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MSUM scientist finds campsite from thousands of years ago in Clay County

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- Archaeologist George Holley held up a pointy flake of rock found at an ancient campsite near the Buffalo River earlier this summer. It was no bigger than his thumb, but mounted on a light throwing spear, it would have allowed b...

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Minnesota State University Moorhead students from George Holley's class search for ancient American Indian artifacts June 3 at the old golf course near Glyndon, Minn. One digs while the other screens the dirt. Credit: George Holley / Special to The Forum


MOORHEAD, Minn. -- Archaeologist George Holley held up a pointy flake of rock found at an ancient campsite near the Buffalo River earlier this summer.

It was no bigger than his thumb, but mounted on a light throwing spear, it would have allowed bison hunters to take down the truck-size animals without risking a close-up encounter.

"The whole idea about hunting bison around here is you get them to bleed," Holley said. "They have very tough skin so you work on getting a nick in them and then you chase them and they bleed to death."


The Minnesota State University Moorhead professor and a team of students found the flake and other artifacts during a week of digging in early June in a portion of the now-closed Ponderosa Golf Course near Glyndon.

He estimated the campsite dates back as far as 8,000 years ago when glacial Lake Agassiz had just drained, leaving behind grassland that supported vast herds of bison in what is now the Red River Valley. "They might very well be some of the first people to come into the area after the lake drains."

Mike Michlovic, a recently retired MSUM archaeologist who led digs across the valley for 40 years, said sites as ancient as the one Holley's team found are rare because few people lived here at the time and most of what they left would be deep underground, making it hard to guess where they might be.

Mystery people

The ancient American Indians who lived in the valley are a shadowy presence for archaeologists. With so little evidence available, answers to many questions are incomplete at best, unanswerable at worst. What did the Indians look like? Where did they come from? How did they live? What did they believe?

Holley's students recovered small spear points, end scrapers used to remove buffalo hide, rock flakes, bison bones and the charred remnants of campfires. Other kinds of tools, such as digging sticks or needles, clothing and tents did not survive. Pottery and arrows were still technologies of the future.

No human remains were found.


Based on the amount of artifacts recovered, Holley said he doubts the hunters and their families would have numbered more than 20 and they probably didn't stay more than a month at a time.

Michlovic said that, even with evidence from other sites from the same period, it's still not much to go on. Archaeologists, he said, often use research on modern hunter-gatherers to help them visualize the past.

Holley imagined the Glyndon hunters living part of the year in the heavily forested Lakes Country to the east and part of the year at the edge of the prairie where the bison roamed.

They would have followed the Buffalo River, a tributary of the Red, drinking from the river and cutting down tree branches for fuel and shelter. Maybe they would've had dogs to pull their belongings as Plains Indians did before the arrival of horses.

Located at the ancient shore of Lake Agassiz, the Glyndon campsite would have have been a natural place to set up base as it overlooked the prairie to the west, according to Holley. It's where the hunters would have rested between hunts and where they processed the bison, which seemed to have been the only meat they ate in Glyndon, given the animal remains there.

Holley imagined how, at the end of a successful hunt, the hunters would have fashioned leg bones and hides into sacks to haul the bison. Back at camp, they would dry the meat and feast on organs such as tongues and liver. Holley said his students found the end of one of those bones, cracked open to extract the nourishing marrow.

This was the good life in the archaic period of Indian life on the Great Plains. For 5,500 years, the hunters and their descendants would return again and again to the Glyndon campsite.

Then, after a period of flooding 2,500 years ago, they stopped coming.


Layers of history

Evidence of people living in the Americas goes back some 14,000 years at the end of the Ice Age, but evidence of people in the Red River Valley goes back only about 8,000 years. Before that, the area laid beneath an enormous glacier and, after the glacier melted, beneath Lake Agassiz.

Holley hasn't done carbon dating of the bones or the charcoal at the Glyndon campsite, but he thinks his guess that the site goes back 8,000 years is a good one because of how far down the artifacts were found.

For archaeologists, each layer of dirt or sand is like a page in the history book of the world. Mud-like dirt suggests regular flooding. Charcoal suggests fire, perhaps campfires. Holley's students dug down 2 feet to find the artifacts and they kept finding more artifacts until they reached a level of rocks associated with glaciers, which suggested to him that people began to arrive almost as soon as the area opened up.

He said he stumbled on the site by accident.

The Glyndon campsite was part of the 18-hole Ponderosa Golf Course, but MSUM, which owns the land, canceled the lease on the back nine in the late 1980s. Part of Holley's job is to check MSUM property for archaeological sites.

He said he and his students spent a weekend in the fall doing test digs there and came up mostly empty. "Then I said we've got to go deeper because we're in the floodplain. So we go deeper -- 'Whoa!' -- It was like a shock. It was a shock to find something."


They returned this summer to do more digs.

Holley said he'll continue to dig at the golf course in the years ahead and is excited about another site that was recently uncovered. It was where the rest of the course had been until MSUM canceled the lease earlier this year.

Holley said he was never allowed to dig there before. Many golfers were upset by the university's decisions, but for him, it's an opportunity to open up another page in prehistory.

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