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Dig This: Paleontologists Are Excavating Indiana's 'Big Bone Mountain'

A viewing platform inside Indiana Caverns on April 6, 2018.
Fons Cervera
A viewing platform inside Indiana Caverns on April 6, 2018.

A group of scientists is unearthing bones from inside Indiana’s longest cave system to learn more about what life was like during the end of the Ice Age.

The remains of ground sloths, black bears, bison and saber-toothed cats could be found during the dig, which is only the second of its kinds inside the Indiana Caverns.

"What we have down here is a fissure that has Ice Age bones. We know that these happen to be about 40,000 years old," said Ron Richards, a paleontologist with Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.

Richards and a team of scientists from Indiana State Museum are beginning a week-long excavation to learn more about life during the end of the Pleistocene era, which began about 2.6 million years ago.

They are excavating just a few hundred feet inside the entrance of the Indiana Caverns, at the site of Big Bone Mountain. The “mountain” is actually a massive rock pile strew with the bones of animals who died in the cave — including extinct species.

Richards said it’s unclear exactly what the cave entrance was like back then, but it’s likely that animals came into the cave, fell into a pit and couldn’t get out.

He expects many of the bones his team finds will come from an extinct species similar to wild hogs, known as peccaries.

“This site in particular has accumulated a massive number of flat-headed peccaries,” Richards said. “We also have other animals like black bears and we suspect some of the predators like dire wolf and other things may well be here. So this is a treasure trove of what Indiana was 40,000 years ago.”

The team will cart up loads of soil from a crevice between the cave wall and Big Bone Mountain — where the team has identified a promising excavation site.

With each load they carry up, they’ll sift through all the soil they remove looking for bones — both big and small.

“It may not look like much, but when I pick something up its like 'oh my gosh this is a tapir tooth or this is an armadillo plate,'” Richards said.

The excavation will keep the team busy analyzing their findings for the next year. But Richards expects paleontologists will be digging in these caverns for generations to come.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.