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Frequently Asked Questions about
South Dakota Archaeology

We have prepared a set of answers to some of the most frequently asked questions (FAQ) about archaeology in South Dakota that we hear from people. There has been no attempt whatsoever to make this list complete. We rely on our visitors to complete that information. If you have a suggestion for this FAQ, please us.

How many sites are there in South Dakota?

More than 19,000 archaeological sites have been recorded. These include campsites, buffalo kills, mammoth kills, rockshelters and caves, tipi rings, burial mounds, earthlodge villages, rock art, homesteads, townsites, mines, and cemeteries. Keep in mind, too, that archaeologists have only looked at a very small percentage of the land in South Dakota. A reasonable estimate for the total site count might be 150,000 to 300,000.

What tribes were in South Dakota?

No one really knows what tribes lived in South Dakota before about 1500, other than the ancestors of the Arikara and Mandan. While there is some debate among archaeologists and historians, it is generally felt that, during the 1500s and 1600s, ancestors of the Apaches, Kiowas, Kiowa-Apaches, Arapahos and Comanches inhabited parts of western South Dakota during the course of their southward migrations. The Crow tribe also lived in western South Dakota. Central South Dakota at that time was the homeland of the Arikaras, Mandans, and, for at time, the Cheyenne. Eastern South Dakota was occupied by the Lakota, Omahas, Poncas, and perhaps Iowas and Otos. By the 1700s, the Cheyenne moved west, followed by the Lakota. The Mandans moved wholly into North Dakota, and eventually so did the Arikara. The Poncas and Omahas moved south into Nebraska, displaced by bands of eastern Sioux, the Dakota and Nakota peoples, moving into South Dakota from Minnesota. By the mid-1800s, the Sioux peoples occupied virtually the entire state.

What did people live in long ago?

Most people picture tipis when they think about Indian homes. Tipis have been around a long time; stone circles dating back several thousand years have been found at various sites on the Plains. Paleoindian peoples, living near the end of the ice age, did not appear to have used tipis. Traces have been found of posts which probably anchored tent frames or similar structures. Caves and rockshelters were also used as homes by various peoples in the past. About 5,000 years ago people also began living in pit-houses, which were dug into the ground and covered by poles structures. Woodland peoples and the eastern Sioux often made use of pole-and-bark structures similar to later Quonset huts. Finally, the Arikara and Mandans lived in substantial earthlodges. These rugged homes were well-adapted for the severe weather of the northern Plains. The floor was sunk below ground level, and the earth was banked up on walls made of heavy posts. These lodges could house many people and their belongings.

What did people eat, besides buffalo?

While buffalo have always been the most important source of meat and other products, ancient peoples ate many different kinds of food. Animals such as elk, deer, and antelope were regularly hunted for food. Dogs were sometimes also eaten. Fish and shellfish were important in the diets of peoples in eastern South Dakota and along the Missouri River. Waterfowl were also occasionally hunted. Rabbits, turtles, prairie dogs, and just about any animal could be and was eaten at various times. Smaller animals could be very important in times of drought.

Plant foods were also very important. Many wild seeds such as goosefoot and amaranth can be readily harvested over much of the state, as can wild onion. The prairie turnip (timpsila in Lakota) was a staple of both ancient and modern Indians peoples. A great variety of berries can also be found in the state.

How old is the oldest site in South Dakota?

The oldest site we know if is the Jim Pitts site, which was located about 20 miles west of Custer, in the Black Hills. The earliest inhabitants of the site have been identified as belonging to the Goshen complex, and it has been dated by radiocarbon to about 11,300 years ago.

Note that this is the oldest site we know of now. We do not really know when the first people came to the Americas. Until recently, it had been commonly believed by many North American archaeologists that people could not have arrived via the Bering Straits before about 12,000 years ago, when the great ice-age glaciers retreated. Now, with the discovery of sites in some areas dating back more than 12,000 years ago, archaeologists suspect that people may have entered the New World much earlier--perhaps 20,000 or more years ago.

How can you tell how old a site is?

Radiocarbon dating is perhaps the most common way to date sites. This measures the proportion of carbon isotopes in a charcoal sample to provide an estimate of time since the carbon was part of a living being. Other methods for dating sites involve comparing the stratigraphy or layers at various sites, thermoluminescence (measuring energy loss from fired clay or stone), and paleomagnetism (measuring the orientation of magnetic particles). Archaeologists can also date sites by the style of the stone, bone, and pottery artifacts found at them. Many artifact forms, such as spear/arrow points and pottery, underwent styles changes over time.

How do you find sites?

As the old-timers might say, "by hard work". Sites are found by walking the landscape and keeping a sharp eye out for the telltale signs of past human use. These might include bits of artifacts (flakes and tools, bone fragments, fire-cracked rock, pottery sherds, glass, nails) visible in the soil. If the soil has been plowed, searching is somewhat easier; if not, gopher holes often provide a good view of what is buried beneath the surface. Other traces include modifications to the land: stones laid in circles or lines, depressions, ridges, or mounds.

