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Harper County

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The Cooper Site

Some time between 10,000 and 11,000 years ago, a group of Paleoindian hunters gathered in the late summer or early fall in the Beaver River floodplain in Harper County. They were armed with spears, and their quarry was a now-extinct species of bison known as Bison antiquus. These hunters ranged over a large territory where they could find the giant bison. The lives of their families were intimately dependent on the success of their hunts.

This time, they planned to kill not just one or a few animals as they often did in winter and spring. This time they planned a hunt where many bison would be killed. The success of such a hunt required careful planning and good fortune. The plan was one that had been executed successfully just a few years past. Finding a cow/calf herd in the floodplain, they had driven the panicked animals up into a dead-end gully where hunters up on the arroyo banks threw spears down on the milling herd and killed many bison in relative safety. They knew the plan was good and to insure good fortune, the hunters took part in a hunting ritual. They retrieved a bleached skull from the previous gully kill. They prepared a red ochre paint from local stone rich in the blood-red mineral, iron. They then painted a powerful symbol on the bison skull and placed it at the head of the gully where it could draw another herd of bison up to the waiting hunters. The plan and the ritual succeeded. As many as 30-35 bison were killed. A few years later, a third kill took place in the same gully.


Bison antiquus skeletons uncovered at the Cooper site.

 

In 1992, Dick James, a game warden in the Cooper Wildlife Management Area, showed Oklahoma Archeological Survey archeologist Lee Bement where large bones were caving off a sandy bluff near the Beaver River. During that first trip, there were no signs that people had a hand in the deaths of the bison whose bones were eroding from the cliff. However, another trip to the site brought the find of a spearpoint, left by those hunters more than 10,000 years ago. Since that discovery, a meticulous excavation of the site has uncovered all three bison kill episodes. Because of the care taken during the excavation, even the painted bison skull was recovered although the bison herd from the second hunt had trampled parts of it. That skull, the oldest painted object ever found in North America, is now on exhibit at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

Trampled bison skull with ritual zigzag design

 

Research continues on the fascinating Cooper site and the early hunters known to archeologists as the Folsom culture. The Folsom point is a distinctive, finely crafted spearpoint used by big game hunters who lived on the Great Plains from 10,900 to 10,200 years ago. Study of the Cooper site is answering many questions about the Folsom people, their tools and their culture.

Folsom points from the Cooper site.

 

For further reading, consult:

Bison Hunting at Cooper Site, Where Lightning Bolts Drew Thundering Herds by Leland C. Bement, University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Visit Dr. Bement's website about the Cooper Site

Prehistoric Sites in Harper County Identified to Time Period


Paleo = ?-8,000 BP / Archaic = 8,000-2,000 BP / Woodland = 2,000-1,000 BP / Village 1000-500 BP
BP (before present)

 
 

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