One thousand years ago, a small group of people settled on a bluff overlooking a creek in present day South Dakota. Today we call the creek Firesteel Creek; it was dammed in 1928 to create Lake Mitchell. There were many good reasons for these people to choose this site. The creek provided water, and fish and shellfish for food. Trees, such as cottonwood and willow, grew along the shoreline of the creek, providing wood for their lodges, tools and fires. The floodplain along the creek was rich and fertile, giving them ample opportunity for farming. Most importantly, the wildlife in this area was abundant. Bison, deer, pronghorn, and elk were among the large game animals that roamed this region. Smaller animals included squirrels, racoons, skunks, rabbits, fox, coyote and many different species of birds.
During the excavations at the Prehistoric Indian Village we find many different artifacts relating to the reasons for settling on the bluff. We know that the villagers farmed; they raised corn, beans, squash, sunflower, amaranth and tobacco. We know they fished; we find fish bones. We know they hunted; we find many different species of animal bones in the site showing evidence of butchering. Indeed, the number of bones is incredible.
These people also traded extensively with other people. We find artifacts from as far away as present day south Florida, Oregon, Washington and the Great Lakes. To trade with others, however, one must have something of value that others would want or need. For a long time, our scientists wondered what our villagers had. The answer, published recently by Landon Karr in the Journal of Field Archaeology, is bison. We have learned that our villagers were processing bison on an industrial scale.
The villagers were making pemmican, an early form of a “power bar” favored by modern athletes. Pemmican was made by scraping clean the large bones of the bison. These bones were then broken into small pieces and heated in water until the marrow and marrow fat inside the bones were thoroughly cooked. The marrow and fat was then mixed with dried berries and grains, and with dried meat. The resulting product, pemmican, had a shelf life of up to eight years! While you or I may not want to eat an eight year old piece of pemmican, and we might gasp at the thought of eating all that fat, for our villagers and the people who traded for the pemmican, it was a most important food item. Its long shelf life meant it would stay edible on long journeys, last through the bitter, frigid winters of the northern plains, and be available in times of drought. The fat, an excellent preservative, was also a good source of energy while the berries, grains and meat provided much needed minerals and vitamins.
Our site holds countless bison bones. One could never estimate how many of these enormous creatures were butchered during the 100 to 150 years our village was inhabited. Biologists estimate that there were 30 million bison roaming North America 1,000 years ago.
Every part of the bison was used by our villagers. The bladder and stomach were used as pouches, buckets and cooking vessels. The brain was used to tan hides; the hooves for glue and rattles. The hide was used for bull boats, containers, drums, moccasins, shields and, if the hides were tanned, for bags, belts, clothing and coverings for shelters. The hair was used for ornaments, padding and stuffing, ropes and headdresses. Horns became cups, fire carriers, ladles, rattles and toys. Fly brushes and whips were made from the tail. Bones became arrowheads, fish hooks, hoes, paddles, knives and much, much more. The buffalo chips, once dried, became fuel for their fires. These are just a few of the items that were made from the bison, as you can see nothing went to waste. And don’t forget, they ate much of the beast; the meat, liver and other internal organs, the tongue. Even the blood was consumed.
So, while many may think that the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village is just a collection of ancient, buried lodges, it really is much more than that. The countless bones tell of a much richer history and lifestyle. One really has to dig to learn about our past, connecting it to the present.