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Folsom

THE COOPER SITE: FOLSOM BISON HUNTING ON THE SOUTHERN PLAINS

By Leland C. Bement

Following the extinction of some of the largest animals on the North American continent was the development of regional subsistence technologies. On the Great Plains arose the Folsom bison hunters. Generally dating to between 10,800 and 10,200 radiocarbon years ago, sites of this culture consist of bison kills, short term camps associated with kills, and repeatedly occupied larger camps. The Cooper site in northwest Oklahoma was the scene of three bison kill events within the confines of a single dead-end gully (Fig. 1). Known as an arroyo trap, bison were funneled into a steep-walled gully and then speared by hunters safely perched on the gully rim above the animals (Bement 1999). Only a portion of each kill was preserved in the gully remnant. Excavations uncovered a minimum of 20 animals in the lowest kill, 29 in the middle kill, and 29 in the upper kill. If each remnant represents 50% of the actual kill number, then each kill contained between 40 and 60 animals.

  Figure 1.  Map showing the location of the Cooper site in northwest Oklahoma.

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Limited butchering and quick burial of each kill resulted in the preservation of many fully articulated skeletons (Fig. 2). Butchering marks on the shoulders and along the hump and spine suggest the animals were filleted like fish, leaving articulated skeletons. The recovery of articulated skeletons at other Folsom kills such as the Lipscomb site in the Texas Panhandle may indicate the use of a similar butchering style (Hofman et al. 1991). The quick burial of articulated skeletons preserved many projectile points within the chest cavity of animals.

The bison were from three distinct herds of the early Bison antiquus species (Bement 1997). Animals in each kill represent cows, calves, and juveniles of both sexes. In the modern species, such nursery herds are common following the summer rut or mating season. The tooth eruption and wear patterns of the youngest animals indicate they were approximately four months old at the time of death, suggesting a late summer/early fall season of death for all three kills.

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Figure 2. This photograph of the middle kill
illustrates the density of articulated skeletons
preserved in the arroyo fill. 

Evidence that the hunters were above their prey is seen in the angle of spear impacts on bison ribs. These spear impacts also provide indisputable evidence that the points within the bone beds were employed by the hunters to kill the animals. This is particularly important when the size and workmanship of some of the points are considered. For example, the smallest projectile point is only 2.0 cm long. It was found in the middle kill event between the ribs and scapula, indicating it was hurled into the animal. Such a small point has often been described as a miniature or play point. In this case, several points of similar size were found within the chest cavities of animals, indicating their use by the hunters. The small size of the points is attributable to the Folsom resharpening practice of simply refurbishing a tip onto a broken point. Sometimes new bases were formed. Such a practice identifies the use-life sequence of Folsom points, and indicates the conservation of lithic material practiced by these mobile hunters. Indeed, the recovery of points made of stone from as far away as northwest Kansas, the Texas Panhandle, and central Texas attest to the level of mobility and the need to conserve tool stone during these hunting forays.

One of the most beautiful examples of Folsom point technology was found at the Cooper site (Fig. 3). This point, made of translucent brown chert from the hill country of central Texas, is 63.3 mm long, 21.0 mm wide, only 3.2 mm thick, and is fluted from base to tip on both faces. Very fine pressure flakes finish the edges. Several broken points within the middle kill are made of similar central Texas chert and display the same fine level of workmanship. Taken as a group, these points may have been made by the same flintknapper. They also indicate that even beautifully crafted points saw action during the kill. Although such exquisitely crafted points are often suggested to indicate ritual offerings following a kill (a situation not precluded by the finds at the Cooper site), the Folsom hunters were not opposed to employing these points when needed.

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Figure 3. Projectile points 
from the Cooper site.

Ritual was a part of Folsom life. Following a long tradition of painted, etched, and carved animal bone objects that dates to Clovis and, even before them, Paleolithic artists in Europe and Asia, the excavations at the Cooper site unearthed evidence of ritual associated with bison hunting. During the 1994 excavation, a bison skull with painted red zigzag lines was uncovered in the middle kill deposits (Bement et al. 1997). This skull, from an animal in the lowest kill, was positioned at the head of the gully. It peered down the gully in the direction of oncoming animals. A red hematite-based mineral paint was employed to create the designs (Fig. 4). Coming from the lowest kill, Mother Nature had already cleaned the hair, hide, meat, and grease from the skull. The sun had bleached it white. Several years after the lowest kill event, hunters returned to the area and, upon discovering the partially buried skull on the gully floor, they painted and positioned it as part of a pre-kill ritual. The ritual was probably designed to bring good luck to the hunt. Similar rituals were still being conducted by early historic bison hunting societies as witnessed by the first European traders to the Northern Plains.

The Cooper site is important because it illustrates the repeated use of a single spot on the landscape for hunting bison, a high degree of preservation, and the use of ritual by these early hunters. But it is not alone. The Jake Bluff site is less than a mile away. It is a multi-component site with both Clovis and Folsom deposits. The Waugh site bison kill and camp is just across the divide to the north. The large kill at the Lipscomb site is along a tributary to Wolf Creek, which dumps into the North Canadian just downstream from the Cooper site. These and other Folsom sites attest to a significant presence of these bison hunters on the southern Plains.

Leland C. Bement is a research archaeologist with the Oklahoma Archeological Survey, University of Oklahoma, Norman. He received his Ph.D. in 1991 from the University of Texas at Austin. Since completing his dissertation work on Archaic hunter-gatherer mortuary practices in central Texas, he has specialized in bison kill sites, including Bonfire Shelter and Big Lake in west Texas, and the Cooper site, Certain site, and Jake Bluff site in Oklahoma. His specialties include animal bone archaeology, hunter-gatherer studies, lithic technology, paleo-environments, and Paleoindian studies. He has authored numerous articles in scientific journals, reports, and two books, including one on the Cooper site published by OU Press. He is an Associate Editor of

Prehistoric American.