Eliann Stoffel – Unlocking the Secrets of a Forgotten Mammoth

A rather large bone, revealed by his bulldozer, prompted William McEvoy and his crew to cease work on the road and call the police. The police then called the local archaeological society, who, in turn, called an archaeologist at the local Natural History Museum.

When word got out that a mammoth had been discovered, visitors began pouring in to see the site.  Just a few miles outside of the town of Kyle in Saskatchewan, Canada, the excavation of these fragile bones from the hard clay was witnessed by an ever-growing number of people.  It is estimated that 20,000 visitors came to see the site that autumn in 1964.

Embed from Getty Images

 

Eventually, the plaster casts protecting the bones were taken to the Natural History Museum (now known as the Royal Saskatchewan Museum); radiocarbon dating was conducted.  Possible museum displays and skeletal reconstructions were discussed.

And then?

Nothing.

Once the cause of great local excitement, the bones of the Kyle Mammoth faded from view.

The references above to archaeology are not errors.  Although the bones found were paleontological in nature, the focus on the find—and, indeed, the very reason they were recently resurrected—was to determine whether there was any evidence of human-proboscidean interaction.  When no stone tools were recovered in the surrounding sediment and with no obvious signs of butchering on the bones, interest in the fossil seems to have collectively disappeared.  For over 50 years, the various bones found on that stretch of road have been shelved in the Museum’s collections.

“I had always planned on doing my thesis at the University of Saskatchewan and I knew I wanted to do my thesis on hunting and butchering strategies utilized by Paleoindian people,” explained Eliann Stoffel, a recent graduate, in an email.

Her interest was not specific to any one species of megafauna. She hoped to study any and all large animals ancient people may have hunted: camels, bison, horse, proboscidea.

“I had approached my supervisor, Dr. Ernie Walker, with this topic and he had spoken with a member of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, Frank McDougal, who had suggested taking a look at the Kyle Mammoth.”

Which is how the long-forgotten fossil came back into view in 2015.

“We knew that the mammoth belonged to a time when people were in North America and actively hunting mammoths so we had the possibility of finding some sort of evidence of humans on the Kyle mammoth.”

This evidence is rare in the area known as the Northern Great Plains, an area that encompasses Saskatchewan (as well as another Canadian province and five U.S. states).

“It was one of those projects,” she said later by phone, “that, as soon as it came up, I couldn’t turn it down.  It needed to be done.”

Travelling between Saskatoon and Regina (where the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and the fossil are located), Eliann spent many hours studying and analyzing the bones from the 1964 excavation.  This included five boxes of bone fragments as well as 56 complete or near-complete bones, such as vertebrae, mandible, a partial tusk, and ribs.  Also included were ungulate bones, which—like the mammoth—did not comprise a full skeleton and did not present any clear association with its proboscidean fossil companion.

 

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About 20% of the mammoth skeleton survived; image courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan

 

Eliann’s thesis presents a comprehensive taphonomic analysis of the mammoth bones, and this was done because she and her advisors “knew that we needed to keep in mind that we might not find any evidence of human involvement.”

The idea of determining who or what made any kind of marks on a fossil seems like an overwhelming challenge.  This was not an animal that died the other day.  In this case, it died roughly 12,000 years ago. That is a considerable amount of time in which—after an animal is butchered, killed or otherwise dies of natural causes–it can be scavenged after death, it can be moved and scraped by natural elements, it can be affected by its fossilization, and then possibly affected by the process of discovery (in this case, by a bulldozer). How is anyone able to read the marks on fossil bones and know what they represent?

“[T]he first giveaway is the colour,” she wrote. “Bone, when it has been buried for a long time, tends to become stained from the surrounding sediment but only the outer surface. So when someone (an excavator) knicks the bone, the unstained inner portion of the bone is exposed and tends to be a lighter colour.

“The other indicator can be the clustering of marks. [With] butchering, there tends to be more than one cut mark on the bone in the same general area, usually at muscle attachment sites, and they tend to be orientated in the same direction. Rarely do you find cut marks that intersect each other. They are usually parallel. In accidental knick marks there is usually just the single mark and it tends to be located in a spot that you wouldn’t generally find cut marks (i.e. on joint surfaces or midshaft of a long bone).”

 

figure-b-15-kyle-mammoth-eliann-stoffel-thesis

 

Photo of the Kyle Mammoth right mandible from her thesis; courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan

 

Contrary to initial review in the 1960s, Eliann discovered a few tantalizing signs that this mammoth may have, indeed, suffered from trauma induced by ancient humans.  From a suspicious-looking lesion to a possible puncture wound on vertebrae to a puzzling set of lines in a bone fragment, there was reason to wonder whether humans had been responsible for these scars.

