Bison Kill At Owl
By George Scott
The authorities discovered Owl Cave just in time. Relic
hunters had been digging, but the damage was minimal,
and professional excavations began shortly thereafter.
The cave is part of the Wasden Site on the eastern Snake
River Plain. Located on a lava knoll, the site, named
after the property owner, Leonard Wasden, consists of
Owl, Coyote, and Dry Cat caves.
Owl Cave is not deep. It’s about twenty feet high
and fifty feet wide and forms an open cavity in the face
of a lava cliff. It had eight feet of fill which produced
an abundance of cultural material. A layer of volcanic
ash from western Oregon’s Mt. Mazama was encountered
about three feet below the surface. Mazama erupted 6,900
years ago and spread a large volume of ash across the
northwestern states. The ash is commonly used to
help date archaeological sites. The cave’s
most notable feature, a layer containing numerous bison bones, was
found about four feet below the ash. Known as the bone bed, its age
was further refined by radiocarbon dating of charcoal and bone, which
bracketed it between 7,750 and 8,160 years old. The accepted date was
rounded off to 8.000 BP.
On the basis of skull and horn-core analysis, the remains
were identified as Bison bison and Bison antiquus Bull,
cow, calf, and fetus remains were represented. The bones
bore numerous butcher marks. Small chips from butchering
tools lay against some of the bones. A projectile point
was found in one rib. Broken tips of points were embedded
in other ribs and in a shoulder blade.
Sixty-two artifacts were found altogether. Most were
broken points, which belong to the Piano series and closely
resemble Agate Basin points. They were named Owl Cave
points, with Wasden as the type area. They are described
as having convex blade edges with either straight or slightly
concave bases. Flaking is random to
parallel. Basal margins are ground and some are even polished. The
points are of medium size. and care should be taken in identification.
as they are very similar to the smaller Agate Basins. Geographically,
they are distributed across Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, and Wyoming. Dating
has placed them between 9,500 and 8,000 BP.
One artifact has been fashioned from
a bison nasal bone. One end was serrated to be used
as a flesher and the other
end was worn in the manner of a beamer. Interestingly,
no other butchering tools, such as knives or scrapers,
||Owl Cave point from bone
bed. 2—3/16 inches
in length. Basal margins polished. Dark gray chert,
possibly from limestone formation north of Owl
In assessing the accumulated data from Owl Cave as well
as other sites, researchers have been able to offer reconstructions
of the conditions and events that occurred at Owl Cave
8,000 years ago.
The climate, which had been cool and moist during Folsom
times, was becoming drier and warmer. Bison antiquus was
on its way to extinction and was being replaced with the
smaller Bison bison of today.
The cave is a natural trap into which the bison were
driven. In fact, there were two drives as demonstrated
by the presence of both fetal and calf remains. The calving
season of modern bison extends from the first of March
until the end of June. It is therefore believed that the
first kill occurred in late winter during the latter stages
of pregnancy and the second one was somewhat later after
calves were born. Perhaps thirty or more bison were harvested
in each drive. As the animals milled about in the mouth
of the cave, hunters thrust spears into their sides. The
slain animals were systematically cut apart. Limb and
foot bones were discarded into waste piles. Some bones
had been cracked, presumably to extract the marrow and
to obtain bone fragments as raw material for making tools.
The skulls had been detached from the bodies, and the
jaws were removed. Holes had been cut into some of the
skulls to remove the brains.
The preferred portions of flesh were transported elsewhere,
possibly to Coyote or Dry Cat caves, which have yet to
be fully excavated. It is interesting to note that, of
the 6,083 bones and bone fragments recovered from the
bed, only 60 were ribs. About 97% of the ribs had been
taken elsewhere. This seems puzzling, because they contain
little usable flesh as compared with other body parts.
A possible explanation may be found among the Nunamiut,
who keep caribou rib cages primarily because they are
so easily dried and preserved.
The interpretation of ancient events
depends largely upon the artifacts that appear in the
But much can sometimes be learned by what is not found.
The absence of knives and scrapers in the bone bed suggests
that the two kills did not occur as planned events. The
flesher/beamer was the only butchering tool that was found.
and it was made from the nasal bone of a bison that had
just been slain. The projectile points, although not ideal
for butchering, were apparently used as improvised butchering
tools. The two kills thus appear to have been “on
the spot” decisions to take advantage of the presence
of bison close enough to the cave to be trapped and killed.
At many archaeological sites, artifacts were often lost
or discarded away from the places they were primarily
used and therefore do not always give a clear picture
of the behavior of early peopole. Even a remarkable artifact,
as a projectile point embedded in a bone that was recovered
at a camping site, tells little of what happened on the
hunting trip. The record of the bison kill at Owl Cave
is especially significant in that it captures a moment
in time in which specific events are coupled with specific
1968 - An Introduction To Archaeological Investigations
In The Pioneer Basin Localty of Eastern Idaho. Tebiwa.
2000 - The Archaeology of the Snake River Plain.