Mystery solved: Scientists reconstruct 10,300-year-old bison hunt

A team of archaeologists led by Rolfe Mandel from the University of Kansas has reconstructed what happened on a Kansas bison hunt by Paleoindians on a day in Stanton County, Kan., 10,300 years ago.
A team of archaeologists led by Rolfe Mandel from the University of Kansas has reconstructed what happened on a Kansas bison hunt by Paleoindians on a day in Stanton County, Kan., 10,300 years ago. File photo

In the summer of 2002 an archaeology team dug out a portion of Bear Creek in Stanton County and found bones and a mystery buried under a few feet of gray soil.

Rolfe Mandel is a geoarchaeologist from the University of Kansas who’s long been one of the leading explorers hunting evidence of Paleoindians, the ancient ancestors of Native Americans.

But what he first uncovered when he and a team of other archaeologists started digging holes along the dirt bank here was a thick bed of white bone stretching 40 yards — nearly half the length of a football field — the skeletons all bunched up, shoulder to shoulder, all 10,300 years old.

What he found was more than a great story, Mandel said.

It is a window in time — and an ancient testament to human daring.

How did they do it?

We used to learn in school that Kansas history started with John Brown and the Civil War and railroads 150 years ago.

But the age of this site, in far western Kansas a short drive from the Colorado border, predates most of the invention of agriculture.

It’s so old that at 103 centuries ago, the bow and arrow hadn’t been invented yet. The hunters killed the bison from not much more than arm’s length.

Attacking that herd was incredibly dangerous, but that’s what those hunters did.

And there’s more:

The hunters who killed these beasts might have worked in an ambush team that included their own family members.

Shoulder to shoulder

How did a small band of hunters sneak up on and attack a big herd of skittish bison on a flat plain where modern-day bird hunters can see five to 10 miles in any direction?

The Paleoindians who hunted bison back then were hunter-gatherers, said University of Kansas anthropologist Jack Hofman. They lived, hunted and gathered mostly in small bands, including families, 10 to 20, maybe 30 people tops, including grandmas and kids.

Living in a band bigger than that stretched scarce firewood and food, so hunter-gatherers kept their bands small.

But it’s not a surprise that a little band pulled off a big slaughter, Hofman said.

They did what they were compelled to do.

They followed bison herds on foot, and walked hundreds of miles every year.

They likely looked lean, fit, and weather-beaten — men, women, grandparents and children.

How did they sneak up on a bison herd in the open and slaughter it at a prodigious rate?

Mandel and Hofman say the most telling thing was how the bison at the Stanton County site were found shoulder to shoulder, in a line next to the dirt bank — 50 yards west of an alfalfa-covered depression in the ground. That depression, called a playa, is a common natural feature in western Kansas. Playas are often carved by the wind, but then fill with water.

Water attracted bison.

A ‘turkey shoot’

Paleoindian hunters didn’t just wander around blindly, Hofman said. They crept up on the watering holes, where the bison and other game were.

And at the Stanton County site, the ancient hunters no doubt saw that the nearby dirt bank was a good ambush site.

What happened, Mandel said, was simple.

The hunting band crept up on the bison, from miles away.

They divided into two teams.

The spear-throwers, probably all men, hid in the grass and sagebrush 50 yards away along the rim of the steep dirt bank.

The hunters lay quiet, bundles of spears lying close at hand. They watched the other team, the drivers, creep out of gullies to the east. The drivers walked slowly toward the herd, forming a human half-ring.

The drivers would have walked slowly at first.

But as the beasts got nervous and edged west, the drivers charged, waving hides, bunching bison against the bank where the hunters hid.

This was the moment of fear. Bison can quickly become aggressive, and these bison were bigger than modern bison and could toss a man 10 feet in the air.

The shouts from the drivers in the ambush would have bunched the herd against the dirt bank, with their hooves stuck in rain-soaked mud. Mandel knows it was rain-soaked because many of the skeletons sat or lay upright, their legs scrunched underneath, as though their hooves were stuck in mud.

At the moment the herd bunched, trapped, the hunters leaped up, one hand holding extra spears, the other spear arm curling upward. They pitched volley after volley of spears into bison rib cages.

The attack lasted only minutes. The hunters almost certainly used atlatls, two-foot-long spear-throwing sticks. Atlatls are arm-extenders, turning even a noodle arm into a catapult; an atlatl spear can punch through a modern car door, let alone a rib cage.

“It was a turkey shoot, once they bunched the bison under that bluff,” Hofman said.

“They were really good.”

Follow the trajectory

Halfway through the 20-day excavation in 2002, one of the the diggers at the Stanton County site, scraping dirt between two bison skeletons, found a Dakota quartzite spear point, razor-sharp, embedded in what Mandel saw was the 10,300-year-old, ground-level next to the dirt bank.

What caught their attention was that the blade lay sharp-side-up, with the back end of the point sticking upward — as though the point had been shot into the earth.

With evidence like that, archaeologists do the same thing detectives do when they find a bullet embedded in a crime-scene floor: They traced the trajectory backward.

The back end of that spear point aimed up to the layer where that dirt bank rim once lay, where hunters once stood and hurled spears at the bison below.

When Mandel eyeballed the trajectory, and looked over his shoulder at the bank rim, it gave him chills.

Inch-worm, inch-worm

These people didn’t just wander around the prairie, Hofman said.

“Bison are so hard to hunt on foot that you probably need to specialize,” he said. “You don’t just live along a river gathering mussels, and one day pick up a sharp stick and hunt bison.

“You have to study herds, get to know their behavior and their landscape intimately, seasonally. You can’t keep up with bison. But you can scout the playas — and let the bison come to you.

“And if you hunt like that, you’d want to take your family. If you didn’t, you might never see them.”

So scouts went out in pairs, he said. The band stayed behind, near water and firewood.

“Think of the inch-worm,” Hofman said. “The inch-worm’s head goes out, the tail stays behind, then catches up. The scouts would scout for plants, animals and other people. They’d camp above a river or a playa. If they saw something, they’d go tell the band or light signal fires.”

After the kill, they feasted. They often went hungry.

Solitary bands

There are things Mandel and Hofman can guess, based on what they’ve learned about hunter-gatherer bands.

Did the Stanton County band create art, paint their faces, sing songs, tell campfire stories? All the ancients did that, with firelight flickering.

Did they worship? Yes. Probably a naturalist mythology: They saw themselves as small beings dependent on nature, rather than god-like beings entitled to subdue it.

After the hunt, they would smoke-dry the meat, scrape and tan hides, then pack their bags.

They probably had dogs, and strapped belongings on their backs. The kids probably played with the dogs.

They would travel back to the river valleys to meet other bands, swap information and court mates.

They were a great people, Hofman said. They slept in skin tents carried on their backs 10 to 20 miles a day. They told stories around campfires, studied the seasons, and pondered the stars, the sun and moon.

They embraced solitariness on a scale none of us know.

“You might encounter 500 people in Wichita in the course of one day,” Hofman said. “But the population was so sparse then that these people might not see 500 people in a lifetime.”

Were they lonely? Perhaps.

But on many days, Hofman said, so are we.

Roy Wenzl: 316-268-6219, @roywenzl