Located in a shallow draw near the Arikaree River in eastern Colorado, the Jones-Miller Bison Kill Site was discovered in 1972 by the rancher Robert B. Jones Jr. and excavated over the next three years by Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution. Containing the bones of more than 300 bison, the Paleo-Indian kill dates to roughly 8,000 BCE and is the only site in Colorado associated with the Hell Gap cultural complex.
Jones found the site in the summer of 1972, after leveling a ridge and exposing some bones. At first he thought the bones were from cows, but soon a storm washed the bones clean and exposed what seemed to be many stone spear points. Jones stopped clearing the site and called Jack Miller, a former anthropology instructor at Colorado State University. Along with his father, Ruben, and Mike Toft, a Colorado State student, Miller conducted preliminary excavations that summer. After uncovering hundreds of bison bones and some Hell Gap artifacts, he told Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution about his find.
With funding from the National Geographic Society, Stanford and a Smithsonian crew arrived in June 1973 to undertake a thorough excavation of the site. The excavation lasted three seasons, through the summer of 1975, and uncovered a wealth of evidence to help reconstruct the site’s formation. Patterns of tooth wear and tooth eruption among the young bison showed that the animals had been killed in the winter, probably in three separate events in a single winter. The herds involved were nursery herds, composed mainly of females and young bison with few bulls, indicating a strong predator-prey relationship between the Native Americans and the bison.
Stanford’s team found more than 130 flaked stone artifacts, including more than 100 projectile points (or fragments) that all conform to the Hell Gap type. The team also found more than 200 bone tools, most of which had been broken to produce sharp edges and were probably used for butchering the bison. Butchering at the site was nearly complete, with few articulated (connected) bones found, and different types of bones were found in different areas, indicating a well-organized system for processing the animals. In addition, very few skulls were found at the site, perhaps suggesting that they were used for some other purpose, perhaps ceremonial.
In the center of the shallow draw containing the bone bed, Stanford’s Smithsonian team found a posthole and several potentially ceremonial artifacts, including a bone flute or whistle and a butchered dog or wolf, which could have been offerings for a successful kill. Because of the site’s layout, the shallow draw would have filled with deep snowdrifts in winter. The hunters could have created an icy ramp to the draw, driven the bison down the ramp, and then killed them as they thrashed around in the snow, which would help keep the meat fresh until butchering was complete. This was a hunting method practiced by Cree and Assiniboine Indians on the Canadian plains during more recent historical times, suggesting the possibility of 10,000 years of cultural continuity among northern plains Native Americans in the form of planned and ritualized bison kills.