On safari at the bison farm
At the farm, I soon forget what continent I am on. Our safari bus is a rickety trailer pulled along in bottom gear by a Massey-Ferguson tractor. We crawl past African Watusi cattle, their heads weighed down by horns a metre long, and a herd of Père David’s deer from China which eye us nervously from a shrinking waterhole.
We rattle over a cattle grid and grind our way through a section of sparse oak woodland. The trees stop abruptly and the Pyrenees shimmer in the distance. Something catches my eye to the left, three silhouettes in a line where emerald green grass meets faultless blue sky. There is no mistaking the identity of this beast. The line of its back rises towards bulging shoulders and a massive horned head. For an instant, I forget the sunshine and think of the dark caves where I have seen this exact profile drawn or etched on the walls.
Hunted for half-a-million years
We inch our way forward and more bison come into view. In the wild, the sight of a human would send them galloping away into the distance, un understandable reaction when you remember that Tautavel Man was hunting them half-a-million years ago, and that our more recent ancestors drove them to the verge of extinction in both Europe and North America during the 20th century.
Humans have long been the bison’s principal predator, but the bison was rarely man’s principal prehistoric prey. Through all the different strata of the Caune de l’Arago, bison bones represent at most 10% of prey animals. They are far outnumbered by – depending on the strata – horse, deer, muskox, reindeer or wild sheep.
Based on observations of wild bison in North America where they face predators such as grizzly bears and wolves, we know that these animals stand firm in a group and face their enemy, horns at the ready. But should they choose to run, the bison is as fast as a horse and it can maintain a top speed of around 60 kilometres per hour for much longer than an equine. Despite weighing up to a tonne, it can do a standing jump higher than my head, pirouette on the spot and swim across raging torrents.
Seen in the wintry landscapes of the last Ice Age with their hot breath steaming in the bitter air, they must have inspired a mixture of fear and esteem, or even veneration, emotions which were subsequently expressed on the walls of many a prehistoric cave.