Bison Exploitation in the Wyoming Basin at the Middle/Late Holocene Transition: A View from the Graham Ranch Site

By Smith, Craig S.; Byers, David A. et al. | Plains Anthropologist, August 2008 | Go to article overview

Bison Exploitation in the Wyoming Basin at the Middle/Late Holocene Transition: A View from the Graham Ranch Site


Smith, Craig S., Byers, David A., Craven, Cynthia D., Plains Anthropologist


Wyoming Basin archaeofaunas dating to the Middle/Late Holocene transition typically lack bison remains and instead suggest a focus on a wide range of smaller prey species. Excavations along the Sweetwater River at the Graham Ranch site produced an extensive assemblage of highly fragmented bison bones representing the remains of at least two bison that were intensively processed for meat, marrow, and grease. We use a patch use model, in combination with data from 49 Wyoming Basin archaeofaunas to explore the reasons why ancient butchers might expend the effort to extract hard to obtain within-bone nutrients. Our study suggests that prey abundance, possibly linked to climate driven trends in forage communities, may have been one factor that conditioned processing decisions across the Holocene in the Wyoming Basin.

Keywords: bison, Wyoming Basin, bone grease processing, Marginal Value Theorem

Bison (Bison bison) kills on the northwestern and northern Plains have received considerable interest over the years (Fawcett 1987; Frison 1978, 1991; Reeves 1990; Reher and Frison 1980). These spectacular sites often consist of bonebeds resulting from large communal hunts that in some cases included hundreds of individual animals and employed a range of procurement techniques that included arroyo traps, cliff jumps, sand dune traps, and corrals. In many cases, these sites represent single hunting episodes, while in some others, such as the Vore site (Reher and Frison 1980:55), topographic features favorable for the mass procurement of bison were reused repeatedly over extended periods. However, though dramatic, fascinating and highly visible parts of the archaeological landscape, large, multi-animal bison kills represent less than one percent of the total known archaeological record on the northwestern Plains (Fawcett 1987:53).

Compared to the Plains, the mass procurement of bison was even less common in the drier, sagebrush-covered intermountain Wyoming Basin of Wyoming. Only six bison kill/processing sites suggestive of mass procurement are known for this large area, with most dating to about 1,000 years ago and containing the remains of much fewer bison than similar Great Plains sites to the east. The earliest mass bison kill known from the Wyoming Basin is the Cody complex Finley site that dates to about 9,000 years ago (Moss et al. 1951). Here, at least 59 bison were killed in at least one mass procurement episode (Frison 1991). The Scoggin site, a bison jump and corral trap dating to about 4,500 years ago, is the only other substantial kill site dating prior to 1,000 years ago (Lobdell 1973). In this case, two separate mass procurement events are represented in the sites deposits. The remaining kill sites date to about 1,000 years ago. The largest of these later sites is the Wardell site. Located in the upper Green River Basin, it consists of an extensive bison corral that contained the remains of at least 150 bison (Frison 1973). At a smaller scale, the Barnes site is a small bison jump containing the remains of at least 18 bison located in the Green River Basin (McKem 1995). The Inman Buffalo site in the Washakie Basin in south-central Wyoming yielded bone from at least five individuals (Latady et al. 1996). The Bessie Bottom site, located in the Overthrust Belt just west of the Green River Basin, is the smallest of the Wyoming Basin bison kill/processing sites, containing the remains of at least four individuals (McKern 1988).

In the Wyoming Basin, bison appear to have not played the same highly visible role in the diet as they did on the Plains to the east. Instead, bison were typically just one of a wide range of species, including pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), lagomorphs, and other small animals, that constituted a seemingly broad human diet (Byers et al. 2005, Lubinski 1997, 2000; Smith and McNees 2000). Most sites contain only small quantities of highly fragmented bone and small mammal remains are common components of faunal assemblages. …

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