Ritual and the Hunt

The 1994 excavation of the Cooper site uncovered a bison skull with a red zigzag design painted on its frontal. The archeological context of the painted skull provides the opportunity to address issues related to rituals associated with hunting and to the multiple use of specific locations for bison procurement. The age of the site provides interesting discussions on the parallel use of hematite between North American Paleoindians and Old World Upper Paleolithic groups. The skull from Cooper is the oldest painted object in North America.

This unique opportunity to evaluate the role of usually intangible cultural or social aspects of Paleoindian lifeways adds another dimension to the reconstruction of Folsom and other Paleoindian lifeways. The analysis of the painted skull explores the contextual and technological aspects of painting a zigzag design on a Folsom age bison skull and places this discovery within an anthropological context of ritual and the hunt.

Context and Technological Aspects

The painted bison skull was recovered from the lowest of the three bison bone deposits at the Cooper site. Damage to the skull and adjacent bones by trampling and the fact that it was covered with articulated skeletons from the Middle Kill, imply that the skull was painted just prior to the second use of the arroyo. This would have allowed Mother Nature time to clean and bleach the skull’s surface. The alternative explanation would require that the skull be skinned, fleshed, cleaned, dried, and returned to its original position prior to painting during a ritual immediately following the first hunt. Since the skull with the zigzag line is from an animal from the first kill that was exposed at the time of the second kill, the former alternative is more likely. Other bone from the lowest deposit was exposed at the time of the second kill. This is supported by the discovery of several long bones from the first hunt that have circular compression fractures such as those produced by trampling. The presence of trampled bones in the second bonebed indicates that bones were also exposed at the time of the third use of the arroyo. Since all the trampled bones in the second bonebed are located along the edges and not in the center of the gully where 30 cm of fill separates the second from the third kill, it is possible that a skull along the edges could have been exposed for use in a similar ritual prior to the third hunt.


To analyze the pigment on the skull, a pin-head size sample was collected from the skull and placed in a Gandolfi x-ray cameral. The Gandolfi x-ray camera allows nondestructive analysis of single crystals under ten micrometers in diameter. This method rotates a single grain or crystal in the x-ray beam thus exposing all available atomic planes to defracting positions. Requiring a sample barely visible to the naked eye, this technique is capable of identifying the mineral constituents of paint used by prehistoric artists.

The sediment surrounding the skull was analyzed to eliminate any possible soil contaminants. The defraction analysis of the pigment provides information on the constituents of the paint. This is the first step to the characterization of the hematite available to Folsom peoples occupying the Southern Plains. The high mobility purported for Folsom groups suggests that hematite/ochre could be transported from distant sources. The possibility of tracing the origin of the pigment used on the Cooper skull is unlikely given the widespread distribution of hematite and the general paucity of analyzed samples from known source areas. However, this analysis is a first-step in the compilation of information regarding pigment composition from Folsom-age sites and provides a base line for the study of additional pigment that may be found either at Cooper or any other southern Plains Paleoindian sites.


Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and microparticle X-ray defraction (XRD) were utilized to characterize the pigment. SEM analysis was accomplished using a JEOL 35 SEM with EDS. XRD analysis employed a Gandolfi camera. The sample was fastened to the end of a glass fiber and mounted in a rotation device that caused it to rotate simultaneously and at different angular velocities about two axes, yielding essentially a complete powder pattern from an unpowdered sample. A useful diffraction pattern was obtained after two days evacuating the camera to minimize air scattering of the X-rays.

The SEM analysis indicated that a scraping of the pigment included quartz, Ca (probably calcite) and a colloid-like silica mixture containing Si, Al, Mg, K, and Fe. In addition, a crystal of titanium oxide was present along with trace amounts of phosphorus, probably from a bone chip.

XRD analysis revealed the pigment was a mixture of iron oxides and hydroxides including: akaganeite (B-FeOOH), ferrihydrate (Fe5O7OH), lepidocrocite (y-FeOOH), maghemite (y-Fe2O3), and magnetite (Fe3O4), along with rutile (TiO2), quartz (SiO2), Manganoan calcite (Ca,MnCO3), gypsum (CaSO4), and orthoclase (KAlSi3O8). These mineral compounds are common in the Permian bedrock of this portion of the plains and a local source for the pigment is anticipated.

