Burnet County bison skeleton might reveal ancient history

CONNIE SWINNEY • PICAYUNE STAFF

Bruce Turner of Austin was part of the archeological dig crew that excavated bison bones for two weeks in May in a Burnet County creek. The bones are expected to be tested using a radio-carbon dating procedure to determine whether the creature might be several hundred or several thousand years old. Courtesy photos

Bruce Turner of Austin was part of the archeological dig crew that excavated bison bones for two weeks in May in a Burnet County creek. The bones are expected to be tested using a radio-carbon dating procedure to determine whether the creature might be several hundred or several thousand years old. Courtesy photos

BRIGGS — The recent excavation of a nearly intact skeleton of a rare bison, steeped in Native American folklore, could unlock a few secrets surrounding its behavior and habitat.

Crews uncovered the skeleton, missing its hind quarters but in “very good condition,” on a swath of a riverbank on Rocky Creek during a two-week period in May.

“There’s a time period where we don’t see bison bones at Indian camps. They were real common about 3,000 years ago then absent for several hundred years, and then about 800 years ago, they show up again in archeological records,” said David Calame, an avocational archeologist. “It’s the first complete bison I’ve excavated. We usually excavate Native American occupation sites. You usually find refuse what’s left over after they’ve eaten it and tools.”

Calame’s crew launched into the excavation soon after the property owner, who found a bone while fishing, took a sample to the University of Texas at Austin. A team analyzed and identified the specimen as a “bison.”

“On the great plains, it was the number one important source of food for the Indians, but in South Texas, it wasn’t a reliable source because it wasn’t here all the time. Deer was a bigger focus,” Calame said. “(Bison) were almost driven to extinction. We know bison were here, but we don’t know how far back.”

As the dig site progressed, a story began to unfold for the archeological crew.

“It was in very good condition like it laid down and died right there,” Calame said. “The hind legs were missing. The Indians could have killed it and took the hind quarter, or the creek could have eroded it away. The bones were not scattered as though predators or scavengers got to it.”

Avocational archeologists uncovered a nearly intact skeleton of a rare bison, which is being tested to determine how old it is, on a creek in northern Burnet County in May.

Avocational archeologists uncovered a nearly intact skeleton of a rare bison, which is being tested to determine how old it is, on a creek in northern Burnet County in May.

The team delivered some of the bones to the University of Texas at San Antonio for radiocarbon dating analysis to try to determine how long ago the animal lived in this area. Those tests could take about a year.

Calame shared other bones with a fellow researcher.

“We did find five small flint flakes in the body cavity,” he said. “They were typical of what would be left over when you were sharpening a blade. We sent the bones to another avocational archeologist in North Texas to examine them for butcher marks.”

The research as well as the radio-carbon dating results could offer insight into a way of life that pre-dates colonization.

“When you find a bison, it’s a chance it was killed by the Indians,” Calame said. “If it’s an extinct bison, that makes it pretty old. It could be 6,000 years old or, like modern bison, about 300 years old. They were always up on the High Plains but not down south; if we were in a drought period, the bison wouldn’t be here. This could mean conditions were favorable (here) for bison.”

connie@thepicayune.com

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