Saturday, October 03, 2015

Mammoth in the news: Michigan edition

You might have seen in the news yesterday that a mammoth was found in Michigan. A new mammoth find is always cool and this one has a few elements that make it pretty exciting. I have some questions about it and there is one aspect of the story and accompanying pictures that I find fairly disturbing.

NOTE: Though the story has been picked up by most major news outlets, the source for most of the coverage is these two stories from MLive, a group of regional newspapers in Michigan (one, two). The Washington Post story was able to add a little by interviewing Dan Fisher, the paleontologist directing the excavation (link).

First, the story. On Monday, James Bristle and a friend were digging a hole in a new piece of land Bristle had just acquired. The hole was to be the base of a lift station for a new natural gas line being built. A few feet down, they brought up something long, narrow, and curved. At first they thought it was an old bent fence post, but once they had cleared some mud off of it, they saw that it was a huge rib. Bristle brought his family to look the rib and other bones he uncovered. On Tuesday, he called the University and was put in contact with their paleontology professor, Dan Fisher. Fisher came out Wednesday night and by the morning he was sure they had woolly mammoth on their hands. His initial theory is that the mammoth was butchered, and possibly killed by humans, and that the parts they discovered had been sunk in a cold pond for storage.

Here's the exciting part. Mammoths are not common in Michigan. Mastodons are. The state fossil of the Michigan is the mastodon. Fisher says this is only the eleventh significant mammoth find in the state while there have been over 300 mastodon finds. “We get calls once or twice a year about new specimens like this,” but they're always mastodons. If he's right that it was butchered by humans, that's even more exciting. Very few mammoths have ever been found that unambiguously show evidence that humans killed or butchered them.

Here are my questions. Based on what I can gather from the news reports, Fisher's theory seems reasonable, but, of course, I want to know more. What makes him think it was butchered? The reports say they found a flint cutting tool at the site. It's possible that the tool was left there at another time, but, if it was found intermingled with the bones, it's far more likely that it was deposited at the same time as the mammoth. The clincher will be if they find butcher marks on the bones--that is, gouges on the bones made by sawing meat off. I'd also like to know more about the pond refrigeration theory. This technique was practiced in the region and can keep meat safe to eat for over a year, though it tastes and smells awful by the first summer. I want to know if there's any way to confirm that this is really what was done with this particular mammoth. Third, Fischer thinks the mammoth was about forty when it died. He most likely figured this out by counting the growth rings in the ivory (mammoths and elephants show annual layers just like trees). One of the tusks was broken about half way up during the recovery, making that technique possible on the site. Adult elephants grow a new set of teeth every ten years or so. Did he deduce it from that? I want to know more about everything.

Now the disturbing part. After Dr. Fisher determined that the bones were mammoth remains, farmer Bristle gave him the rest of the day to get the bones out of his field before he planned to go back to building his lift station. This makes no sense to me. I understand that there are people who care so little about science that one day's inconvenience is all they're willing tolerate for knowledge. But that still doesn't explain the rush. Why is he building the lift station? Shouldn't the pipeline company be doing that? Shouldn't they be setting the schedule? Because they were found on private property, the bones are legally Bristle's. At press time, he hadn't decided whether he was going to donate the bones to the university after they finished examining them, so he has some interest in them. Even if his interest is only in selling them, he has to know that a careful excavation will bring the bones out in the best possible condition guaranteeing the best possible sales price. An important part of the story is missing here.

Fisher was able to call in a bunch of his students to help him. Jamie Bollinger, a local excavator, donated his time and equipment to get the work done. The The Ann Arbor News interviewed Fisher while the skull was being prepared to be lifted out of the hole by Bollinger's backhoe. Other than clearing the mud away, the only preparation they were able to do under the time restraints they faced was to wrap the tusks with zip ties. One broke anyway.

I'm cringing at the pictures, but maybe it's not as bad as it looks. They got the bones. That's all that's important. Right? Well, no. We know what mammoth skeletons look like. Over the last three hundred years, we've found bones from thousands of mammoths including a good sized herd's worth of complete skeletons, not to mention 75 with meat or skin. The important thing now is to study the context of each discovery. What was the local environment this mammoth lived in? What was the climate? What were they eating? Were humans part of that environment? Fortunately, evacuation paleontology/archaeology is a technique with well-developed procedures. In the pictures you can see that students have bagged scores of samples and carefully labeled each one. It might take years to examine the samples and virtually reconstruct the site. With computers, we can do that a lot better than we used to.

I'm really looking forward to hearing what they can tell us after they've had a chance to carefully examine the bones.

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