Friends of the W. H. Over State Museum Newsletter, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 4-5.
A study of prehistoric bison skeletons at the Over Museum

by Timothy H. Heaton

The W. H. Over Museum is the site of a massive reconstruction project. No, the museum is not under renovation, but is the place where students are cleaning and assembling hundreds of prehistoric bison bones for display. These bones were excavated from a mass death site northeast of the town of White River and have been radiocarbon dated at 2000 years old.

For decades rancher William Krogman and his family had noticed bones weathering out of a badlands bluff where they graze their cattle, but they had been unable to interest any scientists in their discovery. In 1991 Professors Allen Raymond (USD School of Business) and Wayne Evans (USD School of Education) were looking for a dig in which to involve Native American students, and Wayne, whose daughter married Roger Krogman, remembered hearing of the mysterious bones. Eliciting the help of Allen Schroeder of the Over Museum and Professors Gary Johnson and Tim Heaton (USD Earth Scientists) they investigated the site and found a jackpot.

On their initial trip in 1992 the paleontologists thought they were dealing with a single animal, but on a second trip that year they found jaws of two adults and two juveniles, and the bone layer was getting thicker the farther they dug. Drs. Heaton and Evans were awarded a Bush grant to support the project, and two week-long field expeditions were made in 1993. With a group of 16 and a jackhammer they excavated a thousand bones and carefully wrapped them in paper towels for transport. The best skulls were wrapped in plaster jackets, and with the help the Krogman's tractor and the USD forklift they made it safely to the Over Museum. Every bone had to be carefully mapped and cataloged as it was removed.

With the generous help of the Bush Grant and the Over Museum staff, the bones are now being prepared by a group of five students. Visitors can see the work in progress and examine a temporary exhibit of some of the best specimens. Eventually the bison will be part of the museum's planned section on South Dakota prehistory. From the scientists' end the bone deposit is of great significance. The age structure of the ten to twenty animals should allow them to determine what time of year the animals died, which will help unravel the mystery of their demise. No evidence has been found to suggest any human involvement, and archaeologists are interested in the preservation and placement of various body elements to compare with their cultural kill sites.

This project has been a special adventure for the USD faculty and students involved in it. Since it began as a means of getting Native American students interested in science, the leaders have tried to make the most of this cross- cultural opportunity. Whites and Indians have worked together in the field and in the museum, and Wayne Evans made appropriate tobacco offerings to the fossils throughout the dig and even set up a tepee and a sweat lodge at the dig site to initiate the non-Indians into the Lakota rites. The bison is an animal of singular importance to the Plains Indians, so this project has been especially appropriate in meeting its initial objective


Timothy H. Heaton: E-mail, Home page, Phone (605) 677-6122, FAX (605) 677-6121