Thousand-year-old charred corn, sunflower kernels unearthed at Thomsen Center Archeodome in SDEach year, something new is uncovered at the Thomsen Center Archeodome at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village. But this year, the big find has been something small.
By: Marcus Traxler , Forum News Service
MITCHELL, S.D. — Each year, something new is uncovered at the Thomsen Center Archeodome at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village.
But this year, the big find has been something small.
Researchers working the archaeological site along Lake Mitchell have discovered troves of small, charred kernels of corn and sunflowers, each only a few millimeters wide, that remain intact more than 1,000 years after people lived in the area along Firesteel Creek. Researchers have also found corn cobs, which they say show how much agriculture has changed, and affirms that people of the region had a diverse diet.
The findings are significant for those investing their time and resources into the Mitchell site. Alan Outram, who is in his 12th year bringing students from the University of Exeter, in England, to partner with Augustana College students, said the team has found as much carbonized plant matter in the last two weeks than from the last 11 years.
“Of course, it’s important to this area,” he said. “The thing is, this is an agricultural area and this is the history of that agriculture.”
Augustana College Professor of Archeology Adrien Hannus, who serves as the project director at the site, said when the archeodome was being built and finished in 1999, they got an idea of where the best deposits would be. That hinted to Hannus that they would get a good look at the way of life for the American Indians who settled in the area.
“It showed at the time that there was probably 12 feet there, and we’re really just scratching the surface,” Hannus said. “This village isn’t the origin of prehistoric agriculture, but it is one of the key sites in understanding what was done here.”
The discovery was made through cache pits, which were large holes used to store things like food and tools. When the people who used them discovered they were not ideal for keeping food, they turned them into trash receptacles. In those pits, archeological students have also found broken pottery pieces and other items.
In this part of the country, Hannus said, the prehistoric pits would have a wide opening and then would belly out at the bottom, sometimes 4 to 5 feet deep. They would be capped with clay and ash, because insects such as beatles can’t survive climbing through ash, according to researchers. Until this year, Thomsen Center Archeodome researchers had never found a cache pit with an unbroken clay and ash cap.
As for the corn findings, the longest cobs are about the size of an adult finger. Hannus said the people of that time were either roasting or boiling the entire cob, and Outram said they show the growth of corn crops since that time.
“They tell us a lot about these strains of plants have changed over time,” he said. “They’re a lot smaller. You can see that the corn kernels are about the same size, but the cobs were a lot smaller and there were a lot fewer kernels on the cobs.”
The charring helped to preserve the seeds, Outram said. Otherwise, that seed might have grown out of the ground over time.
“For a 1,000-year-old seed, they’re very nicely preserved,” he said. “But they’re only preserved because they’re charred.”
Hannus said the findings reiterate that the American Indians of the area — about 200 to 250 of them at the site at any one time — had a complex diet and weren’t exactly a primitive people.
“I guess the real positive story is that we know this was a successful village of farmers, hunters, foragers; they collected fish and wildlife; they hunted bison and deer and smaller mammals,” he said. “This wasn’t a starvation story here. It’s a story about a very vital, alive group of people who lived here.”
Hannus has worked at the site for last 31 years, and says the parallels with modern South Dakota are still evident.
“I keep trying to convince people that are visiting, this is not some kind of bizarre, alien culture,” he said. “This isn’t something that people should not be able to relate to. You’ve got small, rural towns in South Dakota right now, today, that are functioning not much differently than the people did then.”
Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village Executive Director Cindy Gregg agreed with the researchers, saying if the average person was dropped in the Amazon, “they would be considered primitive, too,” she said.
The 18 students, who are from the U.S., England, Ireland, Russia and Spain, are about 60 percent complete with their time at the site this year and will be in Mitchell through July 16.
“We’ve had our most productive dig season in the 12 years we’ve been doing this,” Gregg said. “This is an exciting time for us.”