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Remains of two ancient Mammoths unearthed in California

A crew of about 50 volunteers, including experts from around the country, laboriously dug and picked through rain-drenched soil on the edge of a farm Sunday in hopes of unearthing most of the remains of two Columbian mammoths that were discovered in Castroville. 

Santa Cruz District archaeologist with California State Parks Mark Hylkema heads up an archeological dig in Castroville Sunday where remains of adult and juvenile Columbian mammoths were discovered by a farmer. [Credit: Tarmo Hannula]
Mark Hylkema, Santa Cruz District archaeologist with California State Parks, who is heading up the archaeological dig, described the discovery - which was made by a farmer using a tractor in December - as major. 

"So far we have a mature tusk and broken elements of a juvenile mammoth, parts of toes, a molar, ribs and hair preserved in the clay," Hylkema said. "We can see the color of the hair, which is the same color hair as my golden retriever. We're not going to glue this guy together, but we're going to learn a lot - there's cool stuff to learn. This discovery is an encyclopedia of information." 

Experts believe adult Columbian mammoths weighed as much as 22,000 pounds, had 12- to 14-foot tusks and were about 14 feet tall. The discovery marks the first mammoth recorded in Monterey County. The animals became extinct between 9,000 and 13,000 years ago. 

The Columbian mammoth is similar to the wooly mammoth, but slightly larger. The wooly had tusks that curved upward instead of forward and inward, Hylkema said. 

One of the mammoths discovered was an adult and the other a juvenile. 

"We're trying to beat the weather," Hylkema said. "These are tilled fields and working out here is very difficult due to mud. The weather has put the site in jeopardy. We're working hard to stabilize the site. I must say we are very grateful the property owner has graciously allowed us to work on this project out here." 

Students and volunteers work on the archeological dig in Castroville [Credit: Tarmo Hannula]
All the work, which is unfunded, is being performed by volunteers including archaeology students, research experts, conservators and a paleontologist. Daniel Cearly and Timothy King are serving as principal investigators at the site. Stephan Schuster, a paleogeneticist from Pennsylvania State University, is also onsite hoping to isolate a DNA sample to help researchers understand whether Columbian mammoths coexisted with wooly mammoths. 

"There has not been a DNA sample from a Columbian mammoth," said Hylkema, who expressed optimism. "This bone looks good, it's fresh; we have good bone preservation." 

Hylkema said the bones and hair are well-preserved due to the clay content in the soil. Only about 10 percent of the total skeletal remains has been unearthed. Hylkema chose not to reveal the specific location of the site to the public because of the threat of scavengers who might try to sell the remains over the Internet. 

"Clay is anaerobic, which means that these bones have been free of air or oxygen," he said. "Without the oxygen there is no bacterial decay. Clay is good for preserving." 


On Sunday the crew worked on pedestaling bone fragments, or carefully cutting soil away around the pieces. The volunteers have been working at the site on and off since the December discovery. 

"I absolutely love this work," said Caitlin Daly, who is studying historical archaeology at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. "This is my first time at a site like this. It's an amazing opportunity. It's so exciting - it's history happening." 

A paleontologist from the University of Southern California worked on extracting a sample from the tusk for stable isotope research - a way of looking at the molecular structure of the bone to see what the animal ate and thus, where it ranged. 

Santa Clara University student Will Abrial said he has worked at the site twice. 

"This is my spring break," he said. "This is training for me. I've never been to a dig like this and it's giving me a lot of information. This is perfect for my undergraduate studies." 

Columbian mammoth remains have also been discovered in the Guadalupe River in San Jose, Fremont, the Central Valley, Los Angeles and in archaeological sites on the Channel Islands, dating to circa 11,000 years ago. 

At the completion of the excavations - in consultation with the landowner - Hylkema said the research team intends to dedicate the remains to an institution, such as a museum or university, where they can be properly curated and made publicly accessible and viewable. The skeletal remains are heavily fragmented and will need conservation and restoration. Foothill College is the staging area where the remains will be cleaned, recorded and prepared for their undecided final home. 

"This is a window into the ice age, which lasted about 2 million years," Hylkema said. "We're trying to create that yardstick of time. The time this animal lived here was the last pulse of the ice age. For me, this is like the Woodstock of an excavation." 

Author: Tarmo Hannula | Source: Register Pajaronian [March 29, 2011]


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