Mammoth Site of Hot Springs: Prehistoric History Uncovered

Here is the story of how the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs came to be. Once upon a time, in a prehistoric land not so far away, giant creatures roamed the earth. One day, over sixty male Columbian and wooly mammoths left home never to be seen again. Stories about the disappearance were passed down through generations of mammoths until the stories became legend. Males claimed females drove them away, to a mass suicide. Females claimed the males went on a hunting trip, got lost, and refused to ask for directions. The species eventually became extinct, and of course, the legend became extinct along with the mammoths.

Fast forward many millennia, to 1974 A.D., and the Black Hills of South Dakota, where a contractor purchased property for development. When he started excavating, he found bones—lots of them. It turns out he discovered the lost mammoths in what was once a giant sinkhole. The developer sold the land to a non-profit organization at his cost with the stipulation that all bone material must stay, and the site used for education and research. Thus was born the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota.

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Experiencing Mammoth Site of Hot Springs

When I was told we would be visiting the Mammoth Site last summer, where digging and discovery are still occurring, I expected to be outdoors in a muddy mess, since it was raining that day. It turns out a climate controlled building was constructed around the Mammoth Site, which of course, makes a lot of sense. Visitors can take a guided tour of the site, learn more in the attached museum, or even volunteer to participate in the digging.

To date, approximately 1,300 bones have been uncovered. Tusks number 122, or 61 mammoths: 58 Columbian mammoths and 3 wooly mammoths. The gender is determined by the pelvic bones. All of the remains uncovered have been male. Archeologists determine whether it’s a Columbian mammoth or a wooly mammoth by the teeth.

Take the site tour

On the site tour, you walk around the perimeter of the sinkhole to see the bones displayed in the positions in which they were found.

Mammoth Site of Hot Springs Sinkhole 2SinkholeTusks at Mammoth Site of Hot SpringsIt was when our guide showed us a femur and a jaw bone up close that it struck me just how massive these animals were.

Jaw bone at Mammoth Site of Hot SpringsMammoth femur at Mammoth Site of Hot SpringsOur guide pointed out the most complete of the mammoths they’ve discovered so far. They’ve named him Napoleon Bonaparte, the emphasis of course, on the last name.

Napoleon Bonaparte, Mammoth Site of Hot SpringsIt’s estimated that the excavating will be complete in about twenty years.

Browse the Museum

Browse the exhibits in the museum before or after the tour to learn more about the mammoths. See replica skeletons and a replica mammoth bone house. Mammoth bone houses were built using up to 150 mammoth jaw bones, as well as other bones. While most mammoth bone houses were found in the Ukraine and dated between 12,000 and 19,000 years ago, some are as old as 27,500 years, the same time that the mammoths roamed South Dakota.

Mammoth Site Museum 1Columbian MammothMammoth Bone HouseHave you always dreamed of going on an archeological dig? If you’re over 18, you can. Each summer the Mammoth Site offers an opportunity to spend two weeks working in the dig site to excavate and care for the artifacts through the Mammoth Site Excavation and Preservation Program.

If you visit Mammoth Site of Hot Springs

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, located at 1800 U.S. 18 Bypass in Hot Springs, is open year-round, seven days a week. Check the “Visit Us” menu on the web site for seasonal hours and admission fees.


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Disclosures: The South Dakota Department of Tourism and the Mammoth Site hosted my visit to the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs. However, all opinions in this article are my own.
This article contains an affiliate link. If you book a room through the “Check rates and reviews” link above, I will receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you.

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