Prehistoric Giants Unearthed
Once trunked titans 15 feet tall, weighing up to ten tons, with monstrous tusks 20 feet long roamed North America from sea to sea. And intrepid humans hunted them! Americans are fascinated with these prehistoric pachyderms and our passion is piqued by increasing discoveries of mammoth and mastodon bones, skeletons and preserved specimens in glaciers, tar pits, silt beds, fields, and our own backyard. Both mammoths and mastodons roamed all of North America, but the smaller mastodons were more common in the east and the massive mammoths in the plains of the west. Skeletons and bones of both have been found in a wide corridor stretching from Iowa to Texas.
Two types of mammoths have been found in North America: the Columbian mammoth predominantly in the plains west of the Mississippi and preserved in the swamps of Florida and woolly mammoths mostly in Alaska, Canada and the Great Lakes area.
Mastodons appeared in North America 27-30 million years ago. Mammoths were much more recent: about 5 million years ago. But both became extinct about 10,000-5,000 years ago when the earth began to heat up. (A pocket of woolly mammoths survived on isolated St. Paul Island off the coast of Alaska until 5,600 years ago and Wrangel Island off the coast of Siberia 4,000 years ago.) The diminishing species were also hunted by humans. The saber-tooth tiger, huge dire wolves, ground sloths, and the small North American horse also disappeared.
We think of mammoths and mastodons and other prehistoric monsters like the dinosaurs as a basic part of our earth’s history, but our knowledge of such creatures is actually very recent. Our knowledge of mammoths and mastodons, for example, really started in the summer of 1705 when a giant five-pound tooth was discovered in the Hudson River Valley of New York. The tooth was declared to be that of a giant human, citing the Bible’s Genesis passage, “there were giants in the earth.” But then more giant teeth were unearthed in South Carolina and African slaves said they looked like elephant teeth. Finally, whole carcasses were found in the glaciers of Siberia and they were called “mammoths.”
European scientists began to discern that the giant fossils being dug up around the world were of two primary types, one being from mammoths, the other from mastodons. Both were similar to modern-day elephants but, they believed, had become extinct. “Though we may as philosophers regret it,” the British anatomist William Hunter wrote in 1768, “as men we cannot but thank Heaven that its whole generation is probably extinct.” The idea that species that had walked the earth in such magnificence had become extinct was cataclysmic in religious thought and challenged the doctrine that species were a permanent, unchanging heritage from the Garden of Eden. The extinction also cast doubt on the Biblical inference that the earth was 6,000 years old.
There were other earth-shattering reverberations. Mammoths and mastodons of lore played a significant role in building the American national identity. As more and more bones of the prehistoric pachyderms were uncovered around the world, an archeological competition began between America and Europe.
A French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, was one of the most widely read authors in the 1700s and he had declared that the New World was a land of degenerates with a “niggardly sky and unprolific land.” His “theory of American degeneracy” became accepted theory in Europe. He even attacked the animal kingdom of the New World, writing in 1755: “No American animal can be compared with the elephant, the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus” and sniffed that the best North America could do was the bison.
Thomas Jefferson, who was 6’2,” was peeved by European prejudice, especially since he and other founding fathers were trying to get European loans to develop the budding nation. Jefferson created elaborately illustrated tables comparing American species—bison, cougars, panthers, moose, bears, elk, even flying squirrels—with puny specimens of the Old World. In the early 1780s, he trotted out the North American discovery of the mammoth. “the largest of terrestrial beings,” and puffed that Leclerc’s notion “that Nature is less active, less energetic on one side of the globe than she is on the other” was ridiculous.
In 1783, after the artist Charles Peale had examined mammoth bones discovered in the Ohio River Valley, he was so bewitched he launched America’s first national museum featuring the bones and incorporated in his displays the greatness of the American republic. In 1801, Peale traveled hurriedly to a new mammoth discovery in the Hudson River Valley near Newburgh, New York. He quickly landed a loan from the American Philosophical Society, of which Jefferson was the president, to excavate the bones. What he found was a nearly complete skeleton. Peale’s black slave, Moses Williams, was tasked with piecing the bones together into a full skeleton, which, after three months of work, resulted in an 11-foot-high behemoth! While Moses was doing that important work, Peale painted his famous work, “Exhuming the Mammoth, which was displayed with the mammoth skeleton in his museum in Philadelphia.
Moses’ work would be the world’s first reconstruction of a mammoth skeleton and it became a national sensation. Peale and his son, Rembrandt, celebrated Jefferson’s support and American patriotism by hosting a dinner of foremost politicians at the foot of the fantastic fossil. A musician played “Jefferson’s March” and “Yankee Doodle” on a piano tucked under the pelvis of the mammoth. And the diners made patriotic toasts such as: ““To the American People: may they be as preeminent among the nations of the earth, as the canopy we sit beneath surpasses the fabric of the mouse!”
