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.

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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).”

 

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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

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Bringing the Extinct Back to Life – Montshire Museum, VT

It’s just over the border of New Hampshire, this sweet jewel of a museum tucked amongst the woods in Norwich, Vermont.

I visited Montshire Museum for the first time last summer to see an exhibit featuring a replica of Sue the T. rex from the Field Museum.  Filled with interactive exhibits, it largely centers on children and families.  Its drawers of fossils and fossil casts, however, kept me eagerly occupied.  And–for the first time in my life–I was able to hold parts of a mammoth molar–one of the many fossils people could touch in a class taught by an engaging docent.

My reason for returning this summer was to see the Prehistoric Menagerie–an outdoor exhibit of sculptures.  Life-sized replicas of extinct creatures that lived during the Cenozoic era created by artist Bob Shannahan.

Thanks to a number of people, I knew there was a woolly mammoth among them.

In order to get to the museum itself, one first has to drive down a long, windy path through the forest.  I mention this because this is what I saw on my drive down:

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Woolly mammoth sculpture by Bob Shannahan as seen through the trees on the way down into the parking lot of the Montshire Museum; image taken by the author

Knowing that it was a sculpture, rather than a living woolly mammoth, did not make it any less exciting for me.  I immediately got goosebumps.

Quickly, I parked the car, got my ticket, and went straight outside to explore.

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Sculpture of woolly mammoth by Bob Shannahan at the Montshire Museum; image courtesy of the Montshire Museum

These are no ordinary sculptures.  That’s not actual hair on the mammoth: it’s a shaggy compilation of twigs and other natural plants and fibers.

According to the press release on this exhibit, the artist explained, “Once I choose the animal, I conduct my research, collect skeletal measurements, and make a small model out of wire and foil. Then I make a full-size drawing on cardboard and begin building the animal. The frame, made of steel rebar and aluminum screen, is used to depict the major muscle groups. It turns out that the autumn vegetation is perfect for the animals’ fur.”

Below, for example, is the entelodont–an artiodactyl that lived during the Eocene and Miocene.  You can read more about this animal in this great post by Dr. Darren Naish (TetZoo, Scientific American).

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Entelodont sculpture at the Montshire Museum; image taken by the author.

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Close-up of the entelodont head; notice the plants behind the ear; image taken by the author.

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Close-up of the entelodont mouth; the teeth are made of individual stones; image taken by the author.

Whether one sees them up-close or from a distance, these are impressive replicas.  I marveled at their likenesses, awed that such detail and life could be constructed from plants.

“The vegetation he chooses for each sculpture has connections to that animal’s life,” explained Bob Raiselis, Exhibits Director at the museum, “[H]e’s using the materials of the natural world to create artistic works referencing creatures from that world that we can no longer see.”

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American camel sculpture at the Montshire Museum; image taken by the author.

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Sign at the museum with details about the sculpture and the plants used to create it; image taken by the author (it was a rainy day when I visited)

“They really do seem to come alive in David Goudy Science Park here at the Montshire,” Bob Raiselis wrote in an email, describing the outdoor area in which the sculptures were placed. “[W]e worked hard to place them in a way that might have made sense for each living creature. The animals in the exhibition wouldn’t all have been in one place at one time in history, but we think that there’s enough space in our outdoor landscape to include the creatures that Bob has created and their own time scales.”

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By United States Geological Survey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“At the Montshire we like to point out the connections between what artists do and what scientists do – close observation, looking for connections, creative problem-solving, great use of imagination and visualization – and we’re pleased to have been able to show Bob Shannahan’s work here this summer,” wrote Bob Raiselis. “He’s an artist who has a deep interest in learning about the history of the creatures he models, and then he takes that history, the scientific facts available, and places his works in the context of where and how they lived. And he does it with such skill and sensitivity.”

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Short-faced bear peering out above a hill at the Montshire Museum; image taken by the author.

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Close-up of short-faced bear sculpture by Bob Shannahan at the Montshire Museum; courtesy of the Montshire Museum

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Sculpture of Diatryma, an enormous bird that lived during the Eocene, at the Montshire Museum; the artist employed foam for the beak; image taken by the author.

“It was a long couple of days,” Bob Raiselis continued, “getting them moved onto the Museum grounds, placing them, moving them a bit, looking from different vantage points – but when we were done and that Wooly Mammoth was up on the hill in the middle of Science Park, it really was possible to imagine them living on the North American landscape.”

“It’s a very powerful thing, that kind of realization and engagement with what otherwise might be just a fact you heard somewhere about these creatures.”

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Many thanks to Bob Raiselis and Beth Krusi of the Montshire Museum!

The exhibit is available through September 7th, 2015.

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Image of woolly mammoth sculpture by Bob Shannahan at the Montshire Museum; image courtesy of the Montshire Museum

Exciting New Info About Mastodons and Humans – Yukon Paleontology, Part 1

“Good morning!”

It’s not just a greeting; it sounds like a proclamation.

