Soapstone Prairie

The bison of Soapstone Prairie in Northern Colorado.

Dawn Wilson

THE HUNTER’S HEART pounded as the thundering of hooves grew louder. Seconds later the ground

was shaking as bison stampeded to within range of the man and his handmade spear. Accurate to about 40 yards, that deadly proximity left the hunter within reach of sharp hooves and horns if something went terribly wrong.

With a split second to aim the hunter launched his projectile. The prairie quieted as the herd galloped toward safer pastures. As the ancient Colorado dust cleared, one dying animal drew its final breath.

THE FOSSILIZED BONES of the extinct bison species known as Bison antiquus have been uncovered at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area. Stone points crafted by prehistoric hunters also have been exhumed from this ground northwest of Wellington. The long history of ancient humans lies just underfoot where Coloradans of today observe wildlife and hike trails. A discovery made here eight decades ago pushed the history of humans in North America back to the last Ice Age.

Approximately 12,000 years later in 1935, 28-year-old writer, naturalist and bone hunter Loren Eiseley was getting down and dirty at Soapstone, then known as the Lindenmeier Ranch. Relic hunting

brothers Claude and Roy Coffin had searched the area a decade earlier in 1924. Their discovery of fluted stone points – different than the arrowheads they typically found – led to the Smithsonian Institution and Colorado Museum of Natural History establishing an archaeological dig at the site.

When Eisely uncovered the tip of a bone while brushing away the dry soil, he assumed that it belonged to the extinct bison species that was 25 percent larger than modern bison. After all, many sets of fossilized bison remains had already been found during that summer’s dig. Stone tools also were common finds. Some experts saw this as proof of early humans living in North America alongside that ancient bison species – at least 12,000 years ago. Others argued that the stone tools came from a later time. The debate would soon be settled, and literally set in stone.

Eiseley continued brushing layers of time from the fossilized vertebrae until he saw something, that like that accurate ancient hunter, set his heart pounding. A fluted stone point was broken off in the extinct giant bison’s spine!

Additional digging uncovered more than 5,000 stone artifacts, tools and thousands of animal bones. Tiny beads and etched bone disks also were discovered. All of the artifacts were linked back to the Paleo-Indians of the Folsom culture and, at the time, it was the oldest documented record of humans in North America.

For the rest of the story see the March/April 2020 issue of Colorado Life.

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