The Ancient Secrets Hidden in 41,000 Bison Bones

Based on these patterns, it seems the Jones-Miller site contained remains from two kill events: one in spring and one in fall. Unfortunately, we cannot tell if those events occurred during the same or sequential calendar years, the same decade, or even the same century. Radiocarbon dating does not give enough precision.

Archaeologists can also determine how the animals were butchered by studying the patterning of cut marks on the bones. Moreover, at the Jones-Miller site, different bison parts rested in different spots: legs in one pile over here, ribs in another over there, and so on. The spatial distribution of these parts provided clues about how past people made use of the carcasses.

By any measure, butchering a single bison is a feat. Doing so tens or even hundreds of times is a colossal undertaking. Given the abundance of dead bison at the site, it appears the butchers were not terribly interested in conserving meat. On the contrary, based on cut mark patterns, they left some usable body parts behind. The question is why.

Perhaps they simply had an overabundance, more than they could consume. Or they might have intentionally left meat for their carnivore competitors such wolves and coyotes, with whom they shared a complex ecosystem. Indeed, abundant evidence of carnivore gnawing on many of the Jones-Miller bones helps archaeologists understand the complicated relationships between people, other animals, and the rest of the environment as the last ice age gave way to the more comfortable Holocene.

Wolves feast on a bison carcass; evidence at the Jones-Miller site in Colorado hints at the complicated relationships between prey and predators, including humans.
Wolves feast on a bison carcass; evidence at the Jones-Miller site in Colorado hints at the complicated relationships between prey and predators, including humans. Yellowstone National Park/Public Domain

The stone tools people made were beautiful, and beautifully efficient. Their spear points, which archaeologists now call Hell Gap points, tend to be long, slender, and symmetric. They can be resharpened many times if not lost or broken first.

To acquire the stones used to make these tools, people traveled far and wide. Based on distinctive qualities of the rocks, the raw materials came from sources scattered from northern Colorado to eastern Wyoming, from southern Nebraska into northern Kansas, and all the way to west Texas—an area covering nearly 600 miles north-south and 200 miles east-west.

While it is possible that this group traded for some of these materials, population density was likely so low that trade was probably rare. It would have been easier to simply go to the rock sources instead.

The answer to the 41,000–bison bone question is twofold. First, Stanford and his team did the right thing by completely excavating a site they knew was going to be destroyed. Second, by collecting and preserving a comprehensive suite of bones that represent entire herds, in addition to stone tools and other evidence of human activity, we can answer surprisingly detailed questions about happenings on the North American Great Plains 10 millennia ago.

Students document items uncovered at the Jones-Miller site.
Students document items uncovered at the Jones-Miller site. Courtesy Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Optimistically, a better understanding of herd dynamics and human-bison interactions in the past may help conservation biologists as they reintroduce modern species of these majestic beasts into the American West.

Robert Jones wanted the Jones-Miller site collection kept in Colorado, so DMNS loaned it to the Smithsonian for over four decades—not only so Stanford’s team could work on the materials, but also because DMNS lacked the necessary storage space.

In 2018, the Jones-Miller site materials returned to Colorado for installation in the museum’s recently built, state-of-the-art collections facility. In 2021, DMNS obtained a Save America’s Treasures Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to hire staff to catalog and rehouse the collection for the first time since it was excavated.

In the coming years, we will build on the Smithsonian team’s myriad efforts to study this remarkable collection—all 41,000 plus pieces.

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