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Unit 1




Lesson 1
First Peoples of South Dakota

 The past is as close as yesterday,Petroglyph to Chalk Board
or this morning, when you ate breakfast, or just now, when you read this sentence.

     The past connects you to your family, your friends, and even to people you have never met. It connects you to people who lived right here in South Dakota before it was a state; before there were cars or computers; before people knew how to read and write.

     What happened to all those people long ago is like one continuous thread. It reaches from the Ice Age to this very moment.

     Right now.

     That is why South Dakota history is important. It links us together and tells one story from many. It tells about the land, the climate, and the people who lived here.


First Peoples

     A long time ago, swampy ponds covered the Badlands of what is now South Dakota. American camels, small horses, and Columbian mammoths roamed these swamps. Summers were rainy and cool. Winters were mild.

Photo courtesy of University of South Dakota Archaeology Laboratory

     We know what happened in one of those swamps over eleven thousand years ago. A band of Paleoindian hunters killed and cut up two Columbian mammoths for food. These Clovis hunters were the first South Dakotans we know about. We know about them because of the tools and bones they left behind.

     The Clovis hunters left us no written record of their lives. They lived during a prehistoric period. It was long before we humans developed writing and reading. But like many ancient peoples, they left us traces of their lives. Fragments of tools and weapons can be found. Slivers of wood or stone from their houses are buried in the ground. Bones from the animals they hunted remain behind.

Mammoth Dig
Photo courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism

     Today, archaeologists sort through these clues like detectives. They track the movement of ancient peoples. They study how human life changed. Often these clues do not tell the whole story. Archaeologists are not always sure what happened. Did the Clovis hunters die out with the mammoths and the first horses? Or did their lives change with the land? This is one of many unsolved mysteries of the prehistoric world.

     Centuries and centuries passed.

     The swamps of South Dakota became wide, sweeping plains. Short, scrubby grass grew everywhere. Giant bison thundered across the prairies. A new people came into the area. These Folsom hunters made beautiful spear points. They picked wild onions and prairie turnips to eat. They hunted buffalo in the Black Hills. But their way of life ended. Archaeologists are not sure why.

Folsom Point
Photo courtesy of University of South Dakota Archaeology Laboratory


     More centuries passed. Summers grew hotter, drier, longer. New hunters—the Plains Archaic people—migrated to South Dakota. Herds of giant bison grew scarce and died out. Smaller bison replaced them. The people also hunted deer or rabbit. They ground prairie turnips into powder for eating. They learned how to store food for long periods of drought. The Plains Archaic people lived in small groups because the land had less to give them.

Photo courtesy of Archaeological Research Center, South Dakota State Historical Society

     Archaeologists believe these people left the first written record of life in South Dakota. It is literally carved in stone. These first writings do not use an alphabet as we know it. They use signs and symbols. These "pictures" had meaning for the people who lived here at one time. These records are called petroglyphs.


     The climate of South Dakota shifted again about three thousand years ago. Spring, summer, fall, and winter felt much as they do now. People began to hunt in bigger groups. They drove large herds of bison off high bluffs (Unit 3 tells more about this kind of hunting). These Woodland people traded with native people from the east. From them, the Woodland people gained new ideas about life and death. They began to build burial mounds for their dead. These mounds are in eastern South Dakota.

Burial Mounds
Photo courtesy of Historic South Dakota Foundation

archaeologists (n.), scientists who study ancient peoples and the way they lived

centuries (n.), hundred-year blocks of time

continuous (adj.), unbroken, having no gaps or holes

drought (n.), a long period of dry weather

fragments (n.), small pieces broken off of bigger things

migrated (vt.), moved from one area to another