Native Americans used fire to hunt bison

Looking back 1,000 years, researchers have found that Native Americans used fire to help them hunt bison (Bison bison), a fact they say can provide insight into fire management today.

“In the northern plains, we have historic descriptions of tribes using fire for a variety of purposes,” said Christopher Roos, associate professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University and lead author of the recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This includes descriptions of using fire to manipulate bison in order to hunt them more easily, he said.

The team also determined that climate played an important role in bison hunting and fire use. High fire activity matched up with wet climate episodes, which would have resulted in enough grass to fuel prairie fires.

“Knowing the complex history of people and fire and the relationship to climate helps us to contextualize where we are today,” Roos said. “We live in a time now when there will be no fire problems independent of climate and independent of people. In my view, there’s a lot to learn from past experiences from human societies with climate to make better decisions today.”

In the study, Roos and his colleagues studied drivelines — linear arrangements of stone piles that acted as giant funnels to push bison herds off ledges — in northern Montana. Roos suspected fire may have been somehow involved. He and his colleagues looked for places that might still show remnants of prairie fire, including flood deposits that can accumulate after fires scorch the landscape.

In areas associated with drivelines, they found charcoal and were able to radiocarbon date it. Working with the Blackfoot tribe, they compared time periods of peak driveline use with prairie fire activity.

“There couldn’t have been a clearer outcome,” he said. All of the charcoal layers that were dated perfectly aligned with the time that natives used drivelines. This suggests fire played an important role in their hunting strategy, he said, not only in corralling the bison toward ledges but likely also creating fresh grass for them to graze.

Header Image: Native Americans used fire to help them hunt bison, according to new research. This can help managers understand the use of fire today. ©Jon Niola