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The Mammoth Site of South Dakota
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In the lower corner of the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota sits an absolute Must See Gem that rivals Mount Rushmore, itself. Just over an hour South of Rushmore, less than an hour from the Crazy Horse Memorial sits the largest collection of mammoths in the world in Hot Springs, South Dakota. There’s over 60, in fact, in pristine yet fragile condition. Their whole skeletons with ivory & bones still intact, a condition virtually unheard of for these Ice Age fossils. But mammoths aren’t the only fossil treasures it holds. Experts across the world have touted it as “one of the most valuable fossil treasures known to mankind today,” and “some of the best Ice-Age fossils on the planet on permanent display.” Those are strong words from worldwide experts who know the field, not from The Mammoth Site’s own marketing people, and they are absolutely right. It’s that amazing.
The Mammoth Site attracts over 100,000 visitors a year, but is one of the best kept secrets of South Dakota that we hadn’t heard of here in the Midwest. No one knew about it at all until June 1974 when they were leveling ground to build a housing development. The bulldozer operator was 25 feet down in a hill when he came upon a 7 foot tusk (an 11 foot one was later found; they can reach 13). The land owner contacted 4 universities who weren’t interested in seeing the bones. The bulldozer operator took some to his son who had recently taken courses in Geology & Archeology. The son quickly realized these “mammoth” fragments were no ordinary bones of livestock or bison. Upon going to the site, he uncovered a single mammoth tusk that weighed 101 pounds. Not too surprising when, in life, they stood 13 feet tall and weighed as much as 8-10 tons. He called his former Professor, Paleontologist Dr. Larry Agenbroad, and held a 24 hour vigil until the crew could come. Dr Agenbroad recognized right away that there were at least 4-6 mammoths here. They were the 1st mammoth bones found in the Black Hills. The find was unprecedented and the land owner, Phil Anderson, realized his 9 1/2 acres of land were far more valuable as a Scientific discovery & research opportunity than as a subdivision. Through the leadership, commitment & efforts of many, including Mr & Mrs Anderson’s (land owners) generosity, The Mammoth Site, a not for profit organization, was born.
Look closely at all of the pictures. There are literally hundreds of bones in view.
The mammoth bones (Columbian & Woolly Mammoths- the only place the 2 species have ever been found together) were entombed in an Ice Age Sinkhole that, at least 140,000 years ago, had filled with balmy 95° spring water & made an attractive watering & bathing hole. Inviting to the tired bones of a 10 ton creature. It was spacious, a 120 x 150 feet sinkhole, about the width of a Football field & length of an Olympic swimming pool. The problem was that the slope along the edges was steep, a slippery shale incline that made it easy to enter but impossible to escape. Starved & drowned, it became a mammoth graveyard. The mammoths were young & naive, all less than middle aged. The juvenile and babies among them likely called out in distress, unwittingly luring others to their death. Over 1200 fossil bones are in the sinkhole. 61 mammoths have been discovered, but at 25 feet down, they’ve only begun to scrape the surface of the 65 foot depths. God knows what more treasures lie in wait.
Today it is an active, world-renowned excavation site. The world’s largest mammoth research facility. But much more than mammoths died in the bonebed. They’ve recovered prehistoric camels (in South Dakota?!!- rhinoceros, crocodile, American Lion & Cheetah fossils have also been found in South Dakota), llama, the very rare Giant Short-faced Bear, wolves, other small prehistoric animals, fish & over 30 species of Ice Age fauna. Finding the Giant Short-Faced Bears (2) were an extremely rare, exciting find, too. One of only 12 complete skulls found in the world. The Giant Short-Faced Bears were fairly “mammoth”, themselves. Standing at 15 foot 4 inches tall, weighing up to 2500+ lbs, they dwarf the modern bear. Today’s Polar Bears stand at 12 foot 8 inches, the Grizzly is ‘only’ 11 feet 9 inches. Our modern day giant’s heads are less than half the size of the Giant Short-faced Bear’s. In 1983, when the 1st bear was found here, National Geographic partially sponsored their dig for several years. The site is a Scientific treasure trove. The Mammoth Site has been declared a National Natural Landmark.
As exciting as the sheer number of mammoths is the incredible condition they’re in with ivory & many bones intact. They were preserved in life position, just as their bodies came to rest on the bottom of the watering hole, preserved completely in their eternal sleep in the bonebed, gently blanketed with layers of silt and mud that preserved them, not to be revealed for over 140,000 years.
