Where Giants Walked

Bones lie just where the animals died 20K yrs ago
Bones lie just where the animals died 20K yrs ago

In light of the fact that today there were already 9 inches of snow on the ground by 8 in the morning, Abby and I made the right decision to have our adventure yesterday.

We traveled south through Hill City and Custer, past prairie dog towns and waiting here and there for buffalo to cross the road, and ended up in Hot Springs, SD. Destination: the Mammoth Site.

More than 50 mammoths (both Wooly and Columbian) plus divers other Ice Age beasts became trapped in a water filled sink hole some 20,000 years ago and left their bones in place, mineralized from the substances in the limestone there.

The entire sinkhole became a resistant hilltop–a perfect place for a housing development–a process that came to a screeching halt when the first backhoe dredged up huge bones in 1974.

Today, 97% of the sinkhole area is under roof and a large in-situ acheological site is underway, with museum tours that walk above and around the excavation.

Most interesting fact: all of the mammoths in the sinkhole are males.

According to our guide, females tended their families, returning to same area year after year, remembering and avoiding the sinkhole. Males, weaning early to go out and seek their fortune, were naive and not protected by maternal instincts.

They ventured to the edge of the hole, warmer than the snowy surroundings, for a bite of grass just below the steep, slippery rim of the sinkhole.

On our drive home, I imagined roaming herds of 12′ tall mammoths grazing with the buffalo. Having seen them in death made them more real in “life” for me, and I trust for Abby, too!

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Interesting that 97% of the site is roofed over. I seem to recall that the terra cotta soldiers in China are similarly protected. Isn’t the word you want to use paleontology?

  2. I’m so glad that you and Abby were able to make the trip. And I’m doubly glad that it was a good experience.

    I’m fascinated by the mammoths, there having gone extinct so recently. I keep thinking what our lives would be like if they hadn’t. What fresh kinds of havoc would herds of mammoths play upon our oh-so-neatly groomed modern world?