A 7,000-year-old find awaits detailed analysis
WILLMAR -- Too often, Janet and LeRoy Peterson have heard the tell-tale sounds of screeching tires and, soon after, a rap on their door. Another motorist has just discovered that the natural terrain around their river valley home makes a natural ...
WILLMAR -- Too often, Janet and LeRoy Peterson have heard the tell-tale sounds of screeching tires and, soon after, a rap on their door.
Another motorist has just discovered that the natural terrain around their river valley home makes a natural funnel for deer, the Petersons told members of the Indian History Hunters at a Nov. 4 meeting in Willmar.
Some 20 years ago, the Petersons discovered that Minnesota's first inhabitants had this all figured out at least 7,000 years before the first car-deer crash.
Except it wasn't 100- to 200-pound whitetail deer that brought Minnesota's first people to the Peterson's three-acre parcel south of Granite Falls. They were hunting a now extinct species of giant bison known as the bison occidentals.
These bison weighed 2,000 to 3,000 pounds apiece, and had dangerous, pointed horns more like those of a longhorn steer than the bison we know today. The hunters carried stone-tipped spears and throwing sticks known as atlatls that allowed them to fling the spears like darts at the SUV-sized animals.
It appears that they cornered the bison between two rock ledges and possibly mired them in a bed of clay in what is now the Petersons' pasture. From atop the rock ledges, they could toss rocks and spears and jab at the trapped beasts with sharpened sticks.
The Petersons' bison kill site remains one of the more important archaeological finds in the state for what it can tell us about the earliest inhabitants, according to Dr. Scott Anfinson, director of the Minnesota State Historic Preservation office. He was among the first archaeologists to have examined the site.
"I'd love to go there and dig some more,'' said Anfinson, a native of Benson.
"It's massive,'' said the Petersons of what still waits to be discovered.
After an initial excavation, archaeologists drilled a series of core samples about their property. Like shooting fish in a barrel, they came up with bison bones with every probe, said the Petersons.
Their discovery of the site in August 1988 came quite by accident. LeRoy was using a backhoe to excavate a pit and got curious about how the water table had receded during the dry summer.
He uncovered giant bones and knew he had something. Phone calls brought amateur archaeologist H. Clyde Pedersen of Marshall to the site and soon afterward Anfinson.
They were interested in what was found amongst the bones: A biface stone knife and other pieces of stone tools and weapons used by the Archaic period people who hunted these bison.
The bones were radiocarbon dated to 7,050 years ago, plus or minus 120 years.
"It was the peak of the prairie period in Minnesota,'' Anfinson said.
Minnesota was a drier and warmer place at the time, covered largely by prairie that attracted herds of the giant bison. Anfinson said the early people are believed to have traveled in small bands and hunted the large animals.
The stones used as tools at this site were quarried in what is now western South Dakota and perhaps Montana. It's possible the early people traveled great distances and quarried the stones on their own, but they could have traded for them as well, said Anfinson.
The excavation revealed one spot filled with stone flakes where someone had apparently sat and made tools or spear points.
Archaeologists also unearthed a small wall built with flat stones. A child's milk tooth was found by the stones, leading LeRoy Peterson to wonder: Did children build the wall as play while their parents butchered the bison?
It's anybody's guess, Anfinson said. It's just as conceivable that the wall was somehow used to corral the bison into the trap, he said.
Both he and Peterson believe further exploration at the bison kill site could tell us a great deal about the early people. Anfinson said it is very likely that the people either had a hunting camp or a village very close to the site, as they would not likely haul their giant slabs of meat any great distance.
But even before further excavation is attempted, Anfinson said the pieces of the puzzle already uncovered at the site need to be put together. "It's never been subjected to a detailed analysis,'' he said.
Some of the artifacts found at the site are protected at Fort Snelling. Others were kept at the Yellow Medicine County Museum, and had to be rescued after floodwaters soaked them.
The Petersons have been protecting the site and hope that someday archaeologists will return again. They said that news accounts of its initial discovery and archaeological digs in two subsequent summers attracted lots of visitors to their doors interested in the site.
These days, it receives little attention and the rap on the door comes more often from motorists still discovering that lesson about this site's attraction to large, grazing animals.