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Feature Article

Bison Kill At Owl Cave

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, were found. 

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 Cave.

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 archaeological record. 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 human behavior.

Butler, Robert
   1968 - An Introduction To Archaeological Investigations In The Pioneer Basin Localty of Eastern Idaho. Tebiwa.

Plew. Mark
  2000 - The Archaeology of the Snake River Plain.