More than two years ago, Ryan Murray uncovered some ancient-looking bones on the banks of Rocky Creek at his parents’ ranch in northeastern Burnet County. Experts at a paleontology open house at the University of Texas told him they were bison bones.
Murray, his father, his brother and David Calame, an archaeological enthusiast from South Texas, ended up excavating the bison’s vertebrae, ribs, two front legs and skull with many of the teeth and one horn still intact in 2014.
But Murray still didn’t know how old the bones were. He got his answer late this summer.
The bones were from a bison that lived in Texas sometime between 1308 and 1424 A.D., said Raymond Mauldin, the assistant director of the Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio. That places the animal into an archaeological time frame called the Toyah Interval, when bison were probably pretty common in Texas, he said.
What isn’t common is the substantial amount of the animal’s skeleton that Murray found, because hunters and gatherers during that time period usually cut their kill up and crushed the bone for marrow, Maudlin said.
“We generally just see a few bones, so this one — from my perspective — is in uncommonly good condition and seems to represent a good portion of the animal,” he said.
Mauldin said that Calame had given him several pieces of the bison’s bones to test for age. Scientists extracted collagen from one of the bones and sent it to a lab in Seattle for radiocarbon dating, he said.
Animals absorb carbon into their bones after eating plants that contain it. A certain form of carbon is unstable and deteriorates over time, so scientists can measure what’s left in the collagen to estimate the age, Maudlin said.
Murray, an office administrator for Austin Gastroenterology, said finding out the bison was several hundred years old was thrilling. “It made me feel like it was worthwhile to spend all that time digging it out and being able to study it now,” he said.
He is still stabilizing the skull of the bison he found — a 7-year-old female — with a special type of glue and sculpting clay used by paleontologists. The rest of the skeleton is wrapped up and packaged in storage, he said.
He said he will loan the skeleton for display, but he ultimately wants it back.
“I intend to keep and have it in my family forever,” Murray said.