Buffalo Bones Return to the Black Hills to be Preserved for Study

Part of a bison skull and other bones after being catalogued and placed in climate-controlled storage at SD Mines.

Between 1993 and 1995, a team of archeologists undertook an excavation of prehistoric animal bones in the Deerfield area of the Black Hills. They found bison, mountain lion, deer, elk and a range of smaller animal bones. Work on the age of the specimens is still underway, but researchers estimate some of the bones date as far back as 8,000 years.

After excavation, the bones were taken to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, where they stayed for more than 20 years. In 2017, the US Forest Service moved these back to South Dakota, and students in the paleontological resource management class at SD Mines stepped up to help. The students took part in an effort between the US Forest Service, the South Dakota State Historical Society Archaeological Research Center, and the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology to curate these specimens.

“A lot of times, in different repositories, this material will just sit and sit for years,” says Mike Hilton, the heritage resources program manager for the Black Hills National Forest. Hilton gives praise to Sally Shelton, the associate director of the Museum of Geology at Mines, and the students in her paleontology resource management class. The students undertook the bulk of the work in the project to unpack, assess, catalog and prepare the animal bones for storage at the Museum of Geology. Other parts of the collection were curated at the Archaeological Research Center (ARC) in Rapid City.

“The collections will now be accessible and available to local experts. We have a vested interest in taking care of this collection and learning more from it,” says Katie Lamie, the repository manager at ARC.

The project also helped students explore the intersection between archeology and paleontology.  “We really need each other in research like this,” says Shelton. Paleontology is the study of life in the distant past long before humans, while archeology more often involves specimens from the more recent past during the evolution of humans. “This is the youngest collection that any of these students have ever done,” says Shelton.

“We married this school with a different branch of science we’re not used to working with,” says Julie Driebergen, who finished her master’s degree in paleontology at SD Mines this spring. 

“We’re super appreciative that they thought of us for this project. Tt was a great opportunity for us,” adds Shannon Harrel, a master’s student in paleontology at Mines.

The American public and local communities also benefit from this effort. “This is still federal property, and we have a responsibility to properly curate this for public use and knowledge,” says Hilton. “This is part of the history of the Black Hills and this resource is now available for future generations to learn more about our past.”


Last edited 10/22/2019 2:18:43 PM

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