Dating to roughly 8200 BCE, the Olsen-Chubbuck Bison Kill Site in Cheyenne County preserves evidence of a Paleo-Indian kill of more than 190 bison. The site was named for the amateur archaeologists Jerry Chubbuck and Sigurd Olsen, who discovered and partially excavated the site in 1957–58 before turning over excavations to a University of Colorado Museum team headed by archaeologist Joe Ben Wheat. The mass kill preserved at the site demonstrates techniques that Native Americans used to hunt bison on the plains for more than 10,000 years.
Discovery and Excavation
The Olsen-Chubbuck Site is in an old arroyo about thirteen miles southwest of Cheyenne Wells and sixteen miles southeast of Kit Carson in Cheyenne County. It lay under land owned by rancher Paul Forward until the late 1950s, when erosion caused by several years of drought revealed a clear outcropping of bones. On December 8, 1957, Jerry Chubbuck noticed the outcropping while driving by. A quick investigation yielded a Paleo-Indian projectile point and an end-scraper. Chubbuck notified Joe Ben Wheat of his find, but Wheat was busy with another dig and could not immediately visit the site. In the meantime, Chubbuck and Sigurd Olsen of nearby Kit Carson began to excavate. In addition to the bone bed, which soon yielded fifty skulls, they found human artifacts including two dozen projectile points or point fragments and several stone tools.
In April 1958 Wheat visited the site, recognized its importance, and asked Chubbuck and Olsen to relinquish their digging permit. They did, allowing Wheat and the University of Colorado Museum to excavate the site thoroughly in the summers of 1958 and 1960.
As the excavation proceeded, the shape and extent of the bison bone bed gradually became clear. The bone bed occupied an old arroyo channel that cut across the locally normal drainage pattern and was probably formed from an eroded bison trail. At its narrow end it was one to three feet wide and one to three feet deep, and it grew to maximum dimensions of about fifteen feet wide and seven feet deep. The bone bed stretched for roughly 170 feet within the arroyo, with an average width of five feet and a maximum depth of six and a half feet. The bones in the arroyo had apparently created a natural dam that trapped sediments in runoff water until the bones were completely covered and the arroyo filled in.
Killing and Carving Techniques
Wheat called the arroyo “a puny trap for a bison herd,” but it seems clear that Paleo-Indians used the arroyo as a natural trap for a stampeding herd of the extinct species Bison occidentalis, which was about 25 percent to 33 percent larger than modern bison. Based on bone orientation in the arroyo, the herd was driven from northwest to southeast. When the herd hit the arroyo, many fell in and were trampled or suffocated. The Paleo-Indians would have killed any surviving bison still trapped in the arroyo. Skeletal remains indicate that the kill probably occurred in late May or early June.
At least 190 bison died in the arroyo. After the successful kill, the Paleo-Indians responsible for the stampede butchered the bodies. The butchering process was clearly organized, resulting in nine distinct piles of bones arranged in the order the animals were butchered: front-leg units on the bottom, then pelvic-girdle units, rear-leg units, and vertebral-column units, with skulls on top. Below the butchered piles were layers of complete and partially complete skeletons at the bottom of the arroyo, too deep for the Native Americans to extract.
Wheat used evidence from the kill to estimate the size of the Paleo-Indian group involved in the attack. He calculated that the animals killed and butchered would have yielded about 60,000 pounds of meat plus an additional 9,000 pounds of tallow and internal organs. To butcher the animals in a timely fashion, eat some of the meat, and carry the rest would have required a group of 150–200 people. If the group had dogs to help consume and carry the meat, its size could have been smaller, perhaps 75–100 people and 100 dogs. Wheat classified the people involved with the kill as the Firstview complex, named after a small town just north of the site.