Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Mammoths in Hot Springs

Saturday August 2, 2014
Allen Ranch Campground
Hot Springs, South Dakota


Like Judy says, I live in a cave.


Lots of folks were surprised I’d never heard of the Sturgis Bike Rally so I’m sure they will be even more surprised that I did not know about the huge Mammoth find in 1974 here in Hot Springs, South Dakota.  What can I tell you.  I lived on a farm with a 3/4 mile driveway, 23 miles from town in a mountain hollow with no TV signal.  And I liked my seclusion and no news life really really well.

Today is our last day in Hot Springs but we are only traveling about 80 miles so since we spent the entire day yesterday at the fabulous Wind Cave (here’s a link to the post), we didn’t get to go to the Mammoth Site.   The site is located pretty  much around the corner from the campground so we’re here at 8:30 thinking it will take an hour or so to see what they have.   WRONG AGAIN!



The walkway up could take an hour just itself to look at all the huge rocks they have from every layer of the geology of this spot.  It’s amazing. There are three large boulders at each sign beginning with what they call Earth’s Extended  Dawn 2.5 BILLION years ago.   But the sun is at the absolute wrong angle for my eyes and this information at this time of the morning so it doesn’t get the attention it deserves.



There are mighty big footprints leading up to the front door of the building.  Look at them compared even with two of David’s feet.  Pretty impressive.  Wonder if they walked through some sticky mustard on their way to the door.



We follow the prints and when I open the door my jaw drops open. 

WOW!  Look at the size of that Mammoth.  There is a replica in the fourier of the site building.   He is a columbian mammoth, the kind most found at this spot and on average he stands 13.1’ tall at the shoulders.  



OK I’m sold, give me the tour.  $10 for adults, $9 for those 60 and older




Before we actually go into the site our guide gives us quite a bit of background. 



Gigantic Mammoths, ancestors of the elephants of today, once roamed the high plains of North America.  Limestone deposits beneath the Earth’s surface dissolved in water from underground springs. The land then collapsed and the resulting sinkhole filled with 95 degree water (don’t ask me how they know the temperature.  It was way too complicated to remember).  This nice pond lured animals to drink and feed near it especially in the winter.  If they actually got into the water, they could not go up the slippery incline to get out.  Death by starvation or drowning was the fate of most of the animals that came to the sinkhole. 

As centuries passed the sinkhole gradually filled.  Rain, snow, and wind deposited soil  leaving a hill of buried skeletons. This hill remained undisturbed for 26,000 years until 1974 when excavation for a housing project revealed the bones and tusks of these animals.



The Mammoth Site is quite different from most museums.

It is not merely a display of collected items.  Most of the excavated bones remain exactly where they were found.  The building was built over the site and visitors can see the complete process of paleontology from start to finish.  We are going to be seeing bones from creatures that lived before any person walked the Earth.




The first thing I see is GIANT tusks.  And I mean giant.  And then there are more bones.  Our guide takes us around on the walkways and explains that so far in the 40 years they have been excavaing this site, they have only done about 1/4 of the depth they believe the sinkhole to be.  In those 40 years they have found 142 pairs of tusks.  Nearly all from the Columbian Mammoth but also a few from the Wooly Mammoth along with other creatures no longer in North America like the camel, the shrub ox and the llama who I was surprised to learn originated in North America and moved to South America.


We are walking around an archeological dig with huge bones of ancient Mammoths scattered around.  The building is climate controlled to prevent the deterioration of the bones.  We are told that we may stay as long as we want in this room after the tour of the area is over.






Although there is no one working when we first come in, their tools are everywhere as are numbers and flags.







The tusks are the most easily recognizable things to me. 


We are told the longest tusk found at this site is 11’.  However some may have reached 13’ in length.  In the 40 years of this dig, they have found 284 tusks so they are assuming at least 142 mammoths are in the sinkhole to this level.  Just to be clear, this tusk is not on a display stand.  It has been meticulously uncovered and is lying on the ground where it was found with the soil around it having been cut away.





The tusks are made of ivory, just like their distant relatives the elephants. The tusks are made of cones of ivory which are added to at the tusk socket throughout the life of the mammoth.  I thought this explanation made it really clear.





Another interesting thing about mammoths is that they only had 4 functional teeth at a time. 


Two lower and two upper.  In the picture below the shoe bottom looking things are the two lower teeth.  They are about a size 20 shoe perhaps.  When one set of teeth started to wear down, a new set of molars erupted behind and pushed out the teeth in front.  This conveyor belt replacement of teeth continued until the sixth and final set appeared. 

Mammoths acquired their first three sets of molars by the age of six.  The fourth molar arrived by 13, the fifth by 27 years of age, and the last molar came in when the mammoth was about 43 years old.  Because each molar was somewhat larger than the one before, the animal’s age can be determined by measuring the length, width, and the depth of the tooth.How DO they know these things??




