Crow Creek Massacre

Several hundred people were attacked, tortured, scalped and dismembered. The attackers carried body parts away from the scene, presumably as trophies. After all this, the attackers then buried the remains of their victims in a large pit. Why?


At the Crow Creek Canyon site, at least 486 individuals were massacred, the bones of men, women, and children found strewn in an area roughly 7 meters square and 1 metre deep. These skeletons were severely dismembered, with most of the hands and feet apparently amputated and many of the skulls showing evidence of having been cut from the rest of the body. Nearly all of these individuals showed evidence of scalping two of the crania showed evidence of an earlier scalping incident which they had managed to survive for a period of time. Once again, it is possible that this deposit was the work of people from the same village or tribe rather than that of the raiders, but a massacre of such size would probably leave few individuals to dispose of this large quantity of remains in such a manner. Therefore, the more likely explanation is that those responsible for these peoples’ deaths were also responsible for their interment.

The Crow Creek massacre occurred around 1325 between Indian groups in the South Dakota area.Crow Creek Site, the site of the massacre near Chamberlain, is an archaeological site and a U.S.National Historic Landmark. Located at co-ordinates 43°58′48″N 99°19′54″W. It is thought that either Middle Missou or Initial Coalescent Indians moved into the area. The overcrowding grew to a point that both sides conducted raids on each other’s camps and mass graves produced the Crow Creek massacre.

There is evidence that one group knew of the impending attacks on its village. The village, with around 50 houses, were on top of a bluff and were in the process of building a ditch and a new wall in order to try to prevent, or at least slow down, the attack from the other camp. They were far too late in building these structures.

The attacking group slaughtered the people on the bluff. Anthropologists, led by Thomas Emerson, found the remains of 486 people from the attack. Many of these remains had signs of torture and mutilation. These included tongues being cut out, scalping, teeth broken, heads cut off, and other forms of dismemberment.

The skeletal remains of the Crow Creek villagers also provided evidence that the massacre was not their first encounter with violence and that they had been involved in previous attacks. According to the 1982 dissertation entitled Osteology of the Crow Creek Massacre by P. Willey, evidence of involvement in previous attacks is present in the skeletal remains of victims found in the mass burial. Two individuals had survived previous scalping incidents, and were in the process of healing which was indicated by the bony re-growth of their skulls, and a third individual had survived a head injury as indicated by “a healed depressed fracture in the frontal” (Willey 1982). There was also evidence of others being wounded by arrows, whose points remain in the legs and were overgrown by bone (Zimmerman 1985).

Many of the bodies are missing limbs which can be explained as the attackers taking them as trophies, scavengers carrying them away, or the limbs being left in the Crow Creek village unburied (Wiley and Emerson 1993). Authors Willey and Emerson state that, “…they had been killed, mutilated, and scavenged before being buried” (Willey and Emerson 1993:227). “Tongue removal, decapitation, and dismemberment of the Crow Creek victims may have been based on standard aboriginal butchering practices developed on large game animals” (Willey and Emerson 1993:259). These are among a few of the mutilations that have been discovered at the Crow Creek site. In addition to these, scalping was indiscriminately performed, bodies were burned, and there is evidence of the removal of limbs through various means. As stated in the Willey’s dissertation, many of the mutilations suffered by the victims of the Crow Creek massacre could have been traumatic enough to result in death (Willey 1982).

A conservative estimate of villagers who suffered scalping is 90%, but the actual amount could be as high as 100%. This is based on skeletal remains that exhibit cuts on their skulls that were indicative of scalping, (Willey and Emerson 1993). Men, women, and children were indiscriminately scalped with the only difference being that younger children were cut higher on the skull than other groups (Willey and Emerson 1993).


Trauma is a wound or injury to the person

A. ANTE-MORTEM TRAUMA (trauma that occured before death)

[3] In the proximal part of the ulna there is an old, well healed and aligned fracture. This would not have caused functional deficit.

VI. On the lateral surface of the innominate there is an area of myositis that is non-specific. It probably arose from an injury with bleeding into the soft tissue.

XIV. An old, well healed fracture of the proximal ulna.

XXIV. A well healed fracture of the distal humerus. The tibia above it demonstrates a large subperiosteal hematoma, probably from old scurvy.

