Long before the arrival of the horse to North America, native people had no choice but to hunt bison on foot. One strategy was stampeding these massive animals over cliffs so they would fall to their deaths. This type of communal hunting required the cooperation of many people and favorable conditions. After locating a cliff or steep slope, the people needed to prepare drivelines in order to funnel the bison toward the unseen cliff ahead. Planning had to be meticulous, and herding the animals was very dangerous, but the rewards could be great. One successful bison jump could provide food, clothing, and shelter to the people for a whole year.
On September 22, 2011, Wind Cave National Park acquired over 5000 acres of land containing a prominent landmark long thought to be a bison jump. But was it? What really happened here thousands of years ago? And did those early people leave any clues behind to tell us their story?
The modern science of archeology is well suited to addressing these questions and can perhaps lead us to the answers. Archeological research helps us peel back the layers of time and reveal stories from the past. It is a scientific method of exploring the world around us and a tool that can be used to understand the lives of people who came before us.
In August of 2012, a team of National Park Service Archeologists from the Midwest Archeological Center spent three weeks investigating this newly acquired land looking for evidence of prehistoric use. The team used multiple methods to collect data that would help them interpret how the land was used.
The archeologists began the project with a pedestrian inventory; this involves walking across the landscape using a keen eye to identify features and artifacts, such as scrappers and arrowheads, visible on the surface. To get an understanding of what lay hidden below the surface a magnetometer was used by the team to peer into the earth searching for anomalies without actually having to disturb the area.
Another method the archeologists used to investigate the site was excavating several small holes as well as two larger trenches. Exposing the subsurface provided a rare opportunity to recover bison bones and other artifacts in situ. The locations of these items were carefully recorded. The bones will provide archeologists with an accurate of date when they were deposited and narrow down the range of years the site was used by humans.
During the time spent on -site, the archeologists discovered and unearthed a variety of artifacts. They not only use artifacts to understand the story, but the location where objects are found are also of great importance. Together this information provides a clearer story of what happened – The artifacts alone only tell part of the story. This is one of the reasons it is so important to not pick up or move these valuable clues.
Using all these methods, the archeologists are now able to piece together a story of this ancient landscape. Evidence suggests this land was used for over four thousand years as a multicomponent location with a variety of activities taking place such as ceremonial events, food processing, and communal hunting.
Evidence collected by the archeologists such as the identification of prominent drivelines and an abundance of hide scrappers, that would be used to process a mass killing, suggest the site possess characteristics of a bison jump. Yet many mysteries remain; we may never know how often this site was used, but our archeological investigations have helped interpret the stories of this place. As we stand on this land, we can let our new scientific knowledge mingle with our imaginations and picture what this place once would have been like. Lines of hunters, thundering bison hooves, a leap into the abyss… of what is now Wind Cave National Park.