Texas Tech University

Researchers at Lubbock Lake Landmark Continue Dig into Bison Bone Bed

Heidi Toth

July 31, 2015

The volunteer crew is made up of anthropology students from throughout the nation.

Lubbock Lake Landmark

Imagine rooting around in the dirt and finding the jawbone of a bison, teeth still intact, with marks indicating humans killed it more than 10 millennia ago. What would you do?

The excavation crew at the Lubbock Lake Landmark celebrates in a way that makes a lot of sense for an excavation crew.

“We get really excited when we find something, then we get out our little wooden picks to see how far it goes and try to figure out what it is,” said Katherine Ehlers, crew chief of the landmark's volunteer excavation team.

Ehlers leads a team of students from all over the country, and occasionally the world, who do field research at the Lubbock Lake Landmark, a national historic landmark with a name that underplays its historical significance and confuses visitors every now and then. Long before it was plains filled with wildflowers and small animals, Texas Tech University's Lubbock Lake Landmark was an ancient body of water that allowed plant life to thrive, attracting bison and other animals and then drawing in the Paleoindians of the era.

The evidence that has been unearthed at the landmark in the last several decades indicates more than just human life from 10,000 years ago. It all adds to the evidence demonstrating that people have continually lived, or at least moved through the South Plains, for the last 12,000 years. Few other regions in the country can make that claim.

“People have been here since they've been in North America,” Ehlers said.

Field research

Eugenia Amador
Eugenia Amador

The field research occurs May through August at the landmark and other sites throughout the region. The researchers, outside of Ehlers, are mostly volunteers – undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology. The volunteers this summer are from Costa Rica who, although they have done digs in their home country before, are having a different experience. The soil and environment in Costa Rica are not conducive to preserving bones, so most of what they found was pottery.

“The things we're digging are completely different from what we see at home,” said Eugenia Amador, an anthropology student from the University of Costa Rica.

She and a number of classmates looking for field research had the Lubbock Lake Landmark highly recommended to them. It's well-known in the anthropological world.

The ancient bison bone bed they're excavating is about 10,000 years old, and the bones show evidence of being hunted instead of dying naturally. Ehlers said the bones have microscopic marks made by butchering tools and are stacked in a way animals would not have died naturally. That means humans moved through the Lubbock area, following the bison, which came for the water and the associated plant food.

The bones they're excavating do more than confirm the Paleoindians' stop, though. The teeth still clinging to a jawbone can tell the scientists how old that animal was. The researchers are digging up the remains of at least three bison – two adults and one juvenile – and they may be able to determine in which season the juvenile was killed based on how old it is.

“There's really a lot we can find out about how people were utilizing the bison and interacting with the landscape just from something like this,” Ehlers said.

A day in the life

To avoid spending too much time in the blistering late afternoon sun, the researchers are digging before 7 a.m. They dig about an inch at a time, using small, flat trowels and little brooms to dislodge the sediment and sweep it into bags. The dirt, along with just about everything from an ancient research site, will be processed and analyzed in a lab later. That slows the process somewhat.

Lila Jones
Lila Jones

“We do a lot of documentation,” Ehlers said.

This summer volunteers have already uncovered about a dozen bones, which sit in undisturbed dirt and act as motivation for the digging. The dig is methodical, with each volunteer assigned a specific square. They chat and occasionally shift sitting positions. A radio plays oldies in the background. They're in the low area of the landmark, so they're well-shaded, at least in the morning.

As the day heats up they put away their tools, cover the bones with bags of sand and spread a tarp over the whole area, then head to the lab for paperwork and to process the sediment. Heritage education manager Susan Rowe said for every hour the researchers are in the field, they spend four hours inside processing and cataloguing information.

In the evening the volunteers return to their home away from home – several tents on landmark property that include a kitchen, a bathroom and a washer and dryer.

Texas Tech graduate student Lila Jones, who grew up in Costa Rica before coming to Lubbock, began volunteering for field research five years ago. She's now an employee at the landmark while finishing her master's degree in interdisciplinary studies, which allows her to take classes in biology, museum science and geographic information systems, all of which will prepare her to do this kind of work full time.

She much prefers working with bone over the pottery shards she found in digs in Costa Rica, she said.

“It's been really great,” Jones said during a break from her square, where she works in close proximity to previously unearthed vertebrae. “I get to work in the field and in the lab.”

The bones they've found, including ribs, a radioulna, tibia, lumbar vertebrae, two humeri, metacarpals and an ankle bone, have not been removed, even though some were unearthed a year ago. Ehlers said the bones are in such bad condition that the dirt surrounding them is what holds them together. When they reach that step, the researchers will build a plaster cast and essentially remove the bone with the dirt, take it to the lab and remove the dirt in a controlled environment.

Lubbock Lake Landmark

Exploring the Lubbock Lake Landmark

Although the landmark is free and open to the public, the excavation sites are closed to visitors 364 days a year. One Saturday in July they hold Archaeology in Action Day, and anyone interested can visit the site and ask the researchers questions.

“I had a lot of questions about mammoths from little kids one year,” Ehlers said with a laugh. She attributed the sudden interest to one of the popular “Ice Age” movies being released.

Rowe said they occasionally get visitors who want to see the dinosaur bones, and somebody has to explain they're not doing ancient reptile excavation here. It is, however, just as interesting, both said.

“We have a chance to see how people who lived here a long time ago adapted to the environment,” Ehlers said.

The volunteers will work until Aug. 15, at which point they'll cover the dig area with planks and tarps and stack sandbags around it to keep rain, wildlife and other dirt out. At that point Ehlers, Jones and others are in the lab full-time.

“The lab stays busy all year trying to get everything taken care of and accounted for,” Ehlers said.

The Lubbock Lake Landmark is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday all year long. It is home to exhibitions that explain the research findings and how the South Plains has changed in the last 12,000 years as well as a nature preserve with walking trails. For more information call (806) 742-1116.