Butchered Mammoth Unearthed on Michigan Farm

October 13, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Woolly Mammoth
Photo credit: Joseph Martinez/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

This mammoth fossil could form the crime scene of a gruesome butchery conducted by prehistoric humans, suggesting that they arrived in the region earlier than we thought.

Soybean farmer James Bristle was digging a trench to install a drainage pipe when his backhoe struck a 3-foot-long bone. He wasn’t sure what he was looking at, but the bone was obviously far too big to belong to a cow or any other animal in the region. As he kept digging, he discovered more bones and knew he had stumbled on a spectacular find that warranted calling the professionals.

Dan Fisher, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, rushed to the scene with a team of excavators and archaeologists. The bones belonged to an adult male mammoth, the prehistoric ancestors to modern elephants that were common in North America 15,000 years ago. They were able to dig up about 20 percent of the skeleton, including the pelvis first spotted by Bristle as well as the skull, tusks, several vertebrae and ribs, and both shoulder blades.

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According to Fisher, fossils of mammoths and their mastodon cousins are strewn throughout the region, and his department receives calls of this nature once or twice each year. These remains are notable for how complete they are, as most other finds merely involve a few scattered bones.

But most intriguingly, this mammoth appears to have met an untimely end at the hands of humans. Next to one of the tusks, the researchers found a small stone flake that could have functioned as a cutting tool. The vertebrae should have been scattered across the site if the mammoth had died naturally, but instead they lay in their correct anatomical sequence — almost as if someone had carved out a large segment of the mammoth’s body. There were also three large boulders lying beside the remains, which may have been used to weigh the body down in a pond.

All this evidence paints a grisly picture in which prehistoric humans slaughtered this colossal creature, hacked its body into manageable chunks, and then stored them in an ancient pond for later consumption. Fisher has encountered such strategies in other mammoth sites, but he’ll have to wait until they can wash and analyze the bones for marks of butchery before he can confirm this hypothesis.

If this mammoth was truly a victim of human hunting, the discovery could push back the time period for human activity in this region earlier than scientists thought. Archaeologists haven’t yet settled on a definitive time frame for when humans first arrived in North America or how quickly they migrated to new regions. Current estimates date the earliest human activities in Michigan at around 10,000 years ago — a solid two millennia after the last mammoths disappeared. While we often picture our primitive ancestors driving these Ice Age beasts to extinction, many paleontologists believe that the mass extinction of megafauna was primarily due to climate change as the Ice Age thawed.

Regardless of what the remains signify for the natural history of mammoths and their coexistence with humans, Fisher calls the “Bristle Mammoth” one of the top ten most significant discoveries in Michigan history. Rather than try to display the hefty fossil over his mantle, Bristle graciously donated it to the University Museum.

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