A Mammoth Discovery

By Muller, Joe | Parks & Recreation, September 1996 | Go to article overview

A Mammoth Discovery


Muller, Joe, Parks & Recreation


A major paleontological discovery in the Black Hills of South Dakota has put new knowledge about the mysterious prehistoric world within our reach. Once, gigantic mammoths--ancestors of the majestic elephants of today--roamed the High Plains of America. A repository of their remains, along with other species of now-extinct animals, lay entombed within the Earth for more than 26,000 years.

In June, 1974, Phil and Elenora Anderson--owners of a large tract of land in Hot Springs, South Dakota--were planning to develop some housing tracts on their property. While in the first stages of leveling the property, developer George Hanson uncovered some bone fray meets. Hanson took them home to show his son, Dan, who had an interest in geology and archaeology.

Intrigued by the discovery, the young Hanson decided to visit the site. As fate would have it, he stumbled upon what appeared to be a mammoth tooth protruding from the ground. Upon examination, he recognized that it was very similar to one he had seen in one of his classes. He quickly contacted Dr. Agebroad, one of his professors from Chadron State College in Nebraska, who identified the fossils as belonging to Columbian mammoths.

The Andersons then told Dr. Agenbroad that they would allow him two years to investigate and determine what should be done with the bones and the site. After extensive test excavations, Agenbroad recommended that the bones be left in place (in-situ). Visitors and scientists could then view the bones and experience a working paleontological site and museum.

Scientists estimate that the remains of more than 100 mammoths are accumulated in a small area at the Hot Springs site. The animal remains at the site are found in their primary context, where they died. Since the site's discovery in 1974, scientists have unearthed remains of 51 mammoths, including 48 Columbian and three woolly mammoths, as well as the giant short-faced bear, camel, coyote and almost 30 other species of animals.

The skeletons have been found in what was once a prehistoric sinkhole, formed when limestone deposits beneath the Earth's surface dissolved in water from underground springs. The land then collapsed and the resulting hole filled with water that lured the huge mammoths to drink or feed on vegetation. Once in the water, they could not get up the slippery, steep incline.

As local interest groups became aware of the discovery, an urgency to preserve the site began to grow. Les Ferguson, president of the Hot Springs Gem and Mineral Society, summed up the protectionist attitude when he said, "If we don't do something, no one will." His group, along with other interested individuals, formed a non-profit 501-C-3 corporation, which bought the land at its original cost from the Andersons. After several years of struggling to survive, the Mammoth Site of Hot $rings, South Dakota, Inc. Board of Directors was reorganized and the financing was arranged for the purchase of land, architect fees, landscaping, and construction. In 1980, the Department of the Interior designated the Mammoth Site as a National Natural Landmark; it continues to hold that designation.

From a temporary building in 1975, Phase I of construction--that included a 20,000-square-foot visitor center--was completed in 1985. In 1990, a new 3,000 square-foot addition was completed enabling the site to add more exhibits as well as expand the bookstore department. Now the Mammoth Site serves as a model of success for other paleontological and archaeological sites. …

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