By Jonny Lupsha, Current Events Writer
An effort to remove bison from the Grand Canyon has drawn criticism. The animals trample resources and spoil the water, but fewer than 10 have been successfully hunted. Great Plains American Indians hunted bison for thousands of years.
In the Grand Canyon National Park, as many as 500 bison wander. An article in AP News says they “trample archaeological and other resources and [spoil] the water,” according to park officials. A recently enacted program to remove them with lethal force has received more criticism than results, as bison were once hunted to the brink of extinction but are no longer endangered.
Before the drastic reduction of bison in North America, many groups of American Indians hunted them in the Great Plains. In his video series Ancient Civilizations of North America, Dr. Edwin Barnhart, director of the Maya Exploration Center, detailed the time of the Great Plains bison hunters before they met the Europeans.
According to Dr. Barnhart, if one were to look at the time between the introduction of the bow and arrow in the mid-500s and European contact, the Great Plains can be split down the middle from north to south, archaeologically speaking.
“The western half was dry, unsuitable for farming, but covered in grass that bison loved to eat—the bison thrived there and so did the nomadic people who hunted them,” he said. “The eastern half had major rivers, forests, and fertile valleys where farming was possible, and semi-permanent villages developed.”
From an anthropological point of view, the Great Plains could be split into five broad areas. One such area was the Northwestern Plains, which he said ran from western Canada down along the eastern Rockies. This was nomadic bison hunting country, while most of the other areas utilized farming.
“Bison hunting along the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains was the way of life there for thousands and thousands of years,” Dr. Barnhart said. “In fact, it went on so long that it spanned bison evolution, from the giant Bison antiquus to their modern form.”
This case is best made at a site called Head-Smashed-In in Alberta, which was used for 5,500 years and in some places is 12 meters deep in bones.
Another Kind of Evolution
Over thousands of years, both hunters and the hunted evolved in their own ways. Dr. Barnhart said that bison jumps, in which a herd was basically driven off a cliff by a pack of hunters, was effective and also the oldest method of hunting. However, in the Middle Archaic period, which lasted from roughly 8,000 years ago to 5,000 years ago, some groups of American Indians began building corrals to trap herds and kill them with a kind of spear called an atlatl spear.
Both the Ruby Site and Muddy Creek in Wyoming, he said, offer examples where arroyos narrowed into canyons and corrals were made of thick logs that could stand up to stampedes.
“The next major change in bison hunting occurred at about 550 C.E. The bow and arrow arrived and was adapted very quickly,” Dr. Barnhart said.
Why would anyone trade an atlatl spear for a comparatively tinier arrow? According to Dr. Barnhart, there were many reasons.
“For one, arrows are smaller points, and it’s easier to find suitable stone to make them out of. Another reason is arrow shafts; they were easier to make than spears. Arrows also had a farther range, and were safer—they could shoot them from farther away. And more arrows fit in a single quiver.”
Finally, a hunter could shoot an arrow from any stance, unlike the specific stance needed by throwing a spear.
Maybe the current Grand Canyon bison hunters could take a lesson from the past?