We know from evidence found in the dig that the massacre probably happened in the very late Autumn or early Winter. Enemies attacked the village, somehow getting through the fortification ditch. We believe that the Crow Creek people were actually still building the ditch, so there might have been gaps.
An Artist's Painting of How the Attack Might Have Happened
During the attack, many of the earthlodges were burned. We know this from the excavations done on several of the lodges. The burning might have looked like a fire that the North Dakota State Historical Society set in a reconstructed earthlodge near Mandan, North Dakota as shown in the image below.
Attackers Bruned Down the Crow Creek Earthlodges
Lodges were difficult to start on fire. Once they caught fire, however, they burned quickly.
Some archaeologists believe that the attack was carried out by the Middle Missouri villagers who came down from the north. They might have been unhappy that the Initial Coalescent people had moved into the area and had taken their land.
Other archaeologists do not believe this is a good explanation. These scientists believe that the cause had to do with the environment and overpopulation. The number of people from the Initial Coalescent grew quickly once the people moved from the dry south into an area with good water and soil for their crops. Within 150 they had built about 15 villages, some with many people.
They might have had nearly 8000 people living in a very small area along the river. This is more people than live in the area area today if you do not count those living in cities like Pierre. Living along a narrow strip of floodplain, they simply ran out of room to grow their crops.
The climate also began to change, so the people had less and less to eat. We know from many of the Crow Creek skeletons that people suffered from protein and iron deficiency. The tops of the eye sockets in the skull in the picture below show small pits that are are result of food shortage. This is called orbital cribra.
Skull with Orbital Cribra
X-rays of some of the bones show that in chidren, growth had started and stopped several times due to food shortage. Other x-rays show vitamin C shortage which leads to a disease called scurvy.
We now believe that people from other Initial Coalescent villages wanted the land of the Crow Creek village so they could raise more crops for themselves. We also know from other Initial Coalescent sites that battles were fought there, although we have found no other massacres. This may mean that the villages got into a pattern of warfare and revenge that did not stop until nearly 100 years later.