Animals

Mastodon Skeleton in Michigan Best Since 1940s

Experts say new bones from the extinct elephant relative are among the most complete ever found in the state and may have been butchered by early human hunters.

The most complete mastodon skeleton found in Michigan in some 75 years has been unearthed in the state's "Thumb" region, according to paleontologists from the University of Michigan (UM).

Researchers with the university say about 70% of the creature's skeletal mass has been recovered from the Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning, near Mayville.

While parts of hundreds of mastodons have been found in Michigan, the researchers estimate that the new find is more complete than all but a handful of them.

"This is the most complete Michigan mastodon skeleton in many decades," said UM paleontologist and leader of the dig, Daniel Fisher, in a statement. "I think the last time a mastodon this complete was found in Michigan was in the 1940s."

Mastodons, extinct relatives of modern elephants, roamed North and Central America in grazing herds and died out about 10,000 to 11,000 years ago.

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Further testing will be done to narrow its age estimate and even the season in which it died, but much is already known about the skeleton. It belonged to a male estimated to have lived between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago, and the animal was likely around 30 years old at time of death, based on tooth size and wear.

What's more, the mastodon looks to have been the victim of early human hunters.

"I would say it is roughly 80 percent likely that humans were involved and responsible for major portions of what we see at this site," Fisher said.

Fisher and his team noted that the mastodon's bones were still aligned correctly, relative to each other. Had it died of natural causes, they said, the animal's carcass would have been scavenged and the bones scattered from their original location. Indeed early indications are the creature was processed by humans, with some fully aligned bone sections seemingly separated into piles.

The location of the bones, near a lake that no longer exists, suggests another intriguing possibility.

The mastodon was "apparently brought to a lake and, we think, stored in this lake as a strategy for meat storage by early humans who lived in this part of the world at that same time," Fisher said. The researcher has studied other Great Lakes pond-storage sites, where the cold pond bottom, coupled with lowered oxygen, would have helped keep the meat from spoiling.

"Finding a specimen like this also tells us something about human history," Fisher said. "What did it take to feed a family, to raise a family? What did it take to make a life in early Michigan, soon after the recession of the ice at the end of the ice age?"

All told, more than 75 complete or nearly complete bones - including long limbs, shoulder blades, pelvis, skull, vertebrae and ribs - from the mammal were discovered. The tusks, however, were not found.

Up next, Fisher and his fellow researchers will clean and examine the bones more closely for any hint of butchery. Meanwhile, radiocarbon dating should be able to place time of death to within 100 years or fewer.

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