Steppe Bison
Bison priscus
250,000 – 25,000 Years Before Present
Paper cut-out bison, paper cut-out aurochs, Pleistocene bison leg bones and teeth, ancient bison DNA sequenced from bones found in the North Sea

Sir William Boyd Dawkins of Oxford University and Manchester Museum was born in Buttington Trewern near Welshpool in 1837. In the course of a colourful and often controversial career he spent a good deal of time prowling the Clwydian Hills and their underground spaces – including Ffynnon Bueno, Cae Gwyn and Gop Caves. Despite being something of a cad (allegedly) he was very good at identifying the bones and teeth of Ice Age mammals – though rather less precise in documenting what he found and where; a major stumbling block for the researcher aspiring to maintain their scientific integrity.
In a scribbled list of finds, he notes Bos–2 for Cae Gwyn and Bos–20 for Ffynnon Beuno. Bos refers to large cattle-like ungulates (hoofed animals), sometimes the aurochs (our native wild cattle, now extinct) and sometimes the bison – it’s quite difficult to distinguish between the two…

Now, nearly a century after Sir William’s death, DNA-related research has brought a whole new dimension to the way in which we define species, their inter-relationships and their emergence. It tells us, for example, that there is a little bit of the wild thing in some of our modern cattle – for the aurochs was a sizeable, nimble and ferocious creature, far more dangerous than lion or lynx. But that largely we have tamed the beast through selective breeding, just as farmers sought to bring the land under control – once the climate allowed them to do so. It also tells us something fascinating about cave art and our capacity for observation, which again is related to climate.

In paintings on the ceiling of the cave of Altamira in northern Spain, bison are depicted quite differently to those at Lascaux in France. The latter are great humped beasts with long horns;very clearly extinct steppe bison (Bison priscus) – whereas the Altamira bison are considerably less ‘mighty’. Researchers in the 19th and 20th centuries had assumed that this variation was simply a matter of stylistic difference, reflecting diverse cultural (or individual) visions. 

However, a study of ancient bison DNA by Dr. Julien Soubrier of the University of Adelaide shows that there were in fact two distinct species. His research has identified a ‘missing link’; the result of a liaison between a male steppe bison and a female aurochs more than 120,000 years ago. 

The presence of this ‘Higgs Bison’ – only detectable as a DNA signal – corresponds with cold phases, suggesting that it was better adapted to deal with lower temperatures. And thus that this unconventional ‘trans-bovine’ coupling ultimately enabled the bison to weather the last great freeze and evolve into the modern Wisent or European Bison Bison bonasus (which, perhaps ironically, was almost wiped out by frozen German soldiers in World War I).

In a wonderful Sci-Art confirmation of this, dates from the DNA extracted from ancient bison bones correspond with those of the cave paintings – in that the majority of ‘small’ bison depictions were created in the coldest spells whereas the big Priscus boys were painted in the periods when things had warmed up.

This demonstrates not only that unconventional connections can be highly beneficial within the straightforward criterion of survival – but also that artists have always been important (and accurate) agents when it comes to documenting the impacts of climate change…

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