Reaching out to the Past
While hiking with her family in the Black Hills, nine-year old Tracy
lagged behind, looking at the cliff next to her. She was astonished to see
that someone had carved images of animals and people on the face of the
stone. They looked very old. She reached out to touch them, and, as her
fingers brushed the stone, the ancient peoples of South Dakota reached out to
touch her in turn...
The prehistoric and historic peoples of South Dakota are all around us,
and they speak to us in different ways. The most recent of our ancestors have
left us their traditions and written histories, and we feel we know them very
well. Ancient peoples, though, left us no written history. They are only
shadows to us, dim and hard to understand. They have left us a message in the
earth in the remains and ruins of their homes, camps, workplaces, and
Archaeology is our way of reading that message and understanding how these
peoples lived. Archaeologists take the clues left behind by the people of the
past, and, like detectives, work to reconstruct how long ago they lived, what
they ate, what their tools and homes were like, and what became of them.
Archaeologists learn these things from the study of what people have
thrown out or left behind stone tools such as arrowheads and scrapers, animal
bones, seeds and charcoal, pottery, glassware, and old cans, for instance.
Archaeologists also study more complex remains such as fire hearths, storage
pits, earthlodges, rockshelters, and root cellars.
The South Dakota Story
No one knows
for sure when the most ancient ancestors of Native Peoples—known to archaeologists as Paleoindians—came to the Americas. We do know that by 11,500 years
ago, as the Ice Age came to a close, the Clovis peoples had burst onto the
prehistoric scene. Clovis, named after a New Mexico town where the artifacts
of that age were first reported, marks the debut of the big game hunting
peoples. At many of these sites archaeologists have unearthed the remains of
the now-extinct animals they hunted, including mammoths, mastodons, horses,
and American camels. At one site we know of Clovis hunters killed and
butchered two mammoths on what is now the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Changing times and circumstances call for changes in the way people live.
About 11,000 years ago the great Ice Age animals had become extinct, and
Paleoindian hunters adapted their techniques to other game the giant
long-horned bison which were common at the time, initiating a long
relationship between them. The distinctive Clovis stone spear point was
replaced by the elegant Folsom point, which marks some of the finest stone
tool work ever done by humans anywhere. Folsom points have been found at
several places in South Dakota, but no sites have yet been excavated.
Approximately 10,000 years ago the Folsom hunters too had passed on, and
succeeding generations of Paleoindian hunters showed greater and greater
regional variation. The giant bison continued to be the primary game animal,
but people shifted to using other types of spear or dart points, known to
archaeologists now as Agate Basin, Hell Gap, Eden, Angostura, and others.
There is greater evidence that these later Paleoindian peoples also made
increasing use of plant foods and more elaborate means of long-term food
storage. Several sites of these Plano complexes, as archaeologists call them,
are known in South Dakota.
All of this had taken place during a time of relatively warm, comfortable
climate in South Dakota. About 7,000 years ago the climate became drier,
droughts lasted longer and came more frequently. The lifestyle practiced by
the big-game hunting Paleoindians gave way to a more flexible hunting and
gathering pattern. When buffalo were plentiful, they shifted to reliance on
the hunt. In drier times they concentrated on smaller game (even rodents). By
this time, plant foods had become very important to the diet of the peoples
perhaps more important than hunting. People appear to have lived in very
small groups most of the time, not unlike the Indians of the Great Basin in
The time after 7,000 years ago is known as the Plains Archaic period in South
Dakota. The dry climate slowly improved, and by 3,000 years ago (about 1000
B.C.) conditions were much the same as today. Bison hunting became more
practical on a regular basis. The shift is most often seen in the adoption of
corner-notched dart points known as Pelican Lake points. People regularly
came together in larger bands for large-scale bison hunts involving elaborate
drives, jumps, or traps.
Contact to the east became apparent in eastern South Dakota by the end of
the first millennium B.C. Prehistoric peoples along the Missouri and other
major rivers and lakes adopted the art of making pottery. We know that social
and religious changes were underway by the fact that hundreds and hundreds of
burial mounds were constructed, providing more elaborate means of burying the
dead. Trade goods from other regions are also more common in the villages of
these peoples, implying contacts with other cultures over a broad area. This
marks the beginning of what archaeologists know as the Woodland period. In
western South Dakota the Archaic period lingered on, but with increasing
signs of contact with the Woodland peoples in the east. Reliance on hunting
bison and plant gathering was still the rule throughout the state. A major
technological innovation appeared in this period. The bow and arrow came into
use about A.D. 500, and the old dart points were quickly replaced by smaller
chipped stone arrow points.