Ultimately, however, the first two were determined to be pathological. The lesions conform to known understanding of malnutrition in the form of osteolytic lesions.

Knowing her hope to find evidence of human interaction, I asked if this was a bit of a disappointment.

“[I]t was a bit of a kick in the knees,” she admitted, “but still a super interesting avenue of study in terms of pathology. I am more than thrilled with my findings though!”

 

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figure-5-1-kyle-mammoth-eliann-stoffel-thesisImages courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan

 

Another startling discovery appeared in what she describes as a “spongy” bone fragment, shown above, which contain traces of blood vessels.

“I remember bringing it to my supervisor and we both scratched our heads over it…So we called on our resident bioarchaeologist Dr. [Angela] Lieverse to take a look and she wasn’t sure but suggested possibly something vascular. Sure enough, when I searched for studies fitting that criteria, a couple articles turned up. So it seems that it is an occurring phenomena but possibly not that common,” Eliann wrote.

Ultimately, Eliann determined that this was a young male woolly mammoth (between 28 – 35 years old) that was still growing at the time of its death.  She estimates it was 328.66 cm (approximately 10.8 feet) tall.  While the large open wound on one of the vertebra points to a possible puncture wound from Clovis weaponry, other pathological features point to a mammoth suffering from malnutrition.

Eliann’s enthusiasm for those who helped her in her research was apparent.

“[T]he folks at the [Royal Saskatchewan M]useum were more than happy to help in any way possible,” she expressed, “and it is something that I have always appreciated! Also my major funders [were] the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation, the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, and, of course, the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the [University of Saskatchewan].”

More than just a strenuous academic endeavor, Eliann’s research has painted a picture that has been missing for decades on a significant local paleontological find.

“The [people in the] town of Kyle identify with this mammoth.  As you come into Kyle, there’s this statue of a mammoth.  Their sign that says ‘Welcome to Kyle’ has a picture of a mammoth on it.  It’s clear that they identify with it.”

 

 

A Mammuthus primigenius-sized THANK YOU to Eliann Stoffel—not only for her time in emails and by phone–but also for her gracious permission to use a number of pictures from her work!  Her thesis is fascinating and well written.  I recommend it to all!  Eliann, may you find many mammoths with evidence of human association in the future!

Another enormous thank you to Dr. Angela Lieverse, head of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan, who was also responsible for the generous use of images from Eliann’s thesis!

And I am very grateful to Dr. Emily Bamforth at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum for connecting me to Eliann! I could not have written this otherwise. THANK YOU!!

*****

References:

  1. The Kyle Mammoth: An Archaeological, Palaeoecological and Taphonomic Analysis, Eliann W. Stoffel, July 2016, University of Saskatchewan
  2. Shedding Some Light on the Kyle Mammoth, David Zammit, Swift Current Online, Nov. 13, 2016; the article that brought Eliann Stoffel and the Kyle Mammoth to my attention!
  3. PDF about the Kyle Mammoth from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum

Screenshot Kyle Mammoth RSM

Screenshot from the aforementioned PDF of the Kyle Mammoth, Royal Saskatchewan Museum

3D Printing Opens Doors to Research – Jennifer Webb

Right now, in Michigan, an undergrad is studying the contours of fossils found half way around the world. Fossils that, in fact, continue to reside in their country of origin: South Africa.  She hasn’t traveled there; she doesn’t have casts of the fossils themselves.  What she does have, and what is steadily becoming available to other organizations, is access to 3D printers.

Jennifer Webb, with help from her advisor, Rachel Caspari, has been comparing 3D replicas of the famous Homo naledi fossils discovered in 2013 to the casts of early Homo sapiens fossils found in the 1960s and 1980s. Both sets of fossils were found in South Africa: Homo naledi in the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star Cave, and Homo sapiens at Klasies River Mouth.  But, so far, only one set has been dated.

Maker Bot Fossils By Monica Bradburn
Jennifer Webb w/MakerBot Fossils, photo by Monica Bradburn, courtesy of Central Michigan University

 

Jennifer’s goal: to determine the age of the Homo naledi fossils by comparing their physical attributes to this set of Homo sapiens fossils.

“Because the date [of Homo naledi] is unknown,” Jennifer explained, “we can use those traits to look and see if they’re similar [to the Homo sapiens fossils from Klasies River Mouth]. And if they are similar, then they are likely to be of a similar time period or age.”

