BTN LiveBIG: Michigan paleontologists study a big find

BTN LiveBIG: Michigan paleontologists study a big find

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During football and basketball games, BTN LiveBIG will spotlight notable examples of research, innovation and community service from around the conference. In-Game stories will provide more background on these features, and the opportunity to view the videos again.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzm7TBvUdns&w=560&h=315%5D

It was autumn on a farm a few miles outside of Ann Arbor, Mich. Jim Bristle was getting ready to harvest his crop of soybeans and field corn, but first he needed to take care of a drainage problem in one of his fields. Dig a hole, drop in a cistern, lay some drainage tile and pump the water out — simple enough.

Except it wasn’t to be so simple. While digging, the farmer struck something he’d never seen before.

“He found bones, big bones,” said Dr. Daniel Fisher, director of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan. “These were not cow or horse, and immediately he and his friends went online, began to realize that they probably had a mastodon or a mammoth, and called the university.”

As it turns out, the farmer had discovered one of the most intact sets of mammoth remains found in Michigan. While the discovery of a mastodon is fairly common — remains are found about two or three times per year — mammoths only represent about a tenth of the large mammal fossils found in the state. What makes this even more astonishing, according to Fisher, is that a find of this magnitude hasn’t occurred since the 1940s.

Fisher remembers that day on the Bristle farm well.

“What was remarkable about the extraction was to see this skull and the tusks rising up out of the ground,” he recalled. “The skull is larger than I can embrace with my stretched arms, and the tusks are almost three meters long.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HFOsc_Jhb0&w=560&h=315%5D

Beyond the size and relatively intact nature of the remains, of note is the peculiar arrangement and state of the bones that have given rise to strong suspicions among Fisher and his team that ancient humans might have had some association with the specimen.

“This is not where animals go to die,” Fisher said of the location, which was rife with sediments that indicated the area was once a prehistoric pond. “The animal was clearly there in pieces. There was the skull and tusks — that was one piece. The jaw was separate. The neck vertebrae were all articulated, but they were well-removed from the animal’s head.”

If the working theory that this mammoth was indeed butchered by early inhabitants of North America and stored in the pond for safekeeping proves correct, it could help determine more precisely how long humans have been in the region.

Archaeologists and anthropologists can safely place human habitation of the North American continent to 13,000 years ago. Mammoths, however, have populated the area that is now the lower peninsula of Michigan as far back as 15,000 years ago. If human presence in association with this mammoth can be proven, and it turns out to be one of the early mammoths, the implications could be huge.

“There’s the opportunity, at this site,” Fisher said, “that we could push back our documented presence of humans in this part of the world.”

Watch the videos above to learn more about this “mammoth” discovery.

By John Tolley

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