The next major change in the prehistoric cultural mosaic of South Dakota came
after A.D. 900. Farming peoples appeared, at first in the southeast part of
the state. These people not only hunted and gathered plant foods, but they
also cultivated crops of corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers in gardens along
the river bottoms. They lived part of the year in insulated earthlodges in
large villages fortified by ditches and log palisades. By A.D. 1500 the
Plains Village peoples were living all along the Missouri River valley, and
their hunting camps are known from much of the rest of the state.
It is likely that the bison-hunting peoples of earlier times still lived
to some extent in western South Dakota, and Woodland people still made their
living along the lakes of eastern South Dakota. A second culture, called
Oneota by archaeologists, moved into eastern South Dakota during the middle
part of the second millennium A.D. These people were distant cultural cousins
of the earliest Plains Village peoples in South Dakota. They practiced a
mixed economy of hunting, fishing, plant food gathering, and garden
All these earliest South Dakotans are known to us only by the artifacts
and abandoned remains of their camps and villages. After A.D. 1700 or so the
earliest signs of European contact begin to appear in the artifacts of the
inhabitants items such as glass trade beads, iron knives, and other metal
implements. The horse also appears, traded northward from the Southwest. The
combination of horse and later gun transformed the lives of the Plains
hunters in South Dakota, ultimately giving rise to the horse-mounted cultures
so familiar to all Americans.
The early maps of the European and American explorers allow us finally to
put names to some of the inhabitants of that era. The Plains Village peoples
emerge into history as Mandans, Arikaras, and Hidatsas. The western peoples
include the Crows and Cheyennes, among others. The peoples of eastern South
Dakota are seen to be the Omahas, and Poncas, and Dakotas, with the latter
people expanding statewide during the 1700s.
The Euro-American expansion into South Dakota is historically documented,
but there is much we do not know about the lives of these early peoples,
either. Archaeologists have unearthed artifacts at early trading posts,
military forts, farmsteads, mines, and even towns in their search to fill in
the gaps of what is known about this period of our history.
South Dakota's past is truly a fascinating mosaic of peoples, lifestyles,
sweeping changes, and enduring traditions.
The Archaeological Research Center
The Archaeological Research Center is deeply involved with all aspects
of South Dakota's archaeology. The Center is a program of the South Dakota State
Historical Society of the S.D. Dept. of Tourism and State Development. It is
also the Office of the State Archaeologist. Originating as part of the University
of South Dakota Museum in the early twentieth century, the Center was split
off as a separate agency when state government reorganized in 1973. It has conducted
excavations at dozens of prehistoric and historic sites all over South Dakota
and houses collections from thousands of archaeological sites. These collections
are used for research, teaching, and exhibits not only in South Dakota but also
The Center conducts research programs for agencies requiring
archaeological work as part of their missions, including agencies such as the
S.D. Department of Transportation and the S.D. Department of Natural
Resources. It also cooperates with other agencies and institutions in South
Dakota in the ongoing efforts to preserve our past.
What can you do?
If you would like to participate in the discovery of South Dakota's past,
both ancient and recent, the Archaeological Center, along with other agencies
and institutions around the state, has various programs for public
involvement. Excavations are offered most summers to members of the public at
various sites. Lectures and other programs are available for scouts, schools,
and other groups desiring to know more about archaeology. Classes are also
available at several of the state's educational institutions. Each summer the
Center and other institutions sponsor Archaeology Days at various localities
around the state. Finally, the South Dakota State Archaeological Society provides not only
newsletters and journals to its members, but also fellow enthusiasts who
share a common interest in our heritage.
Reach us at...
Archaeological Research Center
P.O. Box 1257
217 Kansas City Street
Rapid City, SD 57709-1257
Or reach the Historical Society at...
South Dakota State Historical Society
900 Governors Drive
Pierre, SD 57501
For Further Reading...
Prehistoric Hunters of the Black Hills by E. Steve
Cassells. Johnson Books, Boulder, Colorado, 1986.
Prehistoric Hunters of the High Plains, 2nd edition by
George Frison. Academic Press, New York, 1991.
Archaeology on the Great Plains edited by W. Raymond Wood.
University of Kansas Press, Manhattan, Kansas, 1999.
Peoples of Prehistoric South Dakota by Larry J.
Zimmerman. University of Nebraska Press, 1985.