This is important, as it would help us better understand where on the evolutionary chain Homo naledi can be found, and therefore, what physical attributes and possible social behavior developed when.

Klasies River Mouth Homo sapiens have been dated to about 120,000 years ago.  The caves at this location revealed periods of human occupation through sparse human fossils, shell middens and indications of ‘hearth activity’.  (Interestingly, one of the eggshells discovered belonged to an ostrich, a species that has not existed in the area since the Late Pleistocene.)

 

Klasies River Mouth - John Atherton

 

Klasies River Mouth Cave, South Africa; image taken by John Atherton, Flickr

In contrast to the small number of fossils at Klasies River Mouth, roughly 1550 specimens were excavated at Dinaledi Chamber—the largest set of hominin fossils found in the entire continent thus far.  Absent evidence of predator damage or remains, the 15 Homo naledi skeletons appear to have been placed in that cave deliberately.

 

Dinaledi Chamber Illustration

 

Figure 3. Cartoon illustrating the geological and taphonomic context and distribution of fossils, sediments and flowstones within the Dinaledi Chamber. The distribution of the different geological units and flowstones is shown together with the inferred distribution of fossil material.
DOI: 10.7554/eLife.09561.005

 

“My professor and I,” said Jennifer, referring to Rachel Caspari, “as long as we’ve known about this species, we’ve always been interested in it.”

But the path to actually studying Homo naledi didn’t appear until this past October, when Central Michigan University opened its Makerbot Innovation Center, making it unique amongst public Midwest universities.

And with access to 3D printers, Jennifer was able to make use of the digital scans and images provided on Morphosource.org.

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One of the Homo naledi fossils as it is being printed; image courtesy of Central Michigan University

Maker Bot Fossils By Monica Bradburn

Rachel Caspari and Jennifer Webb with a 3D replica fossil; photo by Monica Bradburn; courtesy of Central Michigan University

 

Regular 2D printing has become so fast, so cheap, and so easy.  3D printing, on the other hand, is not necessarily any of those things.  At CMU, the cost of 3D printing is $.15 per gram.  It can take anywhere from 2 hours to an incredible 24 hours for something to print, depending upon various factors.  Most of the Homo naledi fossils took between 2 – 4 hours to create.

Having access to physical replicas of the originals is, indeed, exciting, but one wonders what challenges this might also present.

“3D printers can only be so accurate,” Jennifer replied. “The ones that we use are accurate to .2 millimeter difference. So we would have to factor in that amount of error into any of our analyses.”

“When we’re looking at the 3D-printed [fossils],” she continued, “they no longer have the coloring that the [original] fossils would have, which can also sometimes better indicate any dips or grooves or mounds. The best way we have to go around that is to look at the scans and pictures that we still have access to [from Morphosource] and compare them along with the 3D fossils that we printed.”

While researchers with access to the real Homo naledi fossils could perform isotopic analysis or radiocarbon dating, these procedures are both invasive and destructive to fossils.  Jennifer prefers to observe the physical traits themselves, preserving the fossils in their entirety.

“I love to be able to look at a set of bones, examine them, look at all their features and any marks or anything that’s on them and be able to tell a story from that,” she said.

This is no surprise, given that her interest in Forensic Anthropology—her intended course of study for her Masters—was prompted by the show, “Bones,” based on the life of Kathy Reichs.

Image from Bones by Michael Desmond/FOX

Bones – Season 5 – “The Proof in the Pudding” – Emily Deschanel, Tamara Taylor and TJ Thyne; Photo by: Michael Desmond/FOX

 

“I was afraid that, because it was a TV show, in real life it wouldn’t be the same. So I shied away from it in college in the beginning and started off with a different major. And then I discovered a Forensic Anthropology course that was being offered at CMU, and I decided to give that a try.  Once I did, I realized that it was very similar; there were a lot of things that were exactly like what they portrayed on TV. So I started getting into it more, and my interest grew.”

Before graduating this December, Jennifer will be presenting her Homo naledi findings to the American Anthropological Association in November.

Maker Bot Fossils By Monica Bradburn
3D fossil replica, by Monica Bradburn, courtesy of Central Michigan University

 

Many, many thanks to Jennifer Webb for her time and her great responses to my questions! A very special thank you to Rachel E. Perkins for reaching out to me about this story.