The voice on the other end of the phone is deep, melodic, and—as our conversation progresses—punctuated with moments of laughter.  We have been discussing paleontology in the Yukon, and with each new detail, I begin to wonder why this territory is not making regular international headlines.

Dr. Grant Zazula’s work is fascinating, and it is neither a short phone call nor the only communication we’ve exchanged. And yet, it is all that I can do not to encourage him to keep going, long after social decorum dictates that he has been more than generous with his time.

Dr. Zazula and mastodon leg

[image of Dr. Grant Zazula with a mastodon ulna, part of the Earl Bennett mastodon, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

Dr. Zazula is the Yukon paleontologist, a job that has only existed since 1996. His own tenure began in 2006.  With an office in Whitehorse, the capital of the territory, his work oversees an expanse of Canada that abuts Alaska.  It is a land of dramatic beauty, where colors dance in the sky and mountains tower in silent grandeur.

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His most recent paper, co-written with 14 other people, made news throughout the world and continues to attract media attention. In it, the scientists present data that completely overturns previously believed information about extinct animals and the impact that humans may or may not have had upon their survival.

“[T]here were two radiocarbon dates in the literature from Yukon mastodons,” he explained in an email. “One that was ~18,000 and the other 24,000 years old.”

“Based on analysis of the paleoecology, that was a time when steppe-tundra grasslands covered Alaska, Yukon and Beringia. There were probably no trees, few shrubs and almost no standing water. It was very cold and, especially, dry. This seemingly is not good mastodon habitat. So either the dates were incorrect, or our understanding of mastodon ecology, behavior and adaptations need[s] to be revised.”

Various species of mastodon once existed throughout the world.  Although their fossils look elephantine, they are not believed to be direct ancestors of today’s elephants. They are, however, part of the same umbrella mammalian group: the Proboscidea (so-named for the trunks possessed by many—but not all–of their members).  In North America, that group contained the American mastodon (Mammut americanum), the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), and the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi).

Cohoes mastodon

 [image of the Cohoes mastodon, NY State Museum, Albany; taken by the author]

Mastodons tended to have straighter tusks and were shorter than their mammoth cousins. They also ate hardier vegetation, food that required a much different tooth structure than mammoths.

ISM - Mastodon tooth

[image of mastodon tooth, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum]

ISM - Mammoth tooth

[image of mammoth tooth, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum; for more info about the differences between mammoths and mastodons, see this post.]

Parts of Siberia, Alaska and the Yukon were once connected in an area known as “Beringia.”  The Bering Strait did not yet exist, enabling animals and eventually the first humans to cross into our continent.  It is believed that humans arrived in what is now North America about 14,000 years ago.

And this is where the research of Dr. Zazula and his colleagues becomes particularly important.

Prior to their paper, one theory to mastodon extinction laid the blame upon first humans: it was proposed that they overhunted these animals.

Sampling 36 fossils and presenting 53 new radiocarbon dates, Dr. Zazula and his colleagues found that mastodons within Alaska and the Yukon were much, much older than the originally published dates.  In other words, their research suggests that mastodons from what was once Eastern Beringia were no longer present when the first humans appeared.

The path to this remarkable research did not happen overnight.

The foundation appears to have been laid by two different events: by the chance meeting of Dr. Zazula and a gold miner, and later, by the PhD work of a graduate student.

If one reads the acknowledgements on the aforementioned paper, Dr. Zazula references Earl Bennett as both the donor of a partial mastodon skeleton and his inspiration to learn more about mastodons within the Yukon.

“Earl is a great Yukoner,” Dr. Zazula wrote when asked about this. “He mined for gold underground in the winters with a pick and shovel, decades ago. He worked on big gold dredge machines. And, he loves paleontology.

“While mining, he made collections of Ice Age bones that were just left around the mining camp or were encountered while mining. He eventually amassed an amazing collection.

“In the early 1970’s a gold dredge on Bonanza Creek hit a skeleton of a mastodon. An incredibly rare find! Someone collected it and was looking to sell it. So, Earl bought the skeleton just to make sure that it never left the Yukon. He had it in his garage for decades.

“One day a mutual friend introduced me to him in a coffee shop, about a year after starting my job [as the Yukon paleontologist]. He said that he had a mastodon skeleton and wanted me to see it. I ‘corrected’ him, saying that it was more likely a mammoth, because we almost never find mastodons in the Yukon. He assured me he know the difference and said he would see me tomorrow at my office.

“The next day he backed his truck up and in it was a partial mastodon skeleton. I couldn’t believe it. There were several postcranial bones, some vertebra, scapula, parts of the skull and parts of the mandible with teeth. It was amazing. I wanted to find out how old it was, and that was one of the inspirations for this project. Earl is a good friend now and big supporter of our research.”

Bennett mastodon skeleton

[Paleontologist Grant Zazula with a partial American mastodon (Mammut Americanum) skeleton found on Bonanza Creek and donated to the Yukon fossil collection by Earl Bennett, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

That partial skeleton was indeed one of the many fossils sampled for the paper.

