Necessity is the mother of invention, and for the Mountain Shoshone Indians, hunger was the root of their resourcefulness.
The tribe, called the "sheep eaters," which lived in and around the area now known as Yellowstone National Park, used bighorn sheep horns and bones and the intense heat of the area's geothermal features to fashion hunting bows.
Norman Jacobson of Missoula, 78, a former Hellgate High School science teacher, described the technique August 1 to gatherers at Salmon Lake State Park as part of Montana State Parks' "Staycation" program, showing off his own bighorn bow that took two years to craft.
The Yellowstone natives, Jacobson explains, placed sheep horns in bubbling-hot geyser pools to make them pliable. They then carved the horns using knives made of obsidian—a glasslike volcanic rock taken from Yellowstone's Obsidian Cliff. After boiling the horns again, the Indians tied them to trees to dry straight.
Then, Jacobson goes on, they combined two horns end-to-end, splinted them using a sheep's leg bone and fastened it all together using sinew and hide glue—a gel made from boiling animal skin and bone.
"I wanted to do the same thing," Jacobson says, "but the smell got so bad that my wife made me go outdoors. What I ended up doing, I went on the Internet and asked for some suggestions, and a couple fellas said to go down to the grocery story and get some Knox Gelatin, because that's made from leftovers from the slaughterhouse."
It took the Shoshone up to a year to make one bow. Some weighed as much as 80 pounds. "They could drive an arrow basically completely through a bison with that bow," Jacobson says.
While Jacobson doesn't use his bow to hunt, he could if he wanted to.
"There's a lot of people who make their own bows out of wood," says Tim Feldner of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. "This is the first time I've heard of someone using bone. I'm surprised that there's enough flexibility. But I guess if the Shoshone used to do it, there must be something to it."
"It's pretty ingenious," says Jacobson. "You did what you had to do to survive."