NATURE NOTES:
With Buried Bison Bones, Excavating the Insights of Prehistoric Hunters

A vivid image leaps to mind when we imagine traditional Native American life in the West: the bison hunt. We’re told the iconic creatures were both revered and relied upon – that every part of the animal was put to use. We might even think Native Americans on the West Texas plains subsisted exclusively on bison meat.

But what do we truly know about Indigenous bison hunting here? Four decades ago, archeologist John Speth unearthed bones from a series of prehistoric bison kills on the Southern Plains. What he found defied expectations – and opened a window on to the traditional ecological knowledge of our region’s first people. 

Speth was a new faculty member at the University of Michigan – where he’s now emeritus professor – when he began excavating the Garnsey Bison Kill, east of Roswell, New Mexico, in 1977. 

“Now, you have to bear in mind that I’d never worked with bones,” Speth said. “So I didn’t know the difference between a cow and a buffalo, or a humerus and a hole in the ground, basically. But I went and looked at it.”

Speth’s training had focused on the Ice Age stone tools of the Near East, and he thought the bison kills at Garnsey might be the work of Paleolithic hunters. But he soon learned the bones were much more recent.

From Texas to Kansas, the Southern Plains were home to tens of millions of bison in the mid 19th Century, when white settlement began. But the presence of bison had waxed and waned with climate during the preceding millennia. Bison essentially forsook the Southern Plains about 1,500 years ago. They returned, in numbers, some 700 years later. 

The Garnsey bison kills reflect that most recent “presence period.” From an arroyo near the Pecos River, Speth and his crew unearthed the remains of 35 bison, killed in a half dozen hunts, at around 1450 CE.

Speth spent a year cataloging the bones. He determined each animal’s sex. With the help of a veteran “zooarcheologist,” he used the bisons’ teeth to identify their age and season of death. And he pored over the scientific literature.

The pathbreaking research had been done on the Northern Plains, in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, by scholars George Frison and Joe Ben Wheat (the latter of whom was raised in Van Horn and attended Sul Ross State University). They found that hunters had pursued bison in fall or early winter, and had almost exclusively targeted bison cows, rather than bulls.

That wasn’t the case at Garnsey.

“Well, Garnsey was weird,” Speth said, “because it was spring, and it was mostly bulls, not cows. I had no idea why, and that’s the way my whole career has gone – I find something counterintuitive and then chew on it.”

There was another curiosity at Garnsey – the hunters had left meat behind. Joe Ben Wheat found something similar at an ancient site in Colorado, and speculated that there had been more bison meat than hunters could carry. But Speth was skeptical of that conclusion.

He found a clue in an unlikely source – the journals of Lewis and Clark. One passage described the explorers killing a number of bison and elk – but abandoning the animals, as “too lean for use.” Speth dug into other accounts of exploration and ethnography – and found similar descriptions, of a phenomenon called “rabbit starvation.” 

In these accounts, explorers who had exhausted their supplies came to rely on rabbits, or other comparably lean meat. Within weeks, they lost energy, developed diarrhea and, in some cases, died. The men starved, even as they ate 4 or 5 lbs of meat each a day.

Speth asked nutritional experts about this apparent “protein poisoning.”

“And I was told, ‘That’s all nonsense,’” Speth said. “And I said, ‘I have hundreds of these accounts.’ And they said, ‘Well, they just didn’t know what they were talking about.’ I found that very frustrating.” 

Yet in the ensuing years, nutritional science caught up with these ethnographic accounts. Scientists now know here’s a limit to the amount of protein our bodies can metabolize – about 300 grams a day. Beyond that, the results are toxic. 

Lean steak might be prized today. But as a diet, it’s untenable. For traditional hunting societies, that was common knowledge, Speth said.

“You’re always going to have a caloric deficit if you rely on muscle meat,” he said, “which explains why at least northern peoples, like Eskimos and Athabaskans and northern Algonquians, call it either ‘white man’s food’ or ‘dog food.’ One solution to it is you keep killing, but just for the fat.”

Speth sees this nutritional understanding in traditional recipes for pemmican – the dried-meat product that was a prehistoric staple across North America. Native people added rendered fat to lean meat – so the mix was two-thirds fat. The meat might be smoked, but it wasn’t cooked – meaning it retained its Vitamin C. A person could live off pemmican – scurvy-free – indefinitely. 

With the “rabbit starvation” perspective, the Garnsey findings came into focus. The animals these prehistoric hunters targeted, and what they took and what they left behind, reflected vital nutritional insights, Speth said.

The hunts had taken place in spring – when female bison are pregnant or nursing, and hence depleted. The Garnsey hunters had targeted the more fat-rich bulls. 

“What I hypothesized was these hunters were evaluating the fat levels in the carcasses,” Speth said. “Even though 30 percent or little more of their kill was female, the females were in poorer shape than the males. Those parts that were most likely to be fat-depleted in pregnant or nursing cows were the parts that were most abundant left on the kill.”

Leaving significant parts of a kill behind might seem like waste. To survive, bison hunters would have had to supplement their diet with plant foods, or killed bison for the fat alone. Indeed, in some cases, northern hunters were known to kill caribou, Speth said – solely for their fat-rich tongues. 

Of course, it doesn’t compare to the wanton slaughter of bison later for the fur trade. And for traditional hunters, Speth said, leaving meat to be eaten by wolves, eagles or ravens wasn’t waste. These creatures, like the bison itself, were kindred beings, that could benefit from the hunt’s success.

In our modern industrial world, it’s possible to imagine the lives of prehistoric people as straightforward or simple. But the Garnsey Bison Kill reminds us that for our region’s ancient hunters, survival required a deeply rooted understanding of the animals they pursued, and of the needs of the human body.

photograph courtesy of John Speth. Archeologist John Speth at the Garnsey Bison Kill site, on the plains east of the Pecos River, in 2016.