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  • Ian Thompson

Face-to-Face with an Ancestor

There is something therapeutic about being around buffalo. In the middle of a week spent on a dead run, it is healing to stand there for an hour or so as the stock tank slowly fills and get to watch and listen to our little herd graze. With the length of time that the bison has lived on this continent, the broad geographic range that it has inhabited, and the impacts that it has had, there is no denying that is animal is an integral part of this land. As the tank continues to fill, my mind sometimes moves to thinking about the things that the bison species has seen. It has seen the landscapes of the North American continent before they were touched by human feet. It's DNA remembers what the Ice Age felt like. It has witnessed hundreds of generations of colorful Native American societies that flourished within bison country. Before the tank is completely filled, my mind sometimes drifts to wondering- having lived over such a big part of the American landscape for so long - what unique events, what bizarre occurrences, and what beautiful scenes has the bison seen that we have not?

We make it a point to keep the interesting things that we get to do in our jobs for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma separate from what we write about in this blog. A few weeks ago, I got to attend a meeting at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska. I was not there as a part of my regular job, but on assignment from the Smithsonian. During breaks, I perused some fascinating exhibits about life in the north country. Making the corner around a giant, stuffed grizzly bear, I unexpectedly found myself standing right in front of Blue Babe (title image). I had seen photos of this impressive creature before, but to suddenly be standing right in front of him was a bit of a spiritual experience. Blue Babe is a bison that was brought down by an American lion during the Ice Age some 36,000 years ago, and then almost immediately frozen into the Alaskan permafrost. He did not see the light of day again until the 1970s, when he was uncovered almost perfectly preserved (minus his wool) and brought to the museum. Encountering Blue Babe, I was face-to-face with an ancestor of our own bison, and I got to see for myself a flashing glimpse from that deep story of the bison and the land.

That night at the hotel, I put together a little history of the American bison, in order to help get the story straight in my own mind. I'm sharing it below, for our bison enthusiast readers who may have sometimes wondered along the same lines.

The ancestors of bison and cattle parted ways in Southeast Asia around 1.3 million years ago. After that, the development of bison is a story of connections through ice-free corridors and separations caused by glaciers, all on a background of adapting to the changing climate of the Pleistocene (a period of alternating ice ages and warm interglacials). Paleontologists have named several different species of ancient bison from the measurements of their bones and from the places that they lived. Understanding these species is one key to understanding the bison's deep story. Blue Babe is what is known as a Steppe Bison (Bison Priscus). This is the first-known form of bison to set foot in North America. It arrived here from Siberia between 190,000 and 130,000 years ago. These animals were about the same size as modern bison, but some of them had longer horns. Bison Priscus lived in a cold, dry, grassy steppe environment, along with other Ice Age animals like the woolly mammoth. When the climate was favorable, Bison Priscus spread southward into central North America. As the climate grew colder and glacial ice sheets in Canada expanded, a southern herd became separated from their northern relatives. The bison in the south changed with their local environment. They adapted to living in wooded areas. They grew larger, reaching weights of 4,000 pounds and measuring six feet between the horn tips! Paleontologists call this species Bison latifrons. By around 21,000 years ago, Bison latifrons had morphed into a newer form, Bison antiquus. Although smaller than its predecessor, Bison antiquus was still much larger than today's bison. After 18,000 years ago, the climate began warming again, shrinking the Canadian glaciers and allowing Bison antiquus to begin expanding its range to the north. It seems to have never made it as far north as the Arctic, where the Steppe Bison, Bison Priscus continued to thrive. An archaeological site in western Oklahoma contains the bones of a small Bison antiquus herd that was trapped in a ravine, killed by atlatl darts tipped with Clovis points, and butchered around 13,000 years ago. The tradition of bison hunting would continue on the Plains ever after. Around 12,000 years ago, as the climate really began to warm, a massive extinction event occurred, that saw the disappearance of the mammoth and nearly all of the large Ice Age animals in the northern hemisphere. One of the few survivors was the bison, which continued to shrink its physical frame in response to the type of plants provided by a warming climate. Around 10,000 BP, Bison antiquus gave rise to the smaller Bison occidentalis. This animal was essentially a larger form of today's bison, that lived in Japan and the central United States until around 5,000 years ago. Although Bison Priscus (Blue Babe's species) had long thrived in the Arctic, a region that continued to mirror Ice Age conditions, it eventually went extinct around 5,500 years ago. Today, its DNA lives on in the the musk ox and in the modern bison.

Two subspecies of modern bison developed in North America: the Plains Bison on the Great Plains, and the Wood Bison (a larger and darker-colored creature) in northern Canada and central Alaska. When Europeans arrived in the Americas, they introduced horrific diseases that claimed the lives of about 90% of this continent's Native American inhabitants. Bison herds that had largely been confined to the Great Plains and far north suddenly saw human hunting pressure evaporate, and expanded their range all the way to the east coast during the 1600s and early 1700s. As colonial populations grew, this trend was reversed. By 1800, over-hunting had exterminated all bison east of the Mississippi river, and by 1889, just 89 animals were left in the wild. Over the past 130 years, efforts by Native Americans, conservationists, and ranchers have seen the total bison population rebound to about 400,000 animals. Today, when you look into the eyes of one of these animals, you are looking into the history and character of this land; you are seeing a story of survival.

* Above images from Atlas Obscura and All About Bison.

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