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The Itasca Bison Kill Site         
Site Number(s):   21CE1  
County:   Clearwater, MN  
City Township:   Unorganized Territory  
Image Archive:    (big thumbnails)     (medium)     (small)       


 
The valley of Nicollet Creek holds the most carefully studied Archaic site in Minnesota and tantalizing details about the life and the environment of people who hunted there between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago.

 
 



Itasca Bison Kill location map
Nicollet Creek is one of several inlets feeding Lake Itasca, source of the Mississippi River.


Map showing site
Location of the Itasca Bison Kill site.

 
 




Preliminary Investigation


In 1937, road crews constructing a bridge over the creek in Itasca State Park reported finding large bison bones and artifacts. Archaeologists from the University of Minnesota conducted excavations and recovered cultural remains along with more than 2,000 animal bones.

 
 



Modern and extinct bison skulls
Horns and skull of Bison Occidentalis (lower), recovered from the bed of Nicollet Creek.



These included white-tailed deer, wolf, fish, turtle, and bird in addition to bison. Measurements taken from the bison indicated that they were Bison Occidentalis, an extinct species, often known as "Giant Bison."

 
 



Although the association of humans with the remains of ancient bison raised interesting questions, there was no further investigation for more than 25 years. At last, in 1963 University archaeologists under the direction of Professor Elden Johnson returned to the site and dug several small test units to identify the areas that might contain important artifacts. No formal licensing was required at that time, and the next year they began large-scale excavations that lasted through the 1965 season.


Research Design


Research at the Itasca site was advanced for its time in that the first questions asked concerned climate and environment:

  • What were these like when Archaic people hunted giant bison there?
  • How has the place changed over time?
Further questions followed naturally:

  • Why did the people choose this place to hunt?
  • What weapons and tools did they have?
  • Were resources other than bison available?
  • If so, did people use them?
  • When did Archaic hunters visit the site and how long did they stay?

Excavation and Data Collection


In order to assure that the new excavations were comparable to the 1937 excavations, a survey grid was set up using the same datum or starting point that was established in 1937. The first trench to be excavated was roughly parallel to that of the earlier excavations.

 
 



Site map
As shown here, the site included two locations, one in the creek bed and a smaller area on a nearby hill.


Bog excavation map
Bog areas of excavation in 1937, 1963, 1964, and 1965.

 
 



Since the water table was just below the surface, a backhoe was used to remove the three feet of peat that covered the silt deposits in which most of the cultural data were found. Small canals were then dug that could channel the seeping water into a central area so that it could be pumped away. Some shoring of the trench walls was also necessary due to seeping water.


Backhoe removing peat layer
Backhoe removing upper peat layer.

 
 



Trench looking east in 1964
Main trench, looking east across the valley early in the 1964 season.


As excavation proceeded the stratigraphy (soil layers) of the valley was mapped, samples of buried wood were taken for radiocarbon dating, and pollen samples were collected from each layer so that changes in vegetation could be charted. Mollusks (snails and clams) were noted in order to track changes in the creek channel since its formation by glaciers more than 12,000 years ago.

 
 



Main trench looking west in 1964
Main trench, looking west late in the 1964 season.


Main trench looking west in 1965
Main trench, view to the east from the base of the western slope, 1965.

 
 






Bone recovered from all the excavations at Itasca totaled over 9,000 pieces, of which about two-thirds were bison. Muskrat, beaver, deer, wolf, a variety of smaller mammals, fish, and turtles were found, and there was also a domestic dog.


Partial dog skull in situ
This partial dog skull was found on the eastern side of the valley. A nearby pollen sample dated to about 7,000 years ago.


 
 



Excavation at the hilltop campsite
Excavations at the hilltop campsite.


Most of the artifacts recovered were from a small campsite on higher ground to the northwest of the valley. Similarity of artifact types and raw materials indicated that the camp was occupied by the same people who hunted along the creek.

 
 



 
 



During the 1965 season researchers excavated a total of 74 square meters on the hilltop and found approximately 2,000 artifacts. Among them were several flat stones that probably served as anvils or grinding stones, along with projectile points, knives, scrapers, choppers, hammerstones, and a great variety of flakes and fragments left from tool-making.


Map of the hilltop excavations
Hill excavations at the Itasca Bison Kill site.

 
 



Analyzing the Data


Analysis of the bones indicated that the majority of bison killed at the site were young nonpregnant females without newborn calves. Among modern bison, females and immature males group up away from the bulls in the fall months after the rutting season has ended and until giving birth in the spring.

 
 



The bones represented at least 16 animals, but only three skulls were found. One possible reason is that Archaic hunters, like historic Indians, used the brains for food as well as for tanning fresh hides. Many of the jaws showed cut marks or fractures where they had been separated from the skull in order to more easily remove the tongue. This also was considered a delicacy by historic Indians.


Bone concentration at the west end of the main trench
Bone concentration at the west end of the main trench.

 
 



Bison scapula
Cut bison scapula found in bone concentration at the west end of the main trench.



Cut marks were found on many of the bones, showing where meat was stripped away. The vertebrae and ribs were some of the more well represented bones at the site, and cut marks indicate that meat was taken from them on the spot. The back legs, however, were often removed, either by chopping off the bone just below the femur head or by cutting the ligaments around the head.

 
 



Bones of other animals were few and scattered, suggesting that the hunters concentrated almost entirely on bison at this place. They appear, however, to have eaten some of the abundant fish and turtle available. Clusters of fish bone and turtle shell were found at the site. There is also evidence that they collected acorns and hazelnuts, and probably berries in the woods nearby.

The dog skull was analyzed and compared with dog remains found at other early sites. There were no butchering marks, and it was found away from the camp, among bison and other bones. Archaic bands like the people at Itasca may have used dogs for food, but more often they seem to have kept them as hunting companions.

 
 




The stone tools were notable for the wide variety of materials used. Most of these can be found locally in glacial deposits, but two types (Tongue River silica and brown chalcedony, similar to Knife River flint) must have been brought or traded from areas now in South and North Dakota.


Large tool and hammerstone
Large tool and hammerstone from the hill. Lines indicate worn area.

 
 



 
 



Side-notched points
Twelve projectile points were found at the campsite and four in the creek valley. Most were small side-notched points like those shown here.



The makers tended to use different kinds of stone for different tools. While projectile points and scrapers were fashioned from seven or eight materials, knives were made almost entirely of rhyolite (also called argillite).

 
 



The side-notched and corner-notched projectile points had little in their style to distinguish them from points of much later periods in the same region, while many of the larger cutting tools seemed hurriedly finished, as though needed immediately for butchering game.


Conclusions and Interpretation


Archaeologists believe that bands of Archaic hunters visited the valley of Nicollet Creek a number of times over a period of more than 1,000 years. The groups appear to have been small -- perhaps no more than one or two extended families. They had dogs, which may have been used for pulling loads as well as for hunting and were probably eaten in times of need.

The climate in that period was warmer and drier than now, and the country to the west was largely grassland. They came in the fall, knowing that bison would be crossing on their way to sheltered wintering grounds in partly wooded areas to the east. Trapped in the streambed, which was soft and boggy even then, the animals could be easily killed.

The hunters camped on the hilltop, where they watched for bison and fashioned new weapons and tools. After the hunt, they cut apart the huge carcasses in the valley and carried meat and hides up the hill for immediate processing -- smoking and drying the meat, scraping and tanning the hides. No doubt there was feasting and celebration of the hunt, along with preparations for the coming winter. Then they moved on. We know they did not stay long, since there is little evidence of other activities than those associated with the bison kill.

 
 


 

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Updated 27 Jun 1999