Dr. Jessica Metcalfe, one of the co-authors, also prompted this research when conducting work for her PhD.

“[S]he was doing a project looking at stable isotope ecology of mammoths and mastodons in various places in North America,” said Dr. Zazula.

Jessica Metcalfe with mammoth bone

[image of Dr. Jessica Metcalfe with mammoth bone, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

Her work included Yukon fossils that were sent to the lab at the University of Arizona to be radiocarbon dated.   Those dates turned out to be older then 50,000 years old.

“So that’s what got me thinking,” he continued, “‘well, maybe those original published dates are wrong.’”

“The first step was to re-date [the specimens that had produced the original published dates]. The new dates turned out to be >50,000 years. So we knew there was a problem with the previous dates. We figured then we should date as many as we could get our hands on.”

This lead Dr. Zazula to connect with Dr. Ross McPhee, another co-author.

“I got in touch with him early because he oversees collections at the American Museum of Natural History, [and] he has a big interest and lots of experience working on Ice Age extinctions. [H]e’s an excellent writer and really kind of kept us going with some of the writings. He was really integral to keeping things together.”

The paper eventually involved a total of 15 people.

“I feel pretty strongly that if you worked on it and contributed to it, then you should be considered an author,” Dr. Zazula stated.  “So it ended up being a long list.”

One of the first aspects their paper addresses is the reason behind why the original published dates are incorrect: the dating analyses were contaminated by fossil conservation methods.

“Humic acids in soils can be absorbed by the bones and teeth and chemically bind themselves to the collagen,” he wrote, explaining further. “So, modern ‘young’ carbon in those acids basically contaminates the ‘old’ collagen in the ancient fossil. And, it can be tricky to remove.

“The same with consolidants in museums. Varnish, glue, and other substances to preserve fossils can be absorbed into the bone and chemically bind with the collagen in the bone. These substances probably contain young, modern carbon which messes up the radiocarbon dating measurements.”

When asked whether museums continue to use the same preservation products that contaminated the dates, he wrote, “Yes, for sure. The thing is now museums keep better records of what they use. Many of the fossils we dated were collected in the 1940’s or at least several decades ago. Museums were not that vigilant about keeping detailed records on those things then. Also, they seemed to put preservatives on everything. Now, at least if we know what was put on it, the chemistry can by developed to remove it. Most of the common preservatives now are soluble in alcohol or acetone and can be dealt with. The problem is when they are unknown.”

We discussed this further by phone.

“One thing about Alaska and the Yukon,” he said, “is that the Ice Age bones that come out of the ground are so well preserved because of the permafrost. In other localities, say, the deserts of the American Southwest or the Great Basin or the Plains, where bones have been out in the sun and [are] dry and hot, they [sometimes] fall apart really easily when they come out of the ground. They need to be glued and consolidated with these various types of museum products.

“So you kind of have to weigh the different values.

“Say if it’s a specimen that’s already been radiocarbon dated, and it starts to slowly disintegrate, well, then you kind of have to intervene or else you’re just going to end up with a box of dust and broken bone. You have to decide whether the importance is more with display or preservation of the morphology versus needing to radiocarbon date or other types of analysis.

“[Y]ou have to look at the pro’s and con’s of whether the sampling [for radiocarbon dating] will ruin the specimen or not, and what is the potential information that can be gained by doing it. To me, I feel that having a research collection [in the Yukon], it’s all about research and learning new things from these specimens.”

Ultimately, I wondered whether Dr. Zazula expected the results he and his colleagues uncovered.

“I wasn’t quite sure,” he answered. “I had the gut feeling that these previously published radiocarbon dates were probably wrong. It didn’t make a lot of sense ecologically to have mastodons living in the far North when it was seemingly habitat they couldn’t live in: habitat with grassland and cold, dry steppe tundra conditions, no trees and very few shrubs.

“But there [was] also a part in the back of my mind that thought, ‘well, if those [previously published dates] were right, that’s maybe even more interesting because they are telling us something about mastodons and their behavior and their adaptations that we didn’t know before.’”

————

It was a great honor and pleasure to connect with Dr. Grant Zazula! Not only patient with my myriad questions, he is an adept and fascinating ambassador for the Yukon. A Mammuthus columbi-sized thank you to him!

A Mammuthus columbi-sized thank you to Dick Mol, as well, who is the reason behind this post!

Dick Mol with horse skull

[image of Dick Mol with fossil horse skull, found near Dawson City, Yukon; courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

Yukon Paleontology Program: http://www.tc.gov.yk.ca/palaeontology.html

Articles and publication referenced:

 

Listen to Dr. Zazula discuss his paper on the CBC’s Quirks & Quarks: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/quirks-quarks-for-dec-6-2014-1.2864605/mastodons-made-an-early-exit-from-the-north-1.2864634