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Hills Backyard becomes site for paleontologist fossil dig

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Mavis Fodness

Dr. Jim Mead of The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota, visited Hills last week, examining mammoth tusks and primitive bison bones uncovered behind Doug and Deanna Chapman’s home.
Doug Chapman uncovered one tusk this spring as he was removing a grove of ash trees and leveling the ground for a larger backyard.
“I didn’t want to destroy it,” Chapman said.
He reached out to Mead, who was immediately interested in examining Chapman’s find.
The Mammoth Site hired the retired paleontologist three years ago to complete research and outreach for the non-profit agency.
“My feeling is let us expand out and understand the Ice Age better,” Mead said. “There is a record here but what does it mean?”
The Ice Age is well documented.
The era occurred 10,000 to 18,000 years ago when ice sheets covered North America. The glaciers are responsible for the area’s unusual geological formations.
Mead suspects the tusks Chapman unearthed are from the extinct Columbian Mammoth, based on the tusk’s 8- to 10-inch girth. He suspects the mammoth was at least 25 years old.
Ribs, vertebrae and other bones found near the tusks are possibly from primitive bison and are at least 6,000 to 8,000 years old.
Mead said both mammals could have lived during the same era but doesn’t think so based on his observations of the juvenile as well as adult bison bones.
Radiocarbon dating of the tusks and bones will provide an exact age to the excavated pieces.
Observations of the formerly undisturbed soil provided Mead with more paleontological clues.
By year’s end Mead will complete a story with dates and meanings from the various geological profiles on the “Chapman Mammoth Site.”
Previous research has uncovered a multitude of information about the Ice Age, but the local discovery is unique.
“Nothing is known out here,” Mead said.
When Chapman, a retired electrician with almost 40 years of excavating experiences, saw the stark white pieces of the tusks, he knew it wasn’t the normal tree roots he was expecting.
“We didn’t believe him (until Mead’s email and subsequent visit),” said Chapman’s daughter, Stephanie Honken.
Mead knows a little about mammoths.
Mead is one of two paleontologists in 1974 who led a team of volunteers to excavate the 14-acre mammoth site near Hot Springs in the South Dakota Black Hills.
The site was found in a similar manner as the Chapman site — owner Phil Anderson was leveling the ground for a housing development.
Helping Mead at the local site last week were Chapman’s grandsons, Blake and Eli Honken.
Mead invited the youth to sift through the dirt and clay, where he demonstrated the “digging” techniques, pointed out the various geological layers and fossil determinations.
“The discovery part is just a blast,” Mead said. “It’s fun watching their eyes light up.”
All the found items are property of the Chapman family and Mead’s visit was free of charge.
The Mammoth Site’s outreach mission is to educate the public and generate interest in the next generation of paleontologists.
Mead returned as the site’s chief scientist/site director three years ago.
He’s traveled to several states including a site near St. Cloud, where fossils from giant ground sloths were discovered.
However, the trip to Hills provided a welcome surprise.
“I am so pleased to have kids here,” Mead said.
Later this year Mead will return materials taken from the Chapman site including a preserved bison bone the youth helped excavate.
Mead welcomes more inquires like the one received from Chapman.
“To me this is exciting. I am interested in what is happening here,” he said. “What’s in your backyard?”
Mead can be reached at The Mammoth Site,, or 605-745-6017.