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The Plains Bison, The Wood Bison, and the Bison of the Eastern Woodlands: Separating Fact from Fiction
Originally published as a post on WIEP’s Facebook Page, 1/19/21. Published here September 2021.To cite this webpage article: Diemer-Eaton, Jessica. (2021, September). The Plains Bison, The Wood Bison, and the Bison of the Eastern Woodlands: Separating Fact from Fiction. Retrieved from http://www.woodlandindianedu.com/easternwoodlandbison.html
Myth 1: Wood Bison are the now extinct bison Europeans observed in the Eastern Woodlands.Not true. Wood Bison are not the bison that inhabited the Eastern Woodlands... Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae) are native to western Canada and Alaska. And good news, they are not extinct and were reintroduced to Alaska in 2015 (read more here: https://www.alaskawildlife.org/wood-bison-restoration/ ). It is the Plains Bison (Bison bison bison) that is native both to Canada and much of the Lower 48 (including the Eastern Woodlands).
Myth 2: The Eastern Woodlands was home to a distinct species of bison, aka “Woodland Bison.”Not likely. Yes, bison were absolutely found in many areas of the Woodlands, extending east to states like West Virginia and Georgia by the 18th century... but currently little evidence exists to support these eastern herds as a sub-species of their own. They were Plains Bison (B. b. bison) that had crossed the Mississippi and ventured east deep into the Woodlands (and rather recently at that). There may be some colorful historical accounts and striking artwork that give the impression eastern buffalo* were a different subspecies, but these were only perspectives and not biological fact (and one historical illustration of a “woodland bison” looks more like a European buffalo… imagine that). While environment (not genetics) may have influenced some habits, like the size of herds, to differ from their Plains siblings, they were still Bison bison – It was the Plains Buffalo that trampled ground and shaped earth under hoof from east to west… well, actually west to east. This as it stands until better biological evidence says otherwise... (see #1 for more info)
Myth 3: Buffalo so Ancient, so Plentiful in the East...Not so much. While the Plains buffalo had limitedly occupied the western edge of the Eastern Woodlands for thousands of years, these bison made their largest stride eastward (possibly comeback) likely after 1400 (or just before major European contacts). “A creature of the prairie, Bison bison was imported to the East by Native Americans along a path of indigenous fire, as they changed enough forest into fallows for it to survive far outside its original range (Charles C. Mann).” Indigenous Peoples cleared land for farm fields, building resources, and to attract game animals… Mississippian centers once highly populated before their decline left perfect habitat in their wake that attracted bison: namely more prairies and less humans. And while buffalo may have trampled down pathways through the Ohio River Valley, archaeological evidence of their existence is much less impressionable. Remnants of bison bones in places of pre-Columbian Native occupation are very selective in the prairie-bordering woodlands, and rare or just non-existent further eastward. Some bovine artifacts only begin to appear as European manufactured materials enter the timeline, indicating a change in two large mammal migrations… one from the western prairies and one from eastern seaboards - one the native bovine, one the foreign human… both populations soon to swell in numbers and clash. (see #2 for more info)
1. Living Wood Bison, Extinct Woodland Bison, and the Fabled Pennsylvanicus Bison -----> Would it surprise the reader to know that besides the Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae) native to Canada and Alaska, there is already a buffalo that carries the nickname “Woodland?” Probably not… Bison schoetensacki also known as the “Pleistocene Woodland Bison,” was a Eurasian bison (akin to B. bonasus or the European Bison), now long extinct (North America has its own extinct bison species: B. antiquus, B. latifrons, and B. occidentalis). So where do we get the idea of the (unsupported) "Woodland Bison" subspecies in Eastern America? Likely from some historical figures and early scholars who insisted or assumed eastern bison to be of a separate stock than their western kin… sometimes even assigning new taxon to B. bison in the East. One such Pennsylvania folklorist, for example, “defined a new species separated from the western bison, Bison, americanus pennsylvanicus. However, since his definition was not based on physical remains but only hearsay and folklore, it was “considered invalid by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature” (Blog: This Week in PA Archaeology, 2/18/20) ”
2. Bison and the Archaeological Timeline (IL, OH, KY) -----> “Bison were historically abundant in the Great Plains and less so in the Midwestern Prairie. They ranged east-west from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the eastern extent of the Prairie Peninsula in Illinois… (Jeremy Nathan Hall).” Woodland and Mississippian Peoples of the central Illinois river valley and prairies “were procuring bison opportunistically, but that the animal was not a primary meat source.” Oneota sites show more reliance on bison, hosting seasonal hunts, and the pattern continues “into the Historic Period when bison became an even more significant and reliable source of meat as bison populations expanded (R. Bruce McMillan).” In Ohio, just a few miles north of Kentucky, is a late 15th century site known as the Madisonville site… it is both rare and important when it comes to understanding the bison timeline in the Eastern Ohio River Valley area. Of all the Fort Ancient Culture sites, it “is the only one where bison remains have been found…” buffalo which were likely hunted further west, with only desirable bones saved and brought home. “Bison bone beamers… correlated with the presence of metal, so the addition of bison to the substance menu, and probably an upswing in hunting and hide preparation, is taken as a protohistoric phenomenon (Penelope B. Drooker & C. Wesley Cowan). The lack of buffalo-use at related earlier sites is telling when it comes to the presence and importance of bison in and around the present day state of Ohio (or lack there of). Kentucky has about the same timeline. With the exception of western Kentucky, bison “probably didn’t spend much time in Kentucky… The earliest evidence of bison (bison bison) in central and eastern Kentucky come from archaeological digs at Big Bone Lick in Boone County… remains that date to about 300 and 600 years old (Matthew Davidson).”
3. New Theory Worth Our Attention: The Bison Connection to Early Horticulture -----> While horticulture predates the presence of bison often by thousands of years in much of the East, it may have been the presence of buffalo that inspired farming in the East. Let me explain… where the presence Plains Bison (B. bison) did predate Native horticulture, Indigenous Peoples may have had easy access to plants like wild barley, maygrass and sumpweed because of buffalo disturbances of grasslands encouraging their growth… grasslands also kept “safe” for human traffic by the trampling of their hooves. It’s likely “ancient people would have moved through the prairie along traces, where they existed… If they did so, they certainly would have encountered dense stands of the same plant species they eventually domesticated (Natalie Mueller).” …Domesticated by Native farmers thousands of years ago.
*Note: We are using the terms bison and buffalo interchangeable as both are acceptable terms when speaking of American Bison. In regards to scientific category, American bison are strictly bison - the term “buffalo” reserved for true buffalo species of the Old World.
Some Sources & Further Reading: “Genome data on the extinct Bison schoetensacki establish it as a sister species of the extant European bison (Bison bonasus).” “Kentucky: The Land Where Buffalo Never Roamed.” “Late prehistoric (Oneota) exploitation of bison, elk,and deer at the Howard Goodhue site, central Iowa.” “Late Woodland Faunal Exploitation in the Midwestern United States.” “This Week in Pennsylvania Archaeology: Bison in Pennsylvania – Yes… No… Probably Not.” “Transformation of the Fort Ancient Cultures of the Central Ohio River Valley.” “Perspectives on the Biogeography and Archaeology of Bison in Illinois.” “Secrets of the ‘lost crops’ revealed where bison roam.”
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