In order to get to the history of North American bison as we know them, you have to start in Eurasia. Eurasia is where the first bison evolved. From there, a herd of a now extinct species of bison, called steppe bison, walked across the Bering land bridge from Russia into what is now Alaska. The First Nations of North America, the steppe bison, and many other species of animals came in waves from Eurasia starting about a half million years ago. This migration lasted until at least 220,000 years ago. Since the original steppe bison, two or three other species of bison have evolved and gone extinct. The bison we know and love today made their first appearances in the fossil record between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago.
As the bison adapted and changed to better suite the North American climate and ecosystems, the humans that came over the the Bering land bridge also changed and adapted. New cultures and languages were created. The Inuit of the far north survived in vicious winters and relied on the oceans for hunting and fishing. They also hunted birds and were dependent on the caribou herds. Further south, in the plains of what is now Canada and the US, many First Nation tribes relied on bison.
Though bison were never domesticated by the First Nations, there is some argument as to whether or not some tribes deliberately controlled the population of wild bison. Either way, the bison was more than a source of food and shelter for many of the First Nations. Bison held a powerful cultural role in spirituality. During this time, the bison enjoyed its place as the largest land animal, had few predators, and thrived on the great plains.
Unfortunately, good times for the bison and the First Nations who lived beside them would not last. Our next blog will look into how the bison fared after European contact.
Bison is a delicious and healthy source of protein and essential nutrients. If you want to add bison to your diet, contact Rangeland today!