These arrows point to the footprints of a mammoth.  They are so big and heavy, they have depressed the earth in these layers.  Scientists can then figure out when they walked here.




It’s hard to see the animal they are uncovering but if I look really closely I can recognize some parts.  There is a spinal column in the middle and a giant leg bone off to the right.  It’s possible those are ribs lying perpendicular to the spine.






I think this was the most complete skeleton uncovered.  I recognize the ribs and the leg bones.



I can see the ribs and the spine




After the tour as we walk around we come to two exhibits that help us to “see”. 


I’m only going to show one of them.  Sorry for the shadow in the drawing of the bones as  they have been uncovered.  They are named on the drawing.  I love the information sign here.






The hyoid bone is the little wishbone in the center of this blow up.  We have one too in our throat area.



This was sort of good but what made it great was the next illustration of the bones we were seeing fleshed out with the animal as it is lying there.




This is what we now can see. 

It is very interesting to compare it with the detailed illustration and the simplified sketch.  I can “see” it now.




I zoom in so I can see this important hyoid bone and sure enough, there it is.




There is a great deal of information extremely well displayed on the walls in this room as well.



  Too much to include it all here but this one is particular interesting to me.   The comparative sizes of mammoths and elephants.  The mammoth.  The Columbian mammoth which is the majority of mammoths found in this sink hole is 4m tall at the shoulder.  That’s 13.1 feet.  AT THE SHOULDER!

The African elephant is 3.4m or 11.1 feet.  The wooly mammoth of which they have found 3 here and the Asian elephant are is 3m or 9.8 feet.  The Pygmy mammoth is 1.8m or 5.9 feet, just a tad taller than David but at the mammoth’s shoulders.   This Columbian guy is HUGE!





We get to see someone actually working here today.

On our way out of the tour room and into the museum we walk past a young woman working on uncovering a particular bone.  She tells us she is using dental tools and a brush to carefully take away all the soil around it.  She puts water around the edge with a small bottle and then scrapes with the dental tool and brushes away the dust.  Such pain staking meticulous work requires a large amount of patience.









  Her hand is moving the brush too fast for my camera.



When we leave the tour room we enter into a room with tons of information on all the fossils of other Ice age animals that have also been discovered in this 26,000 year old now dry sink hole.  These include both types of mammoths, a giant short faced bear, the camel, llama, wolf, coyote and prairie dog to name a few. Imprint fossils of bird feathers, complete fish skeletons, and thousands of mollusk shells have also been recovered.   There is easy to understand information on the theories as to why the mammoths became extinct.  There are 4 theories and you’ll just have to come and read them for yourself and decide whose side you are on.  Another bit of information is really sort of concerning.  There is talk about cloning a mammoth.  Really?  Are they nuts?   It is apparently a serious scientific discussion.




The final room is the museum and it is really something. 

There are giant mammoth recreations and skeletal recreations.  They are huge.  Good thing man came on the scene at the very end of their time.  Although one of the extinct theories is that they were hunted to extinction.  I just can’t see how even 15 men could bring down a beast this big.    I mean look at him in comparison to the people in the museum.  He could flatten that whole family with one foot.






Look at those 11-13 foot tusks.  Could he scoop them up and toss them to the ground with a bone breaking thud?





How about building your house with Mammoth bones?



Mammoth bone houses are best known from the plains of Ukraine as well as Poland and the Czech Republic.  Some houses are as ancient as 27,500 years ago.  Small villages of bone huts are some of the oldest towns ever found.  Some groupings contain up to 6 bone huts that could have housed up to 40 people.   More than 30 bone hut sites have been identified and studied along the Russian plain and Eastern Europe.  These bone huts were concentrated in broad river valleys or near paleolakes.  Later, flooding and wind blown materials covered and preserved these structures burying some as deep as 70 feet.  There is much more very interesting information on these huts and their builders.

“This house is constructed of 121 mammoth bone replicas: 74 mammoth jaws, 6 half pelvis, 9 scapula, 2 femori, 12 tribia, 8 ribs, 6 humer, 2 skulls, 2 tusks, 8 bison hides, a variety of poles, plus lots of rawhide and leather strapping.”







On one of the bone replicas was this bit of information about the builder you see above.




I’m serous when I say that this post, as long as it is, doesn’t even scratch the surface of how really educational and interesting this site and museum are.  I have only one last thing I can’t resist including and that is the short faced bear.



Take a look at this guy.  How’d you like to find him smiling down at you?









The giant short faced bear bear is believed to be the fastest running bear that ever lived. Rangier and longer legged than any bear today, it was about five feet at the shoulders when walking and stood as tall as 12 feet on its hind legs. Unlike pigeon-toed modern bears, its toes pointed straight forward, enabling it to walk with a fast, purposeful gait. It probably could run over 40 miles per hour despite weighing over 1500 pounds.





