An Unlikely Find--Bison antiquus in the San Juans

The discovery of bison bones rewrites our understanding of the first humans in North America

As children, we all imagine coming across buried treasures or a T-rex fossil in our backyard sandboxes. But imagine coming across bones of a prehistoric bison!

In 2003, while working on a local pond, a crew with a trackhoe began excavations for a pond when one of the men spotted a bone jutting out of the dig site. With careful examination, the crew started sifting through the loose soil and gathered almost a hundred whole bones and numerous bone fragments, including a complete Bison antiquus skull.

Once a common sight across North America, Bison antiquus roamed the plains from 18,000 to 10,000 years ago. Hunted by early Native Americans, the bison is a common find in many American dig sites. However, it was an unexpected find on Orcas Island. The finding provoked several new theories and eventually led to discoveries about the early human settlement of North America.

How did bison reach the islands? The accepted theory today is that water-levels of the surrounding sea were, during an ice age, low enough to allow the bison and other animals to cross from the mainland. This theory is also supported by local tribal memory. According to Dean Washington, a local a Lummi member, "My dad’s people lived here for hundreds and hundreds of years. When this was still part of the mainland before they become islands."

The bones found at Ayer’s Pond and other sites around the islands also show signs of butchering by paleo-Indians. Using sharp hand tools, this type of butchering splinters the bones in a helical spiral pattern commonly seen when opening the bones for bone marrow or bone stock. When the carbon dating was completed on the Orcas Island bison, it was revealed to be nearly 12,000 years old. This age is significant as it moves the estimated date of human arrival into North America back by 300 to 800 years, making this site pre-Clovis and one of the oldest in the Americas.

Though the original discovery was a significant find, the crew faced a dilemma. The owner of the property where the bones were discovered was out of the country. Rather than leave the bones out to the elements, a trackhoe driver kept the bones in a cardboard box at his own home, where they were kept with minimal handling. In 2005 the driver contacted archaeologist and cultural resource manager, Stephen M. Kenady, for advice and inspection of the bones. Kenady and his team determined that the bison bones represented two mature males, one mature female, and a juvenile. Over the next few years, several more bison sites popped up throughout Orcas Island and suggested an established population present within the area. Currently, the Ayer's Pond bones and others are stored at the Orcas Island Historical Museum where visitors can not only learn about the bison but also see a cast of the original bison skull.