The Mammoth Site, over 140,000 years later is an active Paleontological site, Museum, Education resource & leading Research lab & a rare treat for the public to be able to enjoy. The building was built over & around the sinkhole, providing an indoor, climate-controlled environment for the bones and their visitors. Tours start with a 10 minute film, then a 30 minute guided tour with wireless audio headsets so that whole groups can hear well & equally. It leads you to the massive room containing the mammoth bonebed. Everywhere you look are bones. Wide, accessible viewing walk-ways have been built all around and even above the Ice Age sinkhole. The fenced railings are easy to see through for little ones and visitors in wheelchairs. It doesn’t require much imagination, the skeletons and bones lying in situ (as found) are easy to spot, particularly the enormous skulls with their huge tusks protruding from their giant bone faces. Around the edges of the sinkhole, among the cross sectioned walls of layer upon layer of mud & rock, they have arrows pointing out the mammoth footprints. You can identify them because their massive size deeply indented the Earth where they walked and you can see the sunken impressions pressing into the Earth, many layers down. They have interesting exhibits around the room, including sizing models, the various types of animals discovered in the sinkhole, to date, and a replica, full size Giant Short-Faced Bear. You’re invited to linger after your tour and look around at your leisure.
The attached Museum Exhibit Hall of the Visitor Center is interesting and has plenty of hands-on learning activities for kids. They have a replica mammoth bone hut, sponsored by Discovery Channel, like those lived in by prehistoric humans. They also have 2 stunning, exact replicas, incredibly life-like, of 2 of the most well-preserved mammoths ever discovered. The replicas are remarkably well done. The baby Woolly Mammoth mummies were found intact in frozen Siberia, baby Lyuba (found perfectly preserved in 2007 with skin, flesh, eyelashes, organs & her last meal of her mother’s milk) & baby Dima (the world’s 1st complete baby mammoth found in 1977, remarkably well preserved).
We had the awesome opportunity to see the real Lyuba in 2010 during the months she was at the Chicago Field Museum. Today, she rests permanently at a museum in Russia, so I’m thrilled that we got to catch her during her very brief world tour. She was beautiful & amazing! The Mammoth Site & the artist who re-created her did a beautiful job with her replica (on the left), though the lighting was quite different.
They also have the only replica of a recovered mammoth’s brain available for public view & also real mammoth hair- not a replica. Boys will appreciate their mammoth & Giant Bear Dung artifacts. They have a life-size display of elephants vs mammoths so you can see the monumental increase in size. Downstairs, lab windows give a behind-the-scenes look at preserving, cataloguing, identifying, & sorting the fossils.
They have a Mammoth Site Gaming app for phones & tablets. The Mammoth Site also has Summer Educational Programs for Kids offered June 1- August 15, some of them available with Distance Learning. Classes to earn Boy Scout Merit Badges in Geology are available, too.
The Junior Paleontologist Excavation Program offers a 1 hour dig in addition to the 30 minute tour provided with admission. Ages 4-12 can participate in a simulated excavation using real tools to dig for life-sized fossil replicas. Advanced Reservations needed. A fun opportunity. Price is cost of Admission plus $11.06 & Tax, each.
Advanced Paleontologist Excavation Program for a day (Ages 10 & Over), $11.06 + Tax + Admission cost. Trained by Scientists, Learn excavation techniques, bone identification & how to map and jacket a bone. An amazing opportunity. Advanced Reservations recommended. Program is 1 hour & 15 minutes long. The tour included with admission is an additional 30 minutes.
Week-long Excavation opportunities are available at less than $1,000 (with added upgrades to include hotel & dinners) for a once in a lifetime, incredibly unique opportunity through their Ice Age Explorers Program. Spots are limited. I hope to do this someday!!!
K-12 Classroom Science Curricular Activities are available on site. Also K-5 Science Activities unit booklets, kits & games are available through their online store. Featuring Ice Age Geology, Paleontology (studying fossils), and Paleoecology (study of bones). Distance Learning programs have a “Mammoth In a Trunk” kit delivered to your home. Geared for Teachers & home-schooling parents of K-12. The Middle & High School “Mammoth in a Trunk” kits focus on Osteology (science of bones). The kits are extensive and amazingly are available for Free rental. A $500 deposit is submitted & held only until kits are returned at your cost.
Good to Know:
- Visits take @ 1 1/2 – 2 hours long.
- Only snacks here, no restaurant, so dine local, before you go.
- The entire facility is indoors & climate-controlled.
- It’s a clean, modern facility & bathrooms, very handicap accessible & kid-friendly.
- Has a large, nice gift shop with plentiful, quality offerings.
- They have Wifi and a large parking lot with RV & bus parking.
- A golf cart can bring you up the sloping hill from the parking lot, if needed, but it’s not a difficult walk for most.
Located at 1800 US 18 Bypass, Hot Springs, South Dakota
(Kids 3 & Under) – Free
(Ages 4-12) $7.37 + Tax
(Active & Retired Military) $7.37 + Tax
(Ages 13- 59) $10.14 + Tax
(60 & Over) $8.29 + Tax
Open year round, daily, with closings only on 4 major holidays. Seasonal hours, 8a- 8p in summer busy season.
This is a Must See Gem. Do not miss!
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