University of Texas at Austin wordmarkCollege of Liberal Arts wordmark
Texas Beyond History
TBH Home

The Plunge of Death

Bonfire Mural by Nola Montgomery, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, original on display at Seminole Canyon State Park.
Bonfire mural by Nola Davis, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, original on display at Seminole Canyon State Park.

Click images to enlarge  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Indians who lived in buffalo country knew well the behavioral characteristics of their favorite prey.

Aerial photograph of Mile Canyon. The black arrow points to the spot where bison were driven over the cliff above Bonfire Shelter. Photo by Dave Dibble.
Aerial photograph of Mile Canyon. The black arrow points to the spot where bison were driven over the cliff above Bonfire Shelter. Photo by Dave Dibble.
Bonfire Shelter as seen from the cliff on the opposite side of the canyon. The huge rock blocks at the base of the cliff once formed the roof of a truly immense rockshelter, many times larger than the surviving part of Bonfire Shelter. The roof collapse occurred prior to the first known human use of the rockshelter sometime during the Late Pleistocene. Photo by Jack Skiles.
Bonfire Shelter as seen from the cliff on the opposite side of the canyon. The huge rock blocks at the base of the cliff once formed the roof of a truly immense rockshelter, many times larger than the surviving part of Bonfire Shelter. The roof collapse occurred prior to the first known human use of the rockshelter sometime during the Late Pleistocene. Photo by Jack Skiles.

What archeologists and others call a bison "jump" was, of course, not a jump at all. It was, at least from the buffalo's perspective, a terrifying plunge of death. Exactly how Native American hunters engineered the bison stampedes at Bonfire Shelter will never be known. Based on historical accounts of similar bison kills in the northern Great Plains, the Bonfire stampedes were probably carefully orchestrated events that depended on luck and skill in equal measure.

Bison are creatures of the grasslands that behave like wild cattle, their distant relatives. Gregarious by nature, bison stick together for protection from wolves and other predators like humans, forming herds that sometimes number in the thousands and stretch for miles. Bison herds typically move slowly as the heavy animals lumber along, grazing on grass as they go much like modern cattle. But when threatened or frightened, a bison herd can stampede, forming a thundering mass of panicking animals that moves as a single body. Once a stampede has begun, the herd sometimes travels for miles before exhaustion sets in or until the lead animals no longer perceive danger and gradually bring the herd to a halt.

The Indians who lived in buffalo country knew well the behavioral characteristics of their favorite prey. Many different hunting strategies were devised including stalking, surrounds, box canyon traps, and deep-snow quagmires. In the case of bison jumps, such as those evidenced at Bonfire Shelter, conditions had to be just right to take advantage of the bison's tendency to stampede.

The terrain around Bonfire Shelter is very rugged and deeply incised by canyons. Therefore, a bison jump could only be staged when bison were in the immediate area, probably in the flat uplands northeast of the site. Once a herd was spotted in the area, the hunters would have had to carefully follow a plan that depended on surprise and trickery. Bonfire Shelter must have been recognized as having the right combination of flat or rolling terrain ending in a steep and abrupt cliff. In fact, the cliff edge above Bonfire is not visible due to the sloping terrain until just before one reaches the edge. Even more important is the presence of a narrow, steep-sided erosional gully or "cleft" that runs perpendicular to the cliff face directly above Bonfire Shelter. This natural feature would have blocked a possible escape route and essentially funneled the bison off the cliff.

Having chosen this ideal spot, the hunters had to wait until a herd wandered into a narrow target zone in the rolling terrain upstream and uphill from the cliff above Bonfire Shelter. There, one group of hunters had to trigger a stampede, perhaps by using fire. For the scheme to work, the stampeding bison had to be heading in the general direction of the shelter. But how did they keep the herd from veering off the intended course? Historical accounts suggest that additional hunters (including their family members, women and children alike) would have erected brush or rock barricades, used fires, or waved blankets to divert the bison away from alternative routes and toward the cliff edge. The sudden appearance of people springing up from nowhere presumably gave the bison additional reason to panic.