XXVII. Attached to the lateral surface of the humerus in the proximal 1/3 is a moderate sized spur of bone. This probably arose from trauma with bleeding into soft tissue.

XL. Nasal fracture, left side, in good alignment. Note the paramortem cuts on the frontal bone, probably the result of scalping.

LX. Anterior view of the face showing scalping cut marks on the frontal bone, and a piece of the knife buried in the cortex.

LXXXIII. Fragment of the proximal fibula with a spur of bone protruding from the proximal portion. This is a benign spur.

XCIII. Frontal view of a skull showing warping of the nasal septum. This is of moderate degree, compromises the airway moderately.

XCIV. Frontal view of a skull shows an old nasal fracture, moderately septal warping, and a para-mortem fracture extending from the left frontal bone through the orbit and into the maxilla. There is also the mis-shaped tooth #9. (refer to dental diseases)

CIII. Fragmented radius, distal portion. showing an old fracture in good alignment.

CIV. Attached to the anterior surface of the left humerus there is a raised bony spur which measures 60 x 22 x 7.5 mm. It appears to have resulted from an old injury with bleeding in the soft tissue.

CXXV. Ante-mortem scalping is demonstrated in this specimen, which is seen in the section on Infection and inflammation.

CXXVII. An ulna has a healed fracture with slight mis-alignment.

CCXXV A., CCXXV B. In its proximal portion, laterally, there is a small tibial spur.

CXLI. There is a healed nasal fracture, and the nasal septum is warped to a moderate degree. Additionally there is a para-mortem left infraorbital fracture.

CXLIVa. On the lateral surface of this skull there was a saucerized defect measuring 25 x 25 x 12 mm. The edges were raised, roughened, the floor was smooth. The superior temporal line on the lateral surface was accentuated due to the pull of ligaments. The findings are interpreted as the result of a previous fracture with splintering, aseptic necrosis of fragment(s) of bone with avascular necrosis, and cyst formation. It had occurred several months ante-mortem, and was inactive at death.

CXLIVb. The markings of the middle meningeal artery on the medial surface were intact.

CXLVa. Ante-mortem scalping, lateral surface, and

CXLVb. medial surface, discussed under Infections and Inflammation.

CXCI. Ulna fracture, old, is good alignment.

CCCVIIa,CCCVIIb. Para-mortem scapling, discussed and depicted under Infections and Inflammation.

CCXXI. Humerus with an old, well healed greenstick fracture.

CCLXXX. Adult innominate with an old projectile point injury. Notice the absence of osteomyelitis.

CCLXXXII. Left tibia showing anomalous articulation with the fibula. This is postulated as being the result of an ankle sprain-dislocation type injury.

CCCVI. The nasal septum is deflected to the right severely in the midportion. causing marked obstruction to the nasal airway. There is also mild tooth wear and attrition. (refer to Dental Abnormalities)

CCCXXXI. A spur is attached to the postero-lateral portion of the mid femur. It is 30 x 20 x 4 mm and appears to have come from bleeding into the soft tissue from a wound.

CCCXVLVI. A large spur protrudes from the posterior, mid surface of a femur. It appeared to have been formed from blood extravisating from a blood vessel, torn in an injury.

CCCLVI. Fibula with an old injury (fracture).

CCCLXII. A proximal tibia with a small spur anteriorly. CCCLXV. Proximal tibia with a spur pointing distally

[7] Clavicle with healed fracture, in moderate alignment.[8] Tibia with a small spur distally.

[29] Distal tibia with on old injury.

[35] An old depressed injury in the left frontal region. There are also vermiculate markings over the frontal sinuses. Cranial porosity was a finding in this skull.

[45] A rib showed an old fracture in good alignment.

[48] A spur is attached to the proximal fibula, points distally.

[61] A skull shows an ante-mortem injury on the left in the anterior portion, near the orbit (arrow). It does not appear to have penetrated the skull. The photo also shows para-mortem scalping cuts (middle arrow) and a skull fracture on the right side (right arrow). In addition there are vermiculate markings over the frontal sinuses.

[68] On the ischial tuberosity there is an area of osteitis.

[70] The distal tibia appears to have sustained a fracture dislocation. The fibula was not found.

[82] Markings on the skull’s lateral surface suggest old injury to the outer cortex.

