Repatriating a prehistoric bison skull

Charles Helm, Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation


Circa 2004, soon after we formed the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation, we learned of a 1993 M.Sc. Thesis by a student at Simon Fraser University, Kevin Woolf. In it he documented a fascinating fact about Tumbler Ridge: in the early 1980s, during the excavation of the gravel pit (beside the current ninth hole of the golf course), a prehistoric bison skeleton had been unearthed.

Woolf wrote: “The bison was reported as articulated when found but much of the skeleton had been scavenged or discarded by the gravel pit workers.”  However, the skull had been salvaged and had become known to the University, and Woolf proceeded to describe it and the related post-Ice-Age events in the Tumbler Ridge area in considerable detail. Radiocarbon dating had established its age as about 12 000 years. Analysis of the skull size and bone structure suggested that it was a mature male.

Through Professor Arthur Roberts, of the Geography Department at the University, we tried to see if the skull could somehow be returned to our fledgling museum as a prized exhibit. However, it was in private hands, and all our attempts were in vain.

Then, in the summer of 2014, we made contact with Dr Jon Driver, Professor of Archaeology at SFU, and Dr Barbara Winter, Curator of the University’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.  This was related to potential archaeological sites of interest which we had discovered within the proposed Tumbler Ridge Aspiring Geopark.  We wondered whether, a decade later, just possibly they might know something about “our” bison’s whereabouts, and so we sent an email query.

The response came two minutes later, and was rather surprising. Not only was the skull in the possession of Dr Driver, but he was more than willing to donate it to the Tumbler Ridge Museum.  Furthermore, he and Dr Winter would package it and ensure its safe repatriation to our community during their planned September field trip!

How did Dr Driver come to own this specimen? Dr Roberts had recently told him it was being featured in an on-line auction, and he had bid a whole ten dollars. This had secured it in the absence of any competing bids.

Once again, the skull had been salvaged, this time from the perils that are associated with private collections. Were it not for this timely intervention from Dr Driver, who knows what the fate of this specimen would have been. Most likely it would have been lost to science and to the people of British Columbia, and would not have ended up in a repository like the Tumbler Ridge Museum that is able to appropriately care for it.

The long-anticipated event happened on September 6, 2014, and the bison cranium was safely delivered. This precious specimen will be exhibited in the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery once it has been formally accessioned, and once a special celebration welcome-back event has been hosted during the winter, at which representatives of regional First Nations will play a leading role.

Intriguingly, there is one small portion of the skull which is missing, pending its return from a laboratory in the USA, where further radiocarbon dating is currently being performed, along with a search for DNA. There are two possible candidate bison species, and if DNA is retrievable it will hopefully provide this identification.

The history and geology of the Tumbler Ridge area become apparent through studying Woolf’s thesis. Studies of the chemical composition of the bone suggest that the bison had access to a lot of grasses that are not present in the area today. Either it had migrated from a warmer and drier environment, or alternatively the vegetation here could have been substantially different then.

Complete Pleistocene bison skeletons are rare, and only one has been scientifically described – from Clayhurst. The Tumbler Ridge specimen may have been the most complete Late Pleistocene bison known in Canada, prior to the removal of the bones as reported by Woolf, but that is something on which we can now only speculate. If anyone still remembers the Tumbler Ridge skeleton being found, or if they have portions of it they would like to provide for further study, the Museum would be very interested in obtaining more information.

As for the geology, the precursors of the Wolverine, Flatbed and Murray Rivers washed deposits into a glacial lake. As the ice sheets melted and the lake drained, these deposits were eroded and redeposited by the Murray River, creating a series of terraces. These have become what we now know as the Upper Bench, Middle Bench and Lower Bench of Tumbler Ridge.  The bison would have been deposited as a complete animal when the Lower Bench was being formed. The radiocarbon analysis allows for these events to be dated with accuracy, and the date happens to be close to the time that the first humans are thought to have arrived in the region.

This generous donation from Dr Driver, the repatriation of a precious piece of Tumbler Ridge history, further enhances what the proposed Geopark will be able to showcase.

It allows for this important specimen to be formally cared for and preserved in a recognized museum, and to be interpreted and exhibited for the benefit of all residents and visitors.