26,000 years ago in what is now Hot Springs, South Dakota, a large spring-fed pond enticed animals to quench their thirst and cool off. Unfortunately, the pond held a deadly secret: a cavern below it had collapsed and created a large hole below the surface of the water, one that would cause hundreds of animals, including dozens of mammoths, to slip in and slide their way to a watery death, unable to climb the steep side to safety.
The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs (MSHS) was first discovered in 1974 during an excavation project for a housing development. After the bones were discovered, the area was preserved and then designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1980. Eventually the site revealed an amazing collection of Pleistocene animal bones. To date, 61 mammoths have been identified in the death trap. Other large animals found include the extinct short-faced bear (Arctodus), a camel, a wolf, and a llama. A variety of small animals and plant remains have also been recovered, giving paleontologists and archaeologists an important window into a time in North America when large megafauna still existed, only about 10,000 or so years before humans arrived in the new world.
Among the doomed animals were dozens of mammoths, mostly of the Columbian (Mammothus columbi) variety. The MSHS contains the world’s largest collection of Columbian mammoths, comprising 58 of the 61 mammoths. The other three were woolly mammoths (Mammothus primigenius). The presence of both types of mammoths at one bonebed is remarkable; the MSHS is the only place in the world where both species of mammoth have been recovered from the same site. One of the most interesting facts about the mammoths is that the vast majority, possibly even all, of the mammoths recovered were males (this is identified through the pelvic bones). The majority were juvenile males, mostly what would be called young adults. How on earth could such a pattern exist? Wouldn’t female mammoths also be susceptible to falling in a hidden trap? One theory suggests that since elephants (and presumably mammoths) live in matriarchal societies, young males approaching adulthood are often sent out of the herd to find their own herd, and these young males are much more likely to engage in the kind of dangerous behavior that might entice a mammoth into a death trap.
As soon as you enter the building, you can tour the site. A convenient walkway leads around the dig site, and from it, visitors can see hundreds of bones sticking out of the clay and sand. It should be noted that these bones are NOT, strictly speaking, fossils because they have not gone through the mineralization that much older bones do. So it is the bones themselves that are preserved in the layers of clay and sand that eventually filled up the pond over a period of 300-700 years. Fortunately, the sediment preserved the bones of the animals trapped below, and now MSHS is one of the best prehistoric bonebeds in the world.
The most easily identifiable bones on a mammoth are the skull and tusks, and fortunately there are plenty of them visible to visitors. It is still an active paleontological research site, so visitors can also see a variety of tools and implements near areas of current research. The walkway allows visitors to see the site in nearly a full circle, and the width and depth of the site are impressive. There are many layers to the excavation site; it descends probably 25-30 feet or more, with each layer revealing a variety of animal bones.
Are other bones/fossils found at the site?
While mammoths are the largest and most impressive finds at the site, there have been plenty of other animals found as well. A beautiful skeleton mount of an Arctodus (short-faced bear) stands in the museum area of the building. It is a very nice reconstruction of this fierce predator, one of the largest bears ever to walk the earth. The skull of Arctodus is really large; it is hard to imagine early North American humans coexisting with this giant animal that was 25-30% larger than a modern grizzly. But they did, for thousands of years until Arctodus went extinct around 11,000 years ago. Other prehistoric creatures found here include an extinct North American camel, as well as wolves, coyotes and birds.
Are there other activities available at the site?
After visiting the dig site, visitors can enjoy a relatively small museum collection, which includes bones from mammoths as well as Arctodus. A large Columbian mammoth mount is on display; it is very tall and impressive. One of my sons’ favorite exhibits was a reconstruction of a mammoth-bone hut like those found in parts of Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine, Poland, and Czechia. These huts were constructed almost entirely from mammoths, using bones and skin to create a warm settlement that could easily house an entire family. Several sites have been discovered that date to as far back as 27,000 years ago, although the majority are younger–between 12,000 and 19,000 years old. Archaeologists have found over 30 small collections of up to six mammoth huts which constitute what some consider among the earliest human “villages.”
Visibility of the bones:
Many bones are easily visible at MSHS. Once you are in the main dig site area, it is impossible to miss them. While the skulls and tusks are easy to identify, there are also very large femurs and some articulated skeletons that show most of the bones in the position they were in when the animal died. You will absolutely see mammoth bones during your visit. You may not see them as closely as you might want from the walkway, but one of the nice things about mammoth bones is that they are big! There are plenty of opportunities around the site to get a pretty close-up view of the active paleontology site.
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage:
There are a lot of nice education displays in the museum portion of MSHS. Many of the signs are very helpful and tell some interesting stories about the bones that have been recovered. Inside the dig site we relied primarly on the tour guide who was very good and had a lot of good information. He was also very patient with questions from the group, particularly the youngest members, some of whom had many questions that needed URGENT answers!
Did my children enjoy going?
Yes, my sons enjoyed the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs quite a bit. Seeing so many mammoth skulls, tusks, femurs laying in situ is pretty impressive, and both my children enjoyed that. After visiting the dig site, they had a good time going inside the mammoth-bone hut and looking at the skeletal mounts in the museum portion of the MSHS. Very young children may not appreciate the site as much as older children, but there is plenty of room to run around and see interesting things that kids of all ages will enjoy.
OVERALL RATING, Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, Hot Springs, SD: 34.0/40.0
Rating Aspects of the Fossil Bonebed:
Visibility of the Bones on Display: (9.5 out of 10)
Ease of Getting to/Seeing the Bones: (9.5 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (8 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (7 out of 10)
Overall Rating Information:
30-40: Excellent, a great place to see prehistoric animal bones. Strongly recommend!
25-30: Very Good, worth spending some time to see the bones.
20-25: Good, but will require some effort to see the bones and/or interpret them.
Below 20: The bones are hard to find and/or see, and there is not much help in the area to guide you.