Paleoindian Use of Hematite

The Cooper site provides the opportunity to study the use of ochre in a context not previously documented for Paleoindians of North America. Ochre use has been identified in North American Paleoindian artifact caches, burials, and open camps but never before at a game-kill site. Three contexts or situations in which ochre is found in Old World Upper Paleolithic and New World Paleoindian sites have been identified: burials, art and non-mortuary ritual contexts, and domestic contexts. In the New World, the mortuary use of hematite has been demonstrated at the Anzick site and the Gordon Creek burial site. At these sites, hematite covered the bones and associated tools. The bifaces and other tools contained in the Fenn cache in Wyoming, Simon cache in Idaho, and Richey-Roberts cache in Washington were rubbed or covered in ochre. In a domestic context, hematite or ochre has been found at Sheaman, Hanson, Lindenmeier, Cattle Guard, and Agate Basin. The domestic contexts include rubbed hematite nodules within the campsites, hematite-stained grinding slabs, and hematite dust on the floors of suspected structures. A Paleoindian ochre procurement site has been found in Wyoming. The bison skull with the zigzag line from Cooper fits in the art and non-mortuary ritual category and is the first New World Paleoindian occurrence in this context.

In Europe, a mammoth skull decorated with geometric designs, including zigzags, was found at the Upper Paleolithic site of Mezhirich on the central Russian plain. Post-cranial mammoth bones painted with geometric designs were also uncovered at Mezhirich and at Mezin. These Upper Paleolithic sites demonstrate the antiquity of the relationship between ritual and favored large game.

The Cooper skull was found in a kill site and in close proximity to the animal’s skeleton, thus indicating that the skull had not been transported to or away from the site. The nonportable aspect aligns the Cooper skull with other kill site phenomena including the shaman pole found at Jones-Miller and the possible shaman hut adjacent to the corral at the Archaic-age Ruby site. The bone-filled pit at the Folsom age Lake Theo site may be another example, although its context suggests a post-kill ritual at the processing camp. The implications of the non-portable nature of this example have yet to be fully considered or realized.

Contribution to Anthropology

The painted bison skull re-emphasizes the role of culture in an act that is often seen only as subsistence. On the one hand, archaeologists view kill sites and the remains of animals at habitation sites as a means of quantifying a subsistence commodity--meat. Using equations that transform x number of animals into x amount of Kilocalories provides a means of predicting how long a group with x number of individuals can survive at a certain rate of consumption. On the other hand, archaeologists are constantly reminded that the ethnographic literature contains numerous examples of the social role of hunting and the rituals, taboos, and prestige that accompany this often more than subsistence activity. In egalitarian societies, success or prowess at hunting is a means of achieving status. Deer antlers and other proxy representations of game animals appear in mortuary contexts. Pictographs and petroglyphs depicting hunting scenes have been found around the world. Hematite is a common pigment source utilized in pictographs. It is also common in mortuary contexts, and, in some cultures, possesses power over other elements. Hunting magic or the ability to predict and influence in a positive way the outcome of a hunt is often found in the realm of a shaman. And it is in the context of the shaman or shamanic trance that the zigzag design on the Cooper bison skull finds its place among universal design elements often attributed to phosphenes and entoptic phenomenon. But whether it is the universality of the zigzag design, use of hematite, or association with a major subsistence act, the Cooper bison skull provides evidence of ritual in Folsom culture.

From this discussion, it can be seen that the study of the Cooper skull can contribute to research topics ranging from hunter-gatherer subsistence practices to social aspects of hunting including hunting ritual. This example of ritual in Folsom culture serves to open the avenues of research to a time period in North America for which little is known of non-subsistence activities. Parallels with the Upper Paleolithic use of hematite have already been discussed. The design element is commonly used and has been shown to be a universal component of imagery associated with shamanic trances. This Folsom example propels the context beyond a bison kill site into the socio-cultural realm.

The painted skull is considered to have functioned as a good luck charm or talisman, drawing the bison herd into the desired arroyo resulting in a successful kill. Early historic bison hunters on the northern Plains used similar objects. The majority of ethnographic accounts deal with bison herded into constructed corrals or pounds (short for impoundments) and the rituals associated with the building and operation of these structures. Many of the rituals were invocations to the bison to draw them into the corral. Accompanying these rites, offerings were placed either at the entrance of the corral or at the base of a pole in the center of the pound. Sometimes items were suspended from the pole.

Cree and Assiniboine hunters placed tobacco, scarlet cloth, and bison skulls (often painted red), at the base of poles left in the center of the corral. These items were often destroyed by the trampling of bison hooves during a successful hunt. In such situations, the items become sacrificial offerings, used only once. Other objects including rocks or spirit rocks were used over and over again.

The painted skull from the Cooper site serves as a reminder that past cultures were far from mundane. Acts that appear to be simply the acquisition of food are interwoven with beliefs and emotions.

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