Further Reading:

  1. Geological and taphonomic context for the new hominin species Homo naledi from the Dinaledi Chamber, South AfricaPaul HGM Dirks, Lee R Berger, Eric M Roberts, Jan D Kramers, John Hawks, Patrick S Randolph-Quincey, Marina Elliott, Charles M Musiba, Steven E Churchill, Darryl J de Ruiter, Peter Schmid, Lucinda R Backwell, Georgy A Belyanin, Pedro Bomhoff, K Lindsay Hunter, Elen M Feuerriegel, Alia Gurtov, James du G Harrison, Rick Hunter, Ashley Kruger, Hannah Morris, Tebogo V Makhubela, Becca Peixotto, StevenTucker; eLife, 10 September 2015
  2. We Are Made of Star Stuff, blog post on Twilight Beasts by K. Lindsay Hunter (one of the authors of the paper above and one Rising Star team who excavated the Homo naledi fossils)
  3. Fossils Come to Life 8,500 Miles Away, CMU press release by Rachel E. Perkins

 

Forthcoming books on hominins:

  1. Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils, Lydia Pyne
  2. Almost Human, Lee R. Berger and John Hawks

Seven Skeletons Lydia Pyne

Almost Human Berger Hawks

 

 

 

Boston Archeology Fair – Its origins through the Archaeological Institute of America

This past October 19th was the 7th Annual Archeology Fair, but it was my first experience of such an event, and I LOVED it.  It is the reason I reached out to some of the archeologists who participated and why I asked them about their remarkable work (please see previous posts).  For those who were not able to attend or did not know of the event, I wanted to be able to share how wonderful it was.

The event is the brainchild of Dr. Ben Thomas, Director of Programs for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).  As Kelly Lindberg, Site Preservation Program Administrator at AIA, explains below, Dr. Thomas worked with the Museum of Science, Boston (MOS) to bring this day to fruition.

The estimated number of people who attended that weekend is close to 5500. (“…the AIA and MOS estimate that we spread the wonderful world of archaeology to around 5469 people over the weekend.” from: http://www.archaeological.org/news/aianews/14283)

That is phenomenal.

Kelly very generously responded to further questions about the origins of this fantastic event:

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1. Per the flyers, this is the 7th Annual Archeology Fair. Does this mean it’s been held at the Boston Museum of Science for the past 7 years, or that it has been celebrated for 7 years?

Both, actually. The AIA began working with the MOS 7 years ago to bring together this great event, and we have held it at the Museum each year.

2. What prompted the AIA and the Boston Museum of Science to work together on this?

The idea for the fair started back in 2005 when our current Director of Programs, Ben Thomas, started working at the AIA. At that time, the AIA held an archaeology fair at each of its annual meetings, which are held in a different city each January across the US, and Ben wanted to start an annual fair in Boston, where the AIA has its headquarters. He approached Mike Adams, an educator at the Museum of Science who had attended our annual meeting archaeology fairs in the past, with the idea and everything developed from there. The AIA and the MOS had our first archaeology fair in 2007, and we have grown and expanded every year since.

3. How are the archeologists and presentations chosen for the fair? Are they always based in New England?

Each spring the AIA contacts a number of different professional organizations (historical societies, archaeological institutions, museums, university departments, etc.) in the New England area who share an interest in archaeology, history, anthropology, and other related fields; all our presenters volunteer their time at the fair.

4. Can you tell me more about your role in the fair?

I am the AIA’s point person for this event. I work mostly with presenters, getting commitments to present and making sure their activity needs are met. I also work closely with my colleague at the MOS to finalize scheduling, logistics, and publicity for the fair. On fair days I provide any support presenters and volunteers may need, from assisting at presenter tables to covering lunch breaks.

5. Do you want to share any anecdotes about the planning process or reactions to the fair?

Each year the AIA and MOS have the opportunity to work with a fantastic group of presenters and volunteers, and we are so glad to be part of these organizations’ outreach and education programs.

In addition, every year we see so many fair attendees with a great interest in archaeology, and we are honored to make this learning experience available to them.

6. Will the fair be on the same date at the same location next year? How far in advance do you start planning for the event?

We try to schedule the fair at the MOS to fall on the same weekend as International Archaeology Day, which is the third weekend in October, though scheduling conflicts do sometimes arise either at the AIA or the MOS. We start planning the next fair in the spring, generally March or April.

7. What do you enjoy most about archeology?

For me the best part about archaeology is learning about how people lived, and thrived, in the past; it amazes me how far we’ve come in a few short millennia.

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I cannot thank Kelly Lindberg enough for her time and fascinating insights, nor Dr. Ben Thomas, for creating such a wonderful event.  An enormous thank you to everyone involved in this year’s Archeology Fair!!

Please be sure to check the AIA’s website for archeological events throughout the year: http://www.archaeological.org/events

Please also check the MOS website for their events and exhibits: http://www.mos.org/public-events or http://www.mos.org/coming-soon