If everything worked just right, the stampeding herd would follow the desired path and gallop over the rise and suddenly encounter the cliff. By then it was too late. The only possible escape route—along the cliff—was cut off by the steep-sided cleft. Bison can run as fast as 30-35 miles-per-hour. Even if the galloping heavy animals could have stopped in time, the momentum of the herd, most of whom followed the lead animals blindly, would have (and obviously did) propel many bison over the edge.

The plunge of death must have been a horrific sight to behold. In the space of a minute or less, dozens, or in some cases hundreds, of bison plummeted down the cliff. They fell about 75 feet and landed on the cone-shaped pile of rocks that occurs directly beneath the notch. Some of the animals rolled into the cave, others must have fallen down the outside of the talus cone down into the canyon floor. But most fell on top of one another. An adult male modern bison can weigh as much as a ton (2,240 pounds) and stands six feet high. The extinct bison species found at Bonfire Shelter was much larger, an adult male may have weighed 3,500 pounds and stood 7 1/2 feet high.

Typically, bison herds are led by the bigger bulls (males) in their prime, with younger bulls, cows (females) and calves following behind. This social structure may not have held up during a stampede, when the normal order of things broke down. But if big bulls were at the forefront of the Bonfire stampedes they would have had an additional factor working against them when they suddenly encountered the cliff edge and tried to stop. Male bison have most of their weight centered over their front legs, an arrangement which is useful when they lower their heads and charge other bulls during battles to establish pecking order and mating rights, but not so advantageous when trying to stop quickly from a dead run.

The fall alone must have killed many of the bison, but with so many, some must have survived the fall, crippled perhaps, but attempting to rise and bellowing in pain and terror. Hours may have passed before the last bison were dispatched as the successful hunters began the long process of butchering the bison, cutting up strips of meat to be dried, and picking the best hides for skinning.

One last thought on the plunge of death. The Native Americans who used the buffalo jump technique at Bonfire Shelter sometimes met with success on a far greater scale than they intended or needed. In Bone Bed 3 in particular, there is abundant evidence that far more animals were killed than could be used. In fact, the original analyst argued that Bone Bed 3 could represent a single event in which as many as 800 animals died. Others think it more likely that it represents several events, but even so these were massive kills. Partially or entirely articulated (fitted together) skeletons where found in the lower portions of Bone Bed 3. In other cases archeologists recognized that only the most desirable parts of the animals—especially the hindquarters—showed signs of butchering. In other words, a great deal of the bison meat and hides in the larger jump episodes went to waste.

The caricature of the noble savage, the idea that all pre-Columbian native peoples lived in perfect harmony with nature, just doesn't jibe with the evidence at Bonfire Shelter. Prehistoric bison hunters were sometimes wasteful and killed far more animals than they needed or used. But lest we get carried away with this point, successful bison jumps were probably rare, once-in-a-lifetime events. For at least 13,000 years after people arrived on the continent, bison continued to thrive on the Great Plains. The fact is that the immense bison herds of the Great Plains were almost completely decimated by the late 1800s because of indiscriminate hide hunters, most of whom were Anglos, who used rifles to kill thousands and thousands of bison for nothing more than their hides. Fortunately, the bison was saved from the brink of extinction and is today thriving once again on large ranches on the Great Plains, some owned and operated by Native Americans.


View of Mile Canyon looking downstream from Bonfire Shelter. Photo by Steve Black.
View of Mile Canyon looking downstream from Bonfire Shelter. Photo by Steve Black.
Aerial photograph of Bonfire Shelter and immediate surroundings. Photo by Dave Dibble.
Aerial photograph of Bonfire Shelter and immediate surroundings. Photo by Dave Dibble.

In the space of a minute or less, dozens, or in some cases hundreds, of bison plummeted down the cliff. They fell about 75 feet and landed on the cone-shaped pile of rocks that occurs directly beneath the notch.

 

 

This almost complete skeleton of a yearling bison calf was found in the lower part of Bone Bed 3. Apparently it was buried beneath other fallen bison carcasses and was never butchered. Photo by Dave Dibble.
This almost complete skeleton of a yearling bison calf was found in the lower part of Bone Bed 3. Apparently it was buried beneath other fallen bison carcasses and was never butchered. Photo by Dave Dibble.