America was painted on the skull of a bison (read about the Cooper Skull).

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If we reach further back, before the earliest known human forays into North America, we encounter what might be the king of the mega-bison. Meet bison latifrons.

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This titan was twice the size of the modern bison, standing eight feet at the shoulder, weighing more than a car, and stretching a six-foot horn-span. Herds are thought to have traversed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia to Alaska, where they populated all of North America.

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All Rights Reserved, Bailey Archive, Denver Museum of Nature & Science
 
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All Rights Reserved, Bailey Archive, Denver Museum of Nature & Science


As the climate changed, so did the predators, and the bison evolved in order to survive. Whereas bison latifrons fended off saber-toothed cats with their mass and their weapon-like horns, bison antiquus found flight rather than fight a better strategy against packs of gray wolves. Over time the bison's body became more compact to run faster, and their horns became less necessary for battle - so they shrunk accordingly.

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University of California Museum of Paleontology


From stone projectile points found in bison bone beds, to the oldest known cave paintings discovered in Spain, the connection between bison and human histories is ancient. As early as 20,000 years ago, the first modern humans in Europe were painting images of bison on the walls of their caves.  

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The paintings at Cave Altimira not only tell us a story about the past, they have even been said to have influenced such modern artists like Picasso. Few other creatures have affected as many generations of humans as the bison.  

The American bison may be smaller than its ancestors, but certainly no less significant. Their resilience in the face of near extinction is an opportunity for modern Americans to reconnect with the bison. By learning about their history we not only gain an appreciation for the animal, we learn about our own human ancestors and our deep rooted connection with the bison.

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