Farther afield than you might expect

Neandertal Exposition, Musèe de l’Homme, Paris, France

I didn’t expect to be following the buffalo trail in Paris, France. I attended a conference in Reims during April 2018, and went museum hopping during the last day in Paris before flying out. And there, at the Musèe de l’Homme, I found ancient bison.

The buffalo trail extends back in time and farther afield than many of us realize. At least according to science**. The diorama above depicts animals that roamed Europe, not North America, at the time when Neanderthals and modern humans crossed paths.

Scientists believe bison stepped out of the bovine tribe about two million years ago. On a species level,  bovines are practical, nondiscriminating types. “Stepping out” doesn’t mean avoiding interbreeding with a different species, even if the result isn’t great.  So the genes of this group are a bit of a mashup.

In the last Ice Age, mammoths and steppe bison (Bison priscus) spread across vast lands known as the mammoth steppe. With ice locking up a lot of water, and topography blocking rainy weather, the Bering Land Bridge was exposed, with expansive dry grasslands that made ideal herbivore habitat. The map below depicts mammoth range, but steppe bison are believed to have roamed just as far.  You can see North America at right.

Maximum extension of Mammuthus primigenius during the Late Pleistocene based on the current fossil record. Image credit: Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke, doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2015.03.023.

“Blue Babe” is a famous steppe bison now on permanent display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in the Interior Gallery. The mummy, named after Paul Bunyan’s ox of logging folklore, was found by gold miners in 1979.  Blue Babe has ironically become a Google search,  “scientists who ate their experiments”, after paleontologists decided to see if the animal, fresh frozen 36,000 years ago, was still usable for stew. 


To prehistoric predators, meat was meat, and with mammoths and horses as well, bison weren’t the only option for dinner.  There were fearsome predators in addition to humans, including the American lions that left a mark on Blue Babe, and the grimly named Dire Wolves. Across the mammoth steppe and into North America, predators- animal and human alike- followed the trail of bison, mammoths, and horses.

Bison were probably an easier target than mammoths. Escaping from the Mammoth, oil on canvas by Paul Jamin, 1885, photographed by Ji-Elle [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Ancient artists depicted steppe bison on cave walls in France and Spain.  With dramatic flair and materials such as charcoal, ochre, and hematite, human hands described the animals they depended on to survive.

Paleolithic caves preserve bison in stunning prehistoric art.  Altamira is a World Heritage site for very good reason. Unfortunately, just our visiting these sites and breathing can damage them; some have been replicated and others are being studied to reduce damage by visitors.

The bovine tribe generally makes evolutionary analysis hard because they interbred long after they turned into separate species. The Canadian government tried to take advantage of the fact that yaks and bison share lineage in cross-breeding experiments and now-extinct Buffalo National Park. “Yakalo” never caught on. Then there are beefalo or cattalo, zubron, and more. European bison and wood bison were run into a genetic corner when exposed to the hardy and prolific plains bison in zoos and national parks. But aside from human tinkering, the tribe appears to have bred across species on its own.

Yaks in Wainwright Buffalo National Park, image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

Making things more difficult, bison evolution experienced starts before fits. Steppe bison remained relatively stable as a species for about 250,000 years before tumbling through  evolution as the Ice Age came to a close. Hunting pressure, natural predation, and climate change could have forced this rapid evolution. Certainly warming climate would trigger a domino effect in the demise of steppe bison, which relied on vast expanses of cold, arid habitats. The swipe of a sharp claws or spears could easily have tipped a declining species into extinction.

Bison changed little for at least a quarter of a million years, then changed a great deal in the last 10,000-12,000 years…. Dale Lott, American Bison, A Natural History.

A comparison of Bison latifrons, with giant horn spread, and today’s plains bison. Hastings Museum, Hastings, Nebraska.
Larger than today’s bison, but smaller than Bison latifrons, is Bison antiquus. Hastings Museum.

Steppe bison did make their way farther south before going extinct shortly after the end of the last Ice Age.This simple map series is a simplified view of the buffalo trail as these Eurasian animals found their way to North America.  The details are a little more complicated.

The buffalo trail in North America started in Eurasia.  Animals made it to this continent when there was enough ice to lower sea levels and expose the Bering Land Bridge.  During warm periods, they could move south through a corridor. Maps by Shaun O’Neil.

There are many mysteries still to be solved on the journey from steppe bison to today’s modern species.  Why did bison evolve into the enormous Bison latifrons when mammoths were becoming smaller?  Why did new bison species evolve so rapidly when they had remained stable for so long?  Was it climate, hunting pressure, or both?  And when many large animal species disappeared at the end of the last Ice Age, why did bison- especially plains bison- walk away from extinction?

Following the trail into buffalo history means journeying north, and flying over an ocean that now covers an ancient land bridge. On the Alaska side, it means going remote to reach Bering Land Bridge Natural Preserve, or visiting northern museums. In Europe, it means packing your rolling luggage and joining people from around the world on a trip before time.

**Note that first peoples from the Great Plains have different creation stories.  They aren’t my stories to tell, but I encourage you to explore books and historic sites to hear them in the words of native speakers.

Hercules Taming a Bison, Musee de l’Homme.  Yeah, and good luck with that, Hercules.  Good thing you’re larger than life and a myth.