A hidden story under Lake VictoriaAs if the summer sun and breath of breeze roused them once more, the bones crackled softly in the morning light. One could almost glimpse ancient bison rising to their feet, scraping their hooves across the dirt and rotating their mighty heads toward the sky, while their tails flickered rat-a-tat through the dust.
By: By Wendy Wilson, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
As if the summer sun and breath of breeze roused them once more, the bones crackled softly in the morning light.
One could almost glimpse ancient bison rising to their feet, scraping their hooves across the dirt and rotating their mighty heads toward the sky, while their tails flickered rat-a-tat through the dust.
Alexandria fishing guide Roger Van Surksum and divers Wayne Wagner and Wesley Torgrimson recovered the bones from Lake Victoria’s depths this summer after Van Surksum hooked and reeled in a bone while fishing June 14.
On Friday, they hoped to gain insight that might shed light on the lives of the great creatures found at the bottom of the lake.
That morning, Van Surksum and wife, Becci, daughter-in-law Amy, Torgrimson and Wagner waited at the Van Surksum home for the state archeologist to arrive.
The bones, about 275 in all, were carefully displayed across the concrete driveway, gleaming in the bright sun.
They were grouped according to skeletal anatomy — mandibles in one section, scapulas in another, meta-carpals, vertebrae, ribs, atlases, axises and more.
As Minnesota Historical Society National Register Archeologist David Mather studied the bones, a cautious look of intrigue passed over his face.
Mather explained that Minnesota had several bison finds throughout the state. Many had been preserved in peat bogs.
He examined the bones for visible cut marks or breaks that might have been made by humans while butchering the animals for food and resources.
Parallel lines would likely represent marks made by the gnawing of rodents, Mather explained.
In this case, that was unlikely. The water, if present at the time, would have kept them away.
Something caught his eye.
The group drew closer.
“These sure could be butchering marks,” he said in a low voice.
“Getting dates from these bones might be kind of tricky,” Mather said. “Lake water kind of changes the equation of how that is done.”
Radiocarbon dating would bring more information about the age of the bones, but the results could be skewed by as many as 500 to 600 years. And the process is costly — about $3,000 to $5,000.
“And I can’t even make soup out of it,” Van Surksum quipped.
Mather said he believed the bones were between 200 and 6,000 years old and classified them as modern bison. Ancient bison are more than 6,000 years old and considerably larger in size.
The last modern bison sighting in Minnesota occurred in the 1880s, according to Mather and they had been very rare since the 1850s and 1860s.
“The[se] are far older than that,” Mather said.
Bison was a staple food for many prehistoric people. They used other parts of the animals as well, using their hides for warmth, clothing and shelter and their bones as tools or weapons.
“Most of it is going to rot before you are going to eat it,” Mather said and noted the methods employed to dry it. “Probably the whole village or extended family would be trying to work with it before it went bad.”
Native inhabitants often split bison bones to scoop out nourishing marrow.
Mather cradled a bone in his hands that had been crushed in its center.
“This bone was broken when it was fresh,” he said. “The most likely reason was that it was smashed open. … It couldn’t break open like that.”
The group grew quiet and waited, awed by the enormity of the information.
“I think, from this alone, that it is an archeological site,” he said. “That’s pretty cool.”
Mather showed the spiral fracture of the bone, indicative of possible human activity.
The group began to search through the bones for others with similar fractures.
After careful observation, Mather discovered a gouge mark on a scapula, showing where a human had used a tool.
Another spiral fracture was spotted — and then another.
“There is just nothing else that would explain that,” Mather said of the unique fractures.
“That’s a spiral fracture, too,” he said, analyzing another bone. “It is snapped right off and that’s an incredible amount of force.”
Mode of demise
Van Surksum brought Mather to the sunny site located at the top of a small cliff that overlooked the water where the bones were found.
The bison might have been forced over the cliff to their deaths, Mather speculated.
“It is hard to say for sure,” he said after studying the location. “I like the idea of the bison drive over the edge… It would be a logical place up here for where the processing would happen afterwards.”
A kill site
The fact that the complete skeletal remains of each animal were not found all together in one compact space was significant.
“You normally find its bones all together in a bog,” Mather said.
Torgrimson recalled the dives along the lake’s floor.
“We never found a complete animal,” he said.
Mather said, “That’s an important part of the puzzle.”
The large quantity of bones were the remains of a Native American kill site, Mather believed, where people had killed and processed the bison for food, tools and weaponry.
No skulls were found at the dive site either. Bison brains were used to tan hides.
Mather explained a kill site generally would not contain human artifacts.
“The bones, themselves, are the artifacts,” he said.
He said the people could have lived on top of the hill. The hill may have been a prairie at that time.
“One thing that is interesting is that there are not that many kill sites in Minnesota,” he said.
Only three other such potential sites have been discovered in the state, according to Mather.
He pondered whether it was one event or if the site had been used for thousands of years.
“I think it is a very significant find,” he said. “This is a big deal, I think.”
Mather studied the long stretch of a mandible and described its historical importance.
“They are like rings,” he said. “You could, in theory, learn about a bison’s life year by year.”
Mather also noted something unusual about the bison’s teeth. It appeared the bison had possibly been eating trees. Traditionally, bison are known as grazing animals that eat grass.
He noted the bones were in fairly good condition with mineral deposits from the water, but were not yet fossilized.
“It would take millions of years to do that,” he said.
Mather confirmed that all the bones were bison.
The native people
While the group wondered about the bison, they thought of the people, their lives, what they ate, the language they spoke, their rituals and their dreams.
Mather said the native inhabitants who lived in the area and had contact with these bison were most likely Dakota, or possibly Sioux who had lived within the past 2,000 to 3,000 years — or perhaps their ancestors.
He described their crucial search for food. During wintertime, they likely traveled across the crusted snow wearing snowshoes to reach the animals.
“A lot of times, that stuff would be life or death,” he said.
The next step
“From studying this, we can learn a lot about what it was like to be here at this time in the past,” Mather said. “The assemblage (of bones) has scientific and historical value.”
He recommended keeping the collection together and asked the men to cease diving until an archeological team was assembled.
“It is best to leave as much in place as we can,” he said. “They would love for you guys to help if you would want to.”
The men responded enthusiastically.
“We know there’s more down there,” Van Surksum said.
Mather said he planned to register the location as an official archeological site.
“This is a fantastic site,” he said. “There is definitely enough evidence here.”
Mather recommended contacting a local organization that could apply for Legacy Amendment funding to further the archeological study.
“I really like the local connection for archeology everywhere,” he said.
The study may include underwater excavations with divers as well as an archeological dig on the nearby land.
People in the area would likely be invited to participate in the excavation after undergoing training.
“It gives people that personal connection and (shows) how fragile it is,” Mather said.
After Mather left, Van Surksum carefully reloaded the bones into 12 boxes.
On Monday, he was on his way to discuss the news with the Douglas County Historical Society and the Runestone Museum.
And so the adventure continues.
Wendy Wilson is a
reporter at the
Alexandria Echo Press, which is owned by Forum