Although there's little that remains of this group of people who utilized this area, Northern State University history professor David Grettler said much can be learned from what they left behind.
Many items have been uncovered at the Gunderson archeology dig between 2008 and 2010. A project started by the Northeast Periphery Chapter of the South Dakota Archaeological Society, the goal was to excavate some of the known Indian mounds along the Elm River north of Aberdeen. This particular dig focused on property owned by Leroy and Guyna Denhe, who granted permission for the dig and gifted the items found to the university.
Grettler said the collection of items found continues to be studied today and is used as a teaching collection. The artifacts also give some insight into life at a critical time period, according to Grettler, citing that the artifacts date back 400 to 500 years before Columbus' discovery of America, before the introduction of horses and European contact.
"Here you filled in a geographic gap from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River," Grettler said, explaining that this was a time when domestic plants already had been introduced by Mexican civilizations to the south. "We thought this was a periphery area in between major settlements to the east and west."
Grettler said not much is known about tribes who lived 800 years ago, but they were extremely mobile. The Gunderson site most likely represents a winter settlement along the creek that was part of a complex series of settlements, he said. Most of the evidence suggests the group spent a great deal of time processing bison bones to extract the marrow inside, which was not only a source of nutrition, but also a product used to preserve meat.
Grettler said members of the tribe would extract the marrow by placing bones in water that was brought to a boil using fire-heated rocks. Dropping the heated rocks into the water, heated the water quickly, but the rocks typically broke in the process. Many of these broken rocks were among the findings collected.
In addition to rock and a variety of bison bones, Grettler said, another find included pieces of flint used to make tools and pieces of ceramics from discarded containers. Grettler said the interesting part about the flint was its origins can be traced to the Knife River near Bismarck, N.D.
Grettler said one key find was the remnants of a post supported by Bison bones. This find suggests a structure of some sort was on the site, he said, suggesting that more people would gather at this location for a longer period of time.
Since this archaeological dig, other research has been conducted, including a honor's thesis project that looked into the extraction of DNA from one of the bison bones discovered on the site.
NSU assistant professor of biology Alyssa Kiesow said not only did NSU senior Abigail Giylfe establish the best process to pull bison DNA, but was also able to successfully extract a sample.
"The interesting part of the DNA was the markers found," Kiesow said.
As Kiesow explains it, DNA is comprised of specific markers, some of which change slowly and others that change very quickly. The part that doesn't change quickly, 16s, didn't exist in the bison DNA that was extracted; but other elements that change quickly were present.
"When we characterize it, we can say its bison and today's bison aren't necessarily the same," she said. "What's different is the adaptation to our environment. This says that bison have evolved."
Kiesow said Giylfe's work allows for future research into the establishment of DNA primers for ancient bison or further genetic research.
Today, the excavated site is once again used as farm land. Grettler said future digs are planned in the bluff area. A selection of items discovered are on display at the Dacotah Prairie Museum.
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