So enamored was Jefferson with the discoveries of the mammoths that he had his own collection of mastodon bones that he laid out on the floor of the East Room in the White House. He fancied the idea that they might still be alive somewhere in the unexplored western frontier of the continent. And he cited an Indian legend about a mammoth that shook off lightning bolts and lumbered west somewhere beyond the Great Lakes. “In the present interior of our continent,” Jefferson maintained, “there is surely space and range enough for elephants and lions.” When he sent Lewis and Clark on their expedition in 1804 to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific, he also asked that they look for living mammoths!
Jefferson’s fascination with modern paleontology and the continent’s robust frontier wildlife was shared by the rest of the American populace. The last fifty years especially has brought a renaissance of mammoth and mastodon fossil discoveries and research. And accidental citizen paleontologists have unearthed a large share of significant finds. Cases in point are two of the most recent discoveries: just a couple of months ago in May 2019, an Iowa teenager looking for arrowheads discovered a 30-inch jawbone with teeth the size of a man’s fist still intact in a riverbed. The jawbone belonged to a mastodon 34,000 years ago. Bones of both mastodons and woolly mammoths have been found on the farm. A University of Iowa paleontology team is now excavating the site.
In 2015, a Michigan soybean farmer digging a drainage system in his field made one of the most significant mammoth discoveries since the 1940s: a skull with massive tusks intact and many other bones of a mammoth that lived and was probably butchered by humans 15,000 years ago! Michigan has seen a wealth of fossil discoveries, including the remains of more than 300 mastodons.
But the mother lode of mammoth fossils was discovered in 1974 near Hot Springs, South Dakota. Today the massive Mammoth Museum is built over the archeology site, the largest mammoth bone depository in the world. Magnificent fossil remains have been unearthed, including 116 tusks and partial skeletons. The museum is built over the site to preserve the location and allow excavation and study year around and has become one of South Dakota’s most visited tourist attractions. The staff and volunteers work year around at the center excavating and indulge in paleontology humor. One disarticulated skeleton they unearthed they call “Napoleon Bone-Apart.” Another specimen that was missing its skull was called, “Marie Antoinette,” after the guillotined French queen.
Another veritable gold mine of fossil finds is located in The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles, California. One of the largest collections of Ice Age fossils in the world has been unearthed for the last century at the tar pits, including 3.5 million specimens, including 200,000 individual dire wolf bones and a magnificent, nearly complete mammoth skeleton. The titan male, which the museum named “Zed,” was probably 47-49 years old, suffered some arthritis, and lived between 38,000-42,000 years ago. He was unearthed under a department store parking garage being demolished. The museum also has a spectacular life-size outdoor diorama of mammoths stuck in a tar pit.
Recently new excitement in mammoth-mania was sparked when scientists began to discuss the possibility of cloning prehistoric mammoth DNA. In 2013, a complete mammoth carcass was unearthed in Yakutsk, Russia, in the permafrost. Researchers noticed dark, sticky blood oozing from it. Scientists collected a vial of blood drained from the carcass from which they hope to extract living mammoth cells for DNA—the missing link in the quest to bring the ancient behemoth back from the dead.
And, since 2015, a team led by the Harvard molecular engineer and geneticist George Church has been trying to produce a mammoth-elephant hybrid through “synthetic biology.” The process involves splicing the genes of a woolly mammoth with an Asian elephant, the mammoth’s closest living relative, which shares 99 percent of its DNA. Thomas Jefferson would have been thrilled.
PHOTOS: (1) Mammoths and mastodons both roamed our prehistoric continent at the same time and became extinct about 10,000-5,000 years ago when the earth began to heat up. (2) A Michigan farmer uncovered a massive mammoth skull with bones intact when he was digging a drainage system in his field. (3) Most recently in May 2019 a teenager looking for arrowheads found a 30-inch jawbone of a mastodon in an Iowa riverbed. (4) In March 2018, two brothers and their cousin found a mastodon jawbone with 24 teeth in their Mississippi farm field. (5) The Mammoth Site and Museum near Hot Springs, South Dakota, marks the largest find of mammoth skeletons and bones in the world. A museum was built around the entire site to preserve the dig and allow scientists to excavate and do research year-around. (6) A Mammoth Museum graphic shows the number of mastodon (in red) and mammoth (in blue) discoveries across North America. Mastodons were more prevalent in the east, the larger mammoths more common on the western plains. (7) A mammoth display at the famous La Brea Tar Pits Museum in Los Angeles that houses one of the richest caches of prehistoric bones. (8) Stompy, the mastodon, at the Neville Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin, was covered with 1,500 cow tails to achieve the look of heavy, curly hair that kept the prehistoric pachyderms warm during the Ice Age. Ancient humans hunted both mastodons and mammoth.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
Posted September 21, 2019
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