Jack Hofman, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas, looks over two sites where bones of a mammoth have been uncovered. In the foreground is a mammoth rib and to his right are two ribs and a scapula.
Researchers with the Odyssey archeological team from the University of Kansas take measurements of a rib and ulna section from a mammoth that was unearthed in northern Scott County.
Two ribs and a scapula from what is believed to be a fully grown mammoth.
By Rod Haxton, editor
to be a first
Fossil finds dating back millions of years are nothing new in Western Kansas.
The discoveries of George Sternberg and Marion Bonner can be found in museums and galleries throughout the United States.
Mike Scheuerman might someday find his name added to that distinguished, but short, list.
Scheuerman is no fossil hunter, but a discovery was made on his farm in northeast Scott County that could rank as one of the most significant ever made in Kansas.
While terrace construction was taking place on a field near his home, a dirt buggy uncovered what appeared to be a large bone. According to Scheuerman, the operation removes only about 2-3 inches of dirt on each pass.
“We decided to shut down in that area and we notified the NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service),” says Scheuerman.
Located on the edge of major fossil fields located to the north, Scheuerman has occasionally come upon fish bones and shark’s teeth, but there was little doubt that this find would be more significant.
How much more significant is yet to be learned. But state archeologists and anthropologists are more than intrigued by the find.
It’s not the mammoth itself (or possibly a mastodon) that had archeologists from the state and a research team from the University of Kansas converging on the site earlier this week.
“Finding mammoth or mastodon remains is not that big of a deal,” acknowledged John Tomasic, an archeologist with the Kansas State Historical Society.
What makes this find intriguing is the possibility that it was killed by human beings who first inhabited the Great Plains roughly 14,000 years ago - at about the same time the last of the mammoths were becoming extinct.
“What we don’t know, and would like to know, is whether humans are responsible for the death of this animal,” Tomasic says.
“If we find a stone tool associated with this, it would strongly suggest that humans killed that animal and that would be something spectacular because we don’t have that very often anywhere in the world and we really don’t have much of that evidence in Kansas.”
Timing is Right
Several factors have contributed to the possibility of human involvement in the mammoth’s death.
Normally, if an animal such as this dies of natural causes it will go to an area with water, or a low-lying area.
These remains were found on a hilltop. Which begs the question: Why is this animal at this particular location?
“When we got here (Monday) and were walking around, we found flakes - the ‘garbage’ from making stone tools - along the surface within 50 to 75 meters of this mammoth,” continues Tomasic. “That could have happened 5,000 or 10,000 years following the death of this mammoth, so we can’t say the two are in direct association at this time, but it would suggest the possibility.”
And the fossilized remains were found only about 12-18 inches below the soil’s surface.
“Because of their position in the landscape and within the soil, these bones are very late for mammoths in this part of the world,” says Jack Hofman, associate professor in anthropology at KU. “Between 11,000 and 15,000 years ago would be a very safe ballpark range.”
He says because it’s known that people were “very active” in this area 14,000 years ago, and possibly earlier, there’s a reasonable chance that mammoths and early Paleo Indians co-existed in the Scott County region. That overlapping “lens of time,” says Tomasic, offers the possibility of human involvement in the death.
Researchers pored over the site on Tuesday, identifying the exact location and position of the bones and taking careful measurements.
Nearly all were with the Odyssey archeological research program at KU. They happened to be in the process of excavating a similar site in neighboring Lane County.
Three shallow excavation points within an area covering about 350 square feet revealed bones from what is believed to be an adult mammoth. Fully grown, it would measure about 14-16 feet in height and weigh 6-8 tons.
One site revealed two ribs and the scapula; another a rib and the ulna; and the third site had only a rib measuring roughly three feet in length.
One team member pointed to a pair of barely visible lines that ran across one section of the rib which could have been caused by a cutting tool.
Hofman emphasized it was far too early to jump to any conclusions.
According to Rolfe Mandel, executive director of the Odyssey program, there is only one other site in Kansas where Clovis-aged artifacts - spear points or flakes dating back about 13,000 years - have been discovered in relationship to mammoth remains. That was near Kanorado, but only mammoth bone fragments were discovered.
The Scott County site would be much more unique in that it offers the possibility of fragments in conjunction with what could be the entire remains of a mammoth.
The soil around the site has to be screened in order to capture small fragments of flake or chipped stone. The prospect of finding a Clovis-era spear head is extremely remote.
“(The Paleo Indians) would have recovered a spear point. It had a lot of value to them,” Mandel says.
If it can be confirmed that the mammoth’s death was a result of human involvement, this would be the first confirmed site of such an event in Kansas.
On Wednesday, the team began making plaster casts and preparing to remove the fossil remains so they can be carbon dated and studied by specialists for evidence of cut marks or unusual breakage. Once the age of the mammoth is confirmed, then anthropologists will know whether it existed before or during a time when people inhabited the area.
If this is a late mammoth, in the last 15,000 years, then researchers will return to the site in an effort to recover more remains and to see if any type of killing tools - possibly a Clovis spear point - can be found.
“We intend to salvage and preserve those bones which were exposed,” Hofman says. “This provides us with a good data point so we can come back within the next year or so.”
Because of the shallow burial site, Hofman says the bones are endangered, which is why the anthropology team from KU and state archeologists would rather not delay further excavation any longer than necessary. In the meantime, Scheuerman has agreed not to do any farming in the immediate area.
In a scene that could almost come out of a CSI: Scott County script, Hofman said there is no evidence at this time to implicate people in the death of this mammoth.
“As we learn more about the animal, it will make a difference in how we view the death,” he added.
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