[84] The proximal fibula has reparative bone suggesting a spur in the region.

[86] Elevation of the periostium circumferentially on an ulna suggests well healed fracture.

[89] On the lateral surface of the left parietal bone there is an old depression of the outer bone cortex. In addition there are several scalping cut marks nearby.

[90] There has been an old outer table injury in the parietal area of this skull (arrow).

[95] The anteriorly bent distal portion of the humerus indicates an old fracture. A normal humerus is for comparison. This injury should not have caused functional impairment.

B. TRAUMA PARA-MORTEM (trauma occurring at the time of or after death)

Contained in this classification are the various forms of trauma perpetrated on the Crow Creek villagers by their attackers. These included scalp avulsion, decapitation, cutting off of the hands and feet, body mutilation, and exposure of the dead bodies to the ravages wild animals.


4 Avulsion of the distal tibia in the paramortem period.

6 Avulsion of the distal tibia in the paramortem period.

8 Avulsion of the distal tibia in the paramortem period.

9 Knife cut on the proximal tibia.

11 Scavenger tooth marks in the head of the femur.

l2 Tooth marks on the femoral head and a knife cut on the greater trochanter of the femur.

l3 Cut marks on the parietal bone.

14 Scalping cut marks on the skull.

15 Carnivore tooth marks on the femoral head.

16 Scalping cut marks on the frontal bone.

17 Scalping cut marks on the frontal bone indicated with pointer.

18a Mark on the skull external surface from a blow with semipointed instrument. 18b Interior of the skull in figure 18 showing the area of injury.

19 Cut marks on the frontal bone.

20 Carnivore tooth marks on the head of the femur.

IV. Carnivore tooth marks on the distal femur.

XIII. Carnivore tooth marks on the head of the humerus.

XVII. A blow to the skull with a semipointed instrument.

XXXII. Carnivore teeth marks on the head of the femur.

XL. Scalping cut marks on the frontal bone.

XLI. Many scalping cut marks on the frontal and parietal bones.

XLIV. A fractured femur that has been burned in two places.

XLIII. Skull showing evidence of a blow with a semipointed instrument to the posterior parietal area.

LI. Juvenile femur showing carnivore teeth marking.

LVII. Mandible with knife cuts on the horizontal ramus (arrow).

LVIII. Three skull fragments showing scalping cut marks.

LX. Scalping cut marks and a piece of the knife blade buried in the cortex.

LXII. Skull base showing a fracture into the foramen magnum, cut marks on the skull base made during decapitation (arrows).

LXXI. A skull demonstrating a blow with a semi sharp instrument and scalping cut marks. A view of the parietal area shows another depressed fracture.

LXXIII A. An external view of a skull shows a fracture near the bregma and scalping cuts along the frontal bone.

LXXIII B. An interior view of the skull shows the fracture demonstrating, an imploding effect.

XCI. A large defect in fronto-parietal area of this skull is occupied by a paramortem fracture. There are also scalping cut marks.

XCII A., XCII B. A slightly depressed fracture is in the left parietal region, and a second similar fracture is in the posterior parietal area on the right.

XCIV. A paramortem fracture extends from the frontal bone, through the orbit, and into the maxilla.

CXXVI. A sternal manubrium and a vertebral body demonstrate knife cuts.

CXXXIX. A small depressed fracture is in the frontal bone.

CXLI. Carnivore tooth marks are in the right temporal bone.

CXLIX. Several of the upper thoracic vertebrae have been burned (arrows).

CLVII B. The distal portion of this humerus has been burned.

CLXXVI. A fracture with an elongated instrument has been produced in the parietal area.

CLXXX. A deep penetrating wound has been made in this parietal bone.

CCXVII. Knife cut marks are on this distal femur.

CCXXXVII. Many cut marks are visible on this calvarium.

CCCXLVII. On the anterior surface of a tibia there are sawing cuts and cut marks.

CCCLIV. On this skull base anterior to the foramen magnum there are several pry marks, made while decapitating the victim.

96. On the superior surface of this C2 cervical vertebra there are pry marks made while decapitating the victim.

The Crow Creek Massacre: Full Database

Paleopathology Resources

Page last updated 18 March 1998 by The University of Iowa Anthropology Dept.
Page created by Ali Zimmerman, The University of Iowa


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