Even bison make great archaeologists. Literally.
Roaming bison in Canada’s Wanuskewin Heritage Park have uncovered 1,000-year-old petroglyphs – rock carvings – and the tool used to carve them, revealing the practices of ancient peoples in North America.
The heritage park is situated on the historic lands of the Dakota First Nation, and Northern Plains Indigenous Peoples, adjacent to the South Saskatchewan River.
“The discovery of these petroglyphs is a testament to just how sacred and important this land is,” says Darlene Brander, CEO of Wanuskewin Heritage Park. “The individual who made these petroglyphs was actually carving their legacy into the rock many years ago.”
Discovered by bison
The clever Saskatchewan bison were reintroduced to the park after more than 150 years, and their normal activity – including “wallowing” by rolling around in the grass to create dust pits – uncovered an embedded boulder that turned out to be a petroglyph.
Upon further inspection, (human) archaeologists found a stone knife that was used to carve the drawing.
“There’s no question about the association,” explains Dr Earnie Walker, chief archaeologist and park co-founder. “I measured the width of the cutting edge and it’s exactly the same width as the groove on the rock. Whoever did that carving almost left a business card behind.”
What do the petroglyphs show?
After the bison had made their discovery, Walker and team uncovered three more petroglyphs in the area, all of different shapes and sizes. Interestingly, one of them bore the scratched marks of a ribstone, which is found in Hoofprint tradition rock art and is associated with bison hunts.
“The lines on the boulder mimicked the ribs of a bison. In the middle of it, there was a little horned figure – a spirit figure with a triangular head with horns and an oblong body and a tail that went to the crack,” says Walker.
“I was trying not to have a heart attack. If the bison hadn’t been here, we wouldn’t have been here.”
The tool was also found to be in the direct trajectory of a bison jump – a rocky formation that indigenous peoples used to hunt bison by driving them off a cliff.
“The migratory bison hunting populations in pre-contact history followed bison herds and never carried a lot of items. But Wanuskewin has everything one would expect to find in a pre-contact culture on the northern plains,” says Walker.
“It has bison jumps and massive campsites that we’ve been excavating. Now it has rock art. That’s exceptional and tangible evidence of pre-contact culture. We think that it’s so exceptional that it’s worthy of the designation [as a UNESCO heritage site].”
The collection of petroglyphs was estimated to be between 300-1,800 years old, but were most likely to be around 1,000 years old based on other historic events.
The rarest of finds
It is extremely rare to find multiple petroglyphs, and even more extraordinary to find a tool nearby – but, we must admit, not quite as extraordinary as the fact that it was the bison who discovered them.
Had the bison not been reintroduced following their near-extinction in the 1970s – primarily due to overhunting – the ancient artifacts may never have been found.
“We have been so fortunate over the years to have had these wondrous stories emerge that we are able to share with the community,” says Brander. “Today, it is our duty to share this story as our call to reconciliation by shining a light on the distinct and beautiful cultures of the Northern Plains People.”
If you or another bison stumbles across a fossil or relic, here is a handy guide on what you can do to practice responsible archeology.
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.