Bear height translations for those who don’t do meters:  Remember this is shoulder height.  Black Bear 2.6 feet,  Grizzly 3.4, Cave Bear 4.4 feet, Kodiak 4.9 feet, Polar Bear 5.2 feet, Giant Short Faced Bear 5.9 feet, the man in this graphic is 6’1”.

That is a BIG BEAR!!




Here’s how his skull measures up.  Bear skulls are in the same order as above. 




Here is where they have found fossils of him.   Anywhere you live???





And last but not least, what if he stands up on his hind legs and comes after you?   Look how high he can reach.   See those top claw marks on the pole.  I’m there for perspective.   Just look at the top of my head and the claw marks.  He can reach more than 3 times my height.   So how come he became extinct and those little bitty men that he could chomp for a snack did not?






Well there was a whole lot more that we did in our 4 hours at the fabulously amazing and educational Mammoth Site in Hot Springs South Dakota but enough is enough I’m sure you’ll agree and by now it’s 1:00 in the afternoon and we have an enormous 70 mile afternoon drive into Nebraska to see what we can get into down there. 




  1. Seems I read/heard that those who do such things.... have found DNA and are going to bring the Mammoth back ... or was that Jurassic Park movie... nah.... well, rats! I'll google ... yep... gonna clone one... I never


  2. You only got a buck$$..off..Hardly seems fair....It is worth it tho..I've been there too.

  3. Looks like David has a bone to pick with someone... :cD

    Fabulous site, I have to see it (and read about those 4 theories).

  4. We also found the site fascinating and you covered it so much better than I did. I may have to go edit my blog and just put a link to yours :-).

  5. Very interesting information. That mammoth is a big boy alright! I didn't know that the llama originated here and migrated south, although I think Ive heard that North American had camels at one time.

  6. Excellent tour Sherry. We didn't get to the facility when we went down to visit Wind Cave, but now we have another reason to return to the area. Thanks!

  7. We went to Wind Cave but never heard of the mammoth site, either. How interesting!

  8. Two wonderful days in a row!! Perhaps the PDD drive day made all this happen;o)) Need to put these spots on our TODOS list:o))

  9. Great bone lifting picture! Those animals were huge! I think a clone is a bit of a crazy idea... That bear skeleton at that angle looks kind of like a dineasaur. I would not have nearly the patience for that work. What amazing history. I had the same question as you as to how they can know the age from the teeth. Fascinating.

  10. Have you been to Fort Robinson State Park in Crawford, NE? They have a smaller display but very interesting. There is no charge to those who camp. Its in the northwest corner of the state.

  11. Wow, what a museum and what a day. Bet David was too exhausted to drive that 70 miles after lifting that bone! LOL!

  12. I love that multiple theories are put forward. While what we do know is incredible, it is refreshing to know that there is still so much to uncover (literally at this site). I had a similar thought about the bear - but about the speed. Why would evolution favor a slower animal? It's all very fascinating to me (although I don't think I could sit on the hard ground for hours with a toothbrush....). Thanks for sharing this great place, we will definitely include it as well.

  13. Fascinating ... and yes, DNA was found somewhere in Siberia, but I haven't heard any results.

  14. Very nice tour. We were there last year, and really enjoyed it, too!

  15. A scientists' dream! How cool is it that they left a lot of the bones in place and built the building over the site? If they keep digging deeper will it affect the structural integrity of the building? Painstaking work for sure. I don't think I'd have the patience to scrape away with a tiny dental tool and a bottle of water. I had a mental picture of all those mammoths struggling to get out of the sink hole and it made me sad..... Super cool! XXXOOO

  16. Looks like you are skipping the overcrowded Black Hills this time. We were there during bike week in 2012. Interesting to say the least. I knew about bike week because daughter Deanna and husband Keith are Harley people and biked to Sturgis one year. You have to know how conservative they are to appreciate that. Yuppies on bikes! Have fun in Nebraska. We loved the Sand Hills.

  17. As I told you earlier, we just loved that place. They even use volunteers! I wish we could do that, maybe someday. I've always been interested in archaeology. Glad you enjoyed it!

  18. (Oops, I hit send before I was done.) What an amazing museum! A house built of mammoth bones??? I've never heard of such a thing! Very interesting and quite resourceful. I wouldn't want to come across that giant short faced bear while hiking….

  19. We loved Mammoth Site as well! Such a great museum, I remember their teeth made a big impression on me as well.

  20. OMW, this place is fantastic! Love the great interpretive signs and the layout. I could spend days to weeks here. Now when and how am I going to plan a trip to this part of the country?


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