Can you dig up my yard?

Only if you want us to.

Who owns the artifacts?

Artifacts from public land are the property of the state or federal government and cannot be collected or excavated without a valid permit. Artifacts from private land are the property of the landowner. Collecting or excavating at these is trespassing and/or vandalism without the express permission of the owner. The only exception is human burials. These are protected by law in the entire state. No one may knowingly disturb a grave or excavate it without a permit.

When did the first white traders come?

White trade goods began appearing in the mid 1600s, and it is probable that early French traders were in the South Dakota area by the late 1600s. There is some record of traders by the early 1700s, and the Verendrye expedition passed through South Dakota in 1743. The first well-documented evidence of white trading posts is not until the late 1700s, as traders came up the Missouri from Spanish (later French) St. Louis. By the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804--1806 many white traders were living and trading among the tribes along the Missouri. By the 1800s trade was dominated by American fur companies operating out of St. Louis. The trade thrived until the 1850s.

How do you use an atlatl?

The atlatl (an Aztec word for spear thrower) is a stick about 24 inches long with a grip at one end and a hook at the other. The spear or dart shaft is notched to fit into the hook. Grip the stick, plug in the spear, and flick your wrist at the target (a bit like a tennis serve). For the first twenty or so throws, expect the dart to flop at your feet or to throw the atlatl itself downrange. Eventually, one picks up the knack of flinging the spear in the proper direction.

What are "bird points"?

Many people who have found tiny arrowpoints assume they were used to hunt very small game such as birds. These tiny points were some of the last ones made of stone just prior to the introduction of metal artifacts. They were used to hunt buffalo, deer, elk, and other large game. Early points were used on atlatl darts or throwing spears. They tended to be large, lanceolate types during Paleoindian times. By 7000 years ago, large notched styles were also in use, and lanceolate points were mid-sized. Later dart points were either side or corner notched but still on the order of two or more inches long. The first arrow points came into use in South Dakota about A.D. 500. These were larger than the later "bird point" types and were very finely made. The Plains Village peoples and their contemporaries made middle-sized arrow points with finely worked side notches. The tiny points came into use on the Plains in the sometime after A.D. 1500.

Why do you dig in squares? Use a trowel?

The archaeologist digs in squares as part of an effort to control the progress of an excavation. Digging a site destroys it, so archaeologists are careful to keep good records of where they dig. The squares follow the reference grid for a site, allowing good horizontal and vertical control. It would also be possible to work in triangles, circles, or hexagons, but squares are the easiest to keep track of and map.

What's a biface?

This is a term often tossed about by archaeologists. It refers to a chipped stone tool which has been completely formed on both sides or faces. A biface knife, for instance, is completely chipped, flat, and often ovoid or bipointed in shape. The carefully chipped edges formed the working edge of the tool. An arrowhead or spear point is a specialized form of biface.

Do you have to go to college to be an archaeologist?

Yes. At least a bachelor's degree is necessary to get a full-time job as an archaeologist, and a master's or Ph.D. degree is necessary for most senior-level positions.

Do you just dig up Indian things? Do you dig up dinosaurs?

No and no. It is a common misconception that archaeologists are only interested in Indian history. Archaeologists are interested in the human story. In North America, that involves both the Indian and the Euro-American cultures. In other parts of the world, archaeologists study the history of the people who lived there. As for dinosaurs, those studies are left in the capable hands of the paleontologists.

What's a cache pit?

Archaeologists are apt to use odd terms for common objects. One such is the term cache pit. This is nothing more than the French term for a storage pit. Similar terms include atlatl (spearthrower), mano and metate (handstone and milling stone), and provenience (a bad rendition of provenance, or location).

What's a palisade?

Many of the earthlodge villages of the Plains Village peoples, and later the Arikara and Mandan, were fortified by a deep ditch and a log stockade wall, also known as a palisade.

Are there any sites that we can go see?

Although many sites are accessible to the public, most do not offer anything to see. Only one prehistoric site is developed for tourists: the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village. Other sites which are open to the public and have interpretive signs, including Fort Pierre Choteau, Fort Randall, mounds at Oakwood Lakes State Park, and prehistoric and historic sites at Hartford Beach State Park. The site of Fort Sisseton was reconstructed by the WPA in the 1930s and is operated by the State Parks Division as a tourist attraction.

What's the difference between petroglyphs and pictographs?

Both terms refer to rock art produced by Native Americans in the past. Some types are pecked or incised into the rock and are known as petroglyphs. Pictographs, on the other hand, are painted onto a rock surface. A third type of rock art consists of petroforms, which are arrangements on stones on the prairie. Tipi rings are an exception: they are classified as a housing type, rather than as art.


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