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Archaeologists Probe 850 Year Old Buffalo Jump In James River Valley

Michael Fosha

Archaeologists in the state are hoping to start excavating a bison kill site near Ree Heights later this summer.

It's one of the archeology dig sites in South Dakota scientists are probing this summer. 

Three years ago, a rancher noticed bison bones sticking out of a hillside near Ree Heights. Now a team of archaeologists are set to begin excavating the site.

Michael Fosha is the assistant state archaeologist for the State Historical Society.

“So what we’re looking at is populations were either driving these bison from on top of Ree Heights down into this existing slump, or what has normally occurs is people drive bison up slope into the depression. And it was enough of a depression to successfully kill quite a number of bison,” says Fosha.

Fosha says the time period makes the site unusual. He says most bison kill sites in the state date back to 3,000 years ago. The Ree Heights site is about 890 years ago.

Fosha says the site may be linked to the Mitchell Indian Village. He says the village and the Ree Heights site date back to the same time period, which may explain where indigenous people living near the James River area got their bison. 

But  lack of bison remains is bringing up questions about an archaeology site in Marshall County, near Roy Lake. Fosha says  remains at the village show the people ate mostly fish instead of relying on bison like other prehistoric communities.

“If the site relates to the ceramics and everything else we’re seeing in the area, it should be what we call a woodland population. This would proceeded the agriculture communities that became very populated and numerous along the Missouri River and lower James River for a period of time,” says Fosha.

Credit Michael Fosha / Archaeology
Lidar images bring out different details from the prehistoric village near Roy Lake.

Fosha says a new photographic method that takes photos of elevation at close intervals to the surface is showing the village was fortified, meaning their location in Marshall County was more permanent. 

He says work at the site started last summer but archaeologists plan to dig a deeper trench to excavate more of the site this August.