When James Bristle, a farmer from Michigan, was installing a drainage pipe in a wheat field, the last thing he expected was a 3-foot-long bone. The bone turned out to be a partial skeleton of a 12,000-year-old adult woolly mammoth.
Bristle contacted the University Of Michigan’s Museum Of Paleontology; soon after ,a team of paleontologists were at the site. The farm was located about 10 miles southwest of Ann Arbor, and several miles from the town of Chelsea.
The team managed to recover about 20 per cent of the mammoth’s bones, which included the shoulder blades, tusks, pelvis — and parts of its skull.
Watch the mammoth excavation near Chelsea, Michigan:
The male mammoth has not yet been dated, but it is likely he would have lived between 11,700 and 15,000 years ago, said Daniel Fisher, a paleontologist from the university who led the dig.
The site holds “excellent evidence of human activity” associated with the mammoth remains, he said in a statement.
Fisher is also the director of the U-M Museum of Paleontology, and a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences — and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
We think that humans were here and may have butchered and stashed the meat, said Fisher.
“So that they could come back later for it.”
In Michigan, about 300 mastodons and 30 mammoths have been recovered. A mastodon is another prehistoric elephant-looking creature. Both had roamed North America before disappearing about 11,700 years ago.
“We get one or two calls like this a year, but most of them are mastodons,” Fisher said.
The researchers recovered three boulders the size of a basketball that were lying next to the mammoth remains, which could have been used to anchor down the carcass in a pond. This would support the team’s idea that ancient humans had placed the mammoth remains there for storage.
The caching of mammoth meat in ponds is a strategy that Fisher has seen at other sites in the region. A small stone flake was also recovered next to one of the tusks, and is believed to have been used as a cutting tool.
The neck vertebrae, in a natural death, would normally be scattered around randomly, but in this case, they were still in their correct anatomical sequence, as if someone had “chopped a big chunk out of the body and placed it in the pond for storage,” Fisher said.
Once the researchers washed the bones, they could see if there were any cut marks that could indicate butchering. If there were, then it would bring them one step closer to proving their hypothesis.
James Bristle, the farmer said: “We didn’t know what it was, but we knew it was certainly a lot bigger than a cow bone,” as he watched the mammoth skull and tusks being uncovered in a roughly 10-foot-deep excavation pit — carved from gray-brown clay, according to the university.
Bristle said the discovery had been both exciting and disruptive, but he is confident he made the right decision, saying: “When my 5-year-old grandson came over and saw the pelvis, he just stood there with his jaw wide open and stared. He was in awe.
“So I think this was the right thing to do.”
Bristle had given the team of paleontologists just one day to recover all of the remains. The team worked from early morning to almost sunset. Jamie Bollinger of Bollinger Sanitation and Excavating in Chelsea volunteered his time to excavate the site. After all the bones were recovered, the pit was refilled.