Butchering Bison the Stone Tool Way

Charles Koenig butchers a bison with stone tools

Charles Koenig butchers a bison with stone tools

My guest today is Charles Koenig, assistant project director of the Ancient Southwest Texas Project archaeological research in Eagle Nest Canyon during Spring 2014.

Hi Charles, thanks for being with us today. I know you’re an experienced hunter, but a

Charles Koenig

Charles Koenig

few years ago you had the opportunity to do something few contemporary people have done: butcher a bison using stone tools. How did this come about?

Hi Mary, thanks for the opportunity to talk about the bison project.  I would say I was in the right situation at the right time.  During the fall of 2011 I was President of the Experimental Archaeology Club (ExArch Club) at Texas State, and I was contacted by Dr. Jon Lohse from the Center for Archaeological Studies (CAS) here at Texas State.  At the time Dr. Lohse and CAS were doing research on bison bones recovered from Spring Lake in San Marcos.  Dr. Lohse came to me and said Hugh Fitzsimons was willing to donate a bison to be butchered with stone tools, and that myself and a few members of the ExArch Club could take this on as a project.  Because I had more experience butchering animals than other people I became in charge of the butchery part of the project.

 What kind of tools did you use? Did you make them yourself?

At the start of the project we only had one major research goal, which was to study the use-wear on

Flake tool by Chris Ringstaff

Flake tool by Chris Ringstaff

the stone tools after we finished butchering the bison. At the time, Haley Rush was analyzing the bones recovered from the Rowe Valley archaeological site as part of her thesis research.  The Rowe Valley site is a Toyah-phase occupation site (about 600 years ago) in central Texas, and Haley wanted to take part in the project so she could compare the bones from Rowe Valley to the bison bones from our project to see if the Rowe Valley bones were handled in similar ways.  So, because Haley was researching Rowe Valley we decided to use replicas of stone tools recovered from Toyah-age sites: long flakes, end scrapers, and beveled knives.

Neither Haley nor I are competent enough flint knappers to make decent tools, so Dr. Britt Bousman put us in contact with Chris Ringstaff.  Chris is an excellent flint knapper, and he was generous enough to knap all the tools we needed.  With several of Chris’s tools we attached (hafted) them onto wooden handles to make them easier to use.

What we planned on doing was using the stone tools to butcher the bison, and then Dr. Bousman and undergraduate Sarah Himes would look at the stone tools under a high-powered microscope to see if using the stone tools left behind any use-wear on the stone tools.

 What’s it like? Is bison hide denser or tougher than deer hide, for instance?

Exposing the belly

Exposing the belly

Well the first thing I would say is it was amazing how sharp the flakes were.  I’m used to using steel knives, but I would say the flakes Chris made were just as sharp as any steel knife.  The flakes were the best tools for actually butchering the animals—the beautiful beveled knives were horrible for cutting.

Yes, bison hide is much thicker than a deer hide, but the biggest difference was the amount of bison hair.  The hair was very thick, and the most difficult part was just cutting through the hair into the hide.  After the initial cut is made, you don’t really cut through the hide again.

What are the steps in butchering a large animal like a bison?  Where do you start?

The first thing you have to do is start removing the hide.  You can theoretically start anywhere on the animal, but the hide and hair is the thinnest on the stomach, so that’s where people normally begin.

Slicing through the abdominable hide

Slicing through the abdominal hide

Once you make the first cut you can start cutting the connective tissue between the hide and the muscles and basically peel the hide off the animal.

Once you have the hide peeled away from the stomach area, you have to begin removing the intestines.  This is where butchering a bison is much different from a deer because you literally need to almost get inside the ribcage to cut all the connective tissue—imagine Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back.

What did you do with the entrails?  What would ancient people have used them for?

We did not do anything with the entrails, we had talked about taking the stomach and using it for stone boiling, but we ended up leaving it.  However, if we were doing this same butchery project 1000 years ago I’m sure we would have used most of the entrails and internal organs—this was, after all, a bunch of gringos butchering the bison.

How do you cut or break the bones?  It seems like that would be pretty hard.

Depending on how you field dress the animal, you sometimes do not even need to break any bones.  The only bone we had to break was the pelvis to remove the colon and other parts.  To do this we just used a large river cobble and smashed the pelvis, and then cut the organs out of the pelvic canal. 

Peeling off the hide

Peeling off the hide

Did you butcher the whole animal?  Like cut off the head? the hooves? Tell us how that was accomplished.

We did butcher the entire animal.  When we needed to remove any of the limbs (or the head) we cut around joints with the flakes and then cut any connecting ligaments—this way we didn’t need to cut through bones, which would have been very difficult.

 What happened to the bones?

Once we removed the muscle from the bones using flakes and scrapers we brought all the bones back

Smashing bones with hammerstones

Removing meat from bones

to San Marcos.  As a follow-up to this butchery part of the project, Haley Rush, myself, and several members of the ExArch Club crushed up several of the bones and then stone boiled the bones to extract the grease—that is another blog post entirely!

The idea of butchering a bison like ancient people might have brings up a million images or sensations to me.  What did it smell like?  What did it feel like? Was this just like butchering a deer?

Well, I would say the answer to this question will be different for each person who took part in the butchery part.  People always think butchering animals is bloody and smells bad.  Yes, there is some

Stone boiling the bones for grease

Stone boiling the bones for grease

blood and strange smells, but for the most part there is relatively little blood and only certain intestines (like if you cut into the stomach) smell bad.  I would say it doesn’t smell any different from walking down the meat isle at the grocery store.  I would say butchering the bison was no different from butchering a deer except for the bison is 5 times as big!

 What were you thinking or feeling during this experience?

Using the stone tools was the best part of the entire process because it really gives you a better feeling of what these people experienced.  For instance, we are used to knives with handles and you grip the handle whenever you use a knife.  Well, the flakes we used had cutting edges on all sides—which means your hand gets cut up just from holding the tool.  I can only imagine how rough and scarred people’s hands were from using stone tools all the time.

 What would you say you learned from this? How will this help you understand archaeological remains?

Although I don’t have room to talk about it here, I would say the most important part of the project for understanding the archaeological record was the stone boiling.  I’m used to making earth ovens where you put a lot of work in up front and then just let the oven do its thing underground for a couple days—not so with stone boiling.  We were out in the hot sun over a hot fire for 8 hours, constantly collecting fire wood, heating rocks, and skimming grease—it was a heck of a lot more work!  And, Haley was able to use the data from the stone boiling to compare to the archaeological assemblage from Rowe Valley which gave the overall project more focus.

Another thing I learned, or was forced to accept, was the beveled knives didn’t work to cut the bison, but the simple flakes did.  This was somewhat of a paradigm shift for me because many archaeologists like to call large bifaces knives, but based on my experience the large flakes are more knife-like than the bifaces.

Thanks for telling us about this, Charles. Not many people today have cut up a bison by any method, let alone using a technique that’s hundreds, and thousands, of years old. Learning about this certainly gives me a better appreciation for the lives of ancient people.


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