Montana burn reveals ancient stone effigies, cairns, rock formations and buffalo slaughter areas
U.S. government archaeologists set a controlled fire in April 2015 to reveal a unique site in northern Montana that has large Native American stone effigies, cairns, circles and structures used centuries ago to drive cattle into catchment areas for slaughter. A couple weeks later they sent up an aerial drone to photograph and record data about the ancient site.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management personnel burned off brush and prairie grasses to allow a better view of and easier access to the structures. Since the 1960s the site was known to have a buffalo jump, where Indians herded buffalos off cliffs and then harvested the meat, organs, skin, bones and ligaments for food, clothing, housing and implements. But vegetation was getting in the way of viewing and studying exactly what was at the site.
Buffalo being chased off a cliff as seen and painted by Alfred Jacob Miller in the late 19th-century. (Wikipedia)
“Most of the tribes up here were semi-nomadic, following buffalo herds,” Josh Chase, a Bureau of Land Management archaeologist working on the project, told Ancient Origins. The BLM has been working for four years with all of the Northern Plains tribes that have a stake in the site, including Sioux, Chippewa, Cree, Blackfeet and Salish-Kootenai, he said.
People of the Avonlea culture used the site at least between 770 and 1140 AD, but Chase said the exact time frame of the site is not known yet. Researchers intend to do some non-invasive dating methods to more accurately delineate when the site was used.
Some of the structures probably had religious or spiritual meaning to the people who built them. “The Henry Smith site is not so much occupied,” Chase said. “It's more of a stone feature and spiritual site.” Stone tipi circles may have been used when people camped there rather than as domiciles, he said. He added that there are many thousands of stone tipi circles in the Northern Plains.
This human-made rock formation, an effigy photographed from a drone, depicts a human being. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management)
Officials called the 300-acre site unique. Other Plains Native American sites have separate effigies, cairns, circles or drive lines to direct buffalo, but this is the first to have been found with all of these various structures in one place.
“Removal of the vegetation allowed for a clear view of an Avonlea period cultural resource complex, consisting of numerous stone effigies (both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic), stone cairns, drive lines, stone circles and potentially spiritual alignments and circles,” said Chase. “The project will allow BLM to better study, document and manage this unique location.”
Chase said no parts of the site that had animal remains were burned. The buffalo bones are in a coulee nearby, under sediment, he said.
Buffalo bones excavated at the Vore Buffalo Jump is an archaeological site in Crook County, Wyoming. (Wikimedia Commons)
Some of the stone formations were clearly for the practical purpose of driving and trapping buffalo and also for tipi (dwelling) rings. But others probably had symbolic or religious meaning. Some of the stone circles may be medicine wheels that marked out ceremonial or religious space. The geoglyphs may have been to memorialize important leaders or to commemorate successful harvest or hunt sites, Western Digs says.
Archaeologists divide the Avonlea phase of Native American Plains history into three periods, the early from 100 to 400 AD, when they did not have ceramics but had stone points; and the middle period from 400 to 700 and late from 750 to 1100, when they did have ceramics. This site, called the Henry Smith Archaeological site, dates from the late period. The cultures of the middle and late periods were much alike, but there was increased trade with other regions during the late phase, says an article at a University of Calgary website.
Bison were these people's primary game, but winter famine and summer droughts may have forced them to rely on other food sources because of changes in buffalo migrations. They also hunted pronghorn, elk, moose, deer, small mammals, ground birds, water fowl and fish. They gathered plants, roots, tubers, berries and seeds, the Calgary website says. Archaeologists can sometimes determine what people ate from bones and plant seeds near their settlements and from residue on ceramics or stoneware.
Avonlea people probably followed buffalo into sheltered river valleys in the winter because the people's mobility was limited and resources were scarce. They may have split into smaller groups of extended families and carefully rationed bison meat to survive the hunting lull. Availability of wood for fires was equally essential to prevent freezing to death in the harsh winters. The people probably stayed near areas of abundant wood in the winter.
The aerial survey found several stone circles across the site. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management)
Wild buffalo are nearly gone from the Plains now. Before they were killed off, it's estimated there were 30 million to 75 million buffalo in North America. Chase said some Indian tribes still have wild buffalo. There are also bison at Yellowstone National Park and at a reserve not far from the Henry Smith site.
Featured image: The Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory placed sensors to determine the grass fire’s maximum temperature. Data from the burn will be studied for use at other archaeological sites. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management)
By Mark Miller