Section 1: Hunting

Hunting for food in the late ice age and for many thousands of years after, was not as simple as throwing a spear at a bison. Spears thrown with great power and accuracy at a mammoth, might only slow the animal down for a while. Hunters had to wait for the animal to drop or die. In the meantime, other predators might attack the wounded animal.

The earliest People probably hunted west of the Missouri, but as the land to the east became drier and the largest beasts had become extinct, hunters moved eastward. People settled near grassy open areas near lakes and rivers. Game (animals they hunted) also favored that environment. People often “ambushed” bison and other game animals at springs and small lakes when the animals came to drink. (See Image 1.)

Over thousands of years, hunters developed effective techniques for killing large game animals. Archaeologists have found places where People killed more than 100 bison. People working together with a careful plan drove bison into small canyons that the animals could not get out of. This was called an impoundment. Then, People closed in on the trapped animals and killed them. They usually processed the meat and hides at the same place. People might have made this sort of mass bison slaughter early in the spring and again in the late fall.

Image 1: Ancient People used the atlatl, or throwing stick, to improve the speed, distance, and accuracy of the spear. An atlatl weighted with a small stone gave the hunter more power and distance with the atlatl.

Sometimes people drove bison toward a cliff. This process took careful organization. People hid in brush or behind rocks along a trail. Someone started the herd running in the direction of the trail. As the herd began to pass, the hidden hunters jumped up and scared the animals to keep them running fast. As the herd proceeded along the trail, running faster and faster, the trail narrowed and pointed the herd toward a cliff. Unable to stop in time, the animals tumbled over the cliff. Many were too badly injured to get up and run on. Hunters waiting at the base of the cliff moved in and killed the injured animals. Dogs were sometimes used to carry the meat and hides back to the People’s campsite.

People also ate deer, pronghorns, rabbits, prairie dogs, fish, mussels, birds, bears, and wolves. However, the People preferred bison because they provided not only great quantities of meat, but also hides, bones, and other organs which had many uses as food, tools, or medicine. Bison Hides

Hunters were also gatherers. In the proper season, the People knew where to find and harvest acorns and other seeds, berries and other fruits, green leafy plants, and roots. Plants provided vitamins that meat did not contain and helped the People to maintain their health. The People probably dried plants to keep for use in winter and early spring.

The methods of hunting big game remained about the same until bow and arrow technology made hunting more efficient. The People continued to depend on bison and other animals for their main food source until well into the 19th century. The animals they killed for food also provided tools (from bone), clothing and shelter (from hides), and other materials such as bladders that could be used to hold water.

Why is this important? The People who lived on the northern Great Plains in the ancient past were hunters and gatherers. Hunting determined how they lived and how they made their tools. They organized their families and communities around hunting. They moved often to find the stone they needed for tools and to keep up with the herds of game animals. However, they often returned to the same place and probably had favored sites for collecting berries, nuts, and roots.

They learned how to kill, cook, and preserve meat. As hunters, they had to adapt when the climate changed and the animal life changed, too. They made new tools that were more efficient for hunting large and small game. By studying how ancient People hunted, we know that they were smart, hard-working, and adapted well to change.