Native Americans and Buffalo: a Conundrum

I’ve been working on articles to do with Native Americans (after a reviewer pointed out that we had very little on this topic).

It’s funny how questions occur while reading up on a topic you’re not very familiar with, and you can’t find any source which even tackles the problem, let alone provides an answer. Relating to the Native Americans of North America, a question which occurred to me is, why didn’t they wipe out the buffalo before the white man got to it?

Ancient overhunting in North America

When the ancestors of today’s Native Americans first came to North America (and therein lies another conundrum – there’s a 25,000 year gap between the earliest estimates of when they arrived (c. 35,000 BCE), and the latest (c. 10,000 BCE) – quite a long time!) they found a continent teeming with huge animals – mammoths, mastodons (which I always thought were one and the same as mammoths, but they’re not), giant sloths, giant bears, huge lions, sabre-tooth tigers and so on. Horses as well. Oh, yes, and buffalo.

Wooly mammoth
Example megafauna of ancient North America – woolly mammoths

By 5000 BC all these magnificent animals had all been wiped out. All, that is, except the buffalo.

It is very hard to escape the conclusion that it was man’s overhunting that killed them off. So why did the buffalo survive?

Why did the buffalo survive?

If the hunters had the courage and skill to kill massive elephant-like creatures to the point of extinction, what was it about the buffalo that let them survive – and not just survive, but thrive? Surely, once mammoth and mastodon and giant sloth numbers were down, would the human hunters not have turned their attention to buffalo, and started reducing its numbers too?

One possible answer I thing I can think of is that perhaps the endless grazing lands of the Great Plains suited buffalo more than any other animal. If this was the case, perhaps this allowed them to breed at a fast enough rate to let them survive.

Perhaps animals can get too big for their own good!

In the case of the giant animals, well, perhaps they were simply too big for their own good – at least once man had appeared on the scene. At the best of times there probably weren’t that many of them per square mile, as they would simply have needed too much food. They probably roamed the prairies in comparatively small groups, rather than in the vast herds that buffalo were able to congregate in. The larger the animal, the longer the gestation period and the fewer offsprings they can have, so that replacing their numbers is more difficult when conditions become harder (and boy, those pesky human hunters could indeed make life hard for other animals). And one can imagine that the people of the time would have developed hunting tactics which targeted the young animals in preference to the adults, so that would have made survival even more difficult.

buffalo-in-north-america
Buffalo in modern USA

Perhaps buffalo, large as they are, simply don’t reach the size threshold above which vulnerability sets in. Not being too large, they could live in enormous herds, and this would probably have made protecting the young much easier. Also being smaller than mammoths and mastodons, they would surely have been speedier and more agile (as a Wikipedia clip shows), so harder to hunt. A clue to this is that, the large predators of the region, the North American lion and the sabre-toothed tiger also became extinct at the same time as the mammoth, mastodon and giant sloth. Clearly they too had a hard time killing buffalo, at least in sufficient numbers to enable them to survive.

A possible formula

Perhaps there was another factor at play, however. Maybe there is a formula somewhere which says that, if an animal is above a certain size, killing them reaps such a bountiful nutritional reward that it’s more than worth the effort for predators’, both human and animal, to hunt them. Doing so may lead predators’ numbers to increase to the point where their giant prey becomes endangered. If, however, an animal is smaller and more agile, but large enough to be dangerous, then the balance between effort and rewards tips the other way: hunting them may actually take more energy than for larger animals, and the rewards of the kill more meagre. This predators’ numbers would be kept in check, and even begin falling off.

Anyhow, I find such questions quite interesting. Reading up on the Native Americans has given me a few more conundrums, which I might bore you with another time.

By Peter Britton