History Trails

Bison skull site reveals past

A University of Alberta anthropology professor has uncovered an Aboriginal hunting and camping site he believes is of equal importance to southern Alberta's famous Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

Terry Gibson says the Bodo Bison Skull Site, located about 350 kilometres southeast of Edmonton near the small prairie town of Bodo, has yielded artifacts that may be up to 4,000 years old.

"The site was obviously very heavily used during the last 1,000 years," says Gibson, "but we've also found materials that are possibly 3,000 or 4,000 years old."

Gibson first visited the site in 1995 as a private consultant. Oil and gas companies called Gibson's firm on several occasions to investigate bison bones they'd dug up. The area's rich history revealed itself over repeated visits.

"When I first found the site I thought, `That's pretty neat.' But I kept coming back to it and started thinking, `Yeah, it is a really good site.' Eventually I realized there had to be a research component to the site," he says. "Every time I go back I find it more interesting and complex. It is certainly the largest and most complex site I have dealt with."

So, starting at the U of A as an adjunct professor this spring, Gibson headed up the inaugural summer session at the Bodo Bison Skull Site field school. Working for about a month, Gibson and 20 anthropology students gingerly probed the area's sandy topsoil, which consistently yielded artifacts, such as arrowheads and other stone tools. No human remains have been uncovered at the site.

Gibson believes Blackfoot and Cree used the area to herd bison into man-made pounds, or trapped them within the area's many sand dunes. The beasts were then killed with bows and arrows and butchered.

Efforts are underway at the provincial level to protect the area, which covers a few hundred hectares of land, some of which is provincial crown land and some owned privately. The trouble is, the site's boundaries are expanding all the time.

"The site is so big that every time we go there we find something new and it changes our interpretations. Our boundary keeps getting larger. Even this summer, with the University's field school, we extended the boundary somewhat. We really don't know how large the site is—it keeps changing in character.

Gibson's goal now is to raise awareness of the site and lobby for its protection. Agriculture, industry, and development activities have ruined similar sites, making the preservation of Bodo all the more important. "It is one of the last such areas still intact in the locality, and one of the few in western Canada."

—Richard Cairney

Published Autumn 2002.

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