Crowd drawn to mammoth exhibit — possible proof of ancient human life

Sunday, November 6, 2016 - 6:12pm

Saturday, more than 1,100 students, faculty and members of the community visited the University of Michigan Museums of Natural History and Paleontology to see the skeleton of the Bristle Mammoth that was excavated in Chelsea, Mich. last year.

Mammoth and mastodon remains in Michigan are key to understanding the history of the state and the history of human development. Over the course of Michigan’s history, remains of approximately 300 mastodons and 30 mammoths have been found.

According to Museum of Natural History staff, finding mammoth remains is particularly rare. University alum Katrina Lewandowski is a lab assistant for Dan Fisher, a paleontology professor and the leading scientist in the Bristle research and excavation. Lewandowski said it is much more common to find mastodons than mammoths in Michigan. This is because the natural environment is more conducive to the mastodon’s diet, which consists of leaves, than the mammoth’s diet, which consists of grass.

“The thing that is most special is the fact that the mastodon is very well-preserved and there aren’t as many mammoths found in Michigan as there are mastodons,” Fisher said. “It was found very close to a home. I think that is what resonated with people, that there is a possibility of finding a mammoth in your backyard.”

Initial research on the skeleton has led to several conclusions including evidence that suggests humans were present at the time of their existence.

Amy Harris, director of the Museum of Natural History, said Fisher will be conducting a second and more in-depth excavation to find out more about the age of the mammoth, which is estimated to be about 15,000 years old.

“There will be a second profile where they dig down very carefully and take samples from each layer and analyze the content,” Harris said. “There might be pollen or spores or microorganisms that can help them be very precise about the date.”

Harris noted that information from the site, such as the way the bones were scattered and the presence of large rocks near the skeleton, is also important when analyzing the data.

She added that because the bones were not all in one place but were spread out, there is a chance humans could have been involved in the death of the Bristle mammoth.

“The bones were found in a way that is not the way in which you would find bones if it was a natural death,” Harris said. “That would suggest that they were probably part of a butchered chunk of animal.”

Large rocks at the site, she added, bolster this theory —  there is no geological explanation for their presence and therefore they must have been moved by humans.

University alum Michael Cherney, who has been on the forefront of the Bristle research, working closely alongside Fisher, noted that the complete tusks that were found with the skull of the Bristle Mammoth also have a lot to reveal about its history.

“If you look at the tusks, we have got a long series of growth,” Cherney said. “Just like a tree contains growth in its tree rings, tusks have that same kind of feature.”

Though there is evidence pointing to the age of the mammoth and suggestions that humans were involved, the data will not be conclusive until the second excavation is completed and more analysis is carried out. In fact, Cherney said the time of death has raised some questions about human involvement.

“Dan is very confident that there were humans involved and in some part of this, not that they killed it necessarily,” Cherney said. “Our most recent analysis suggested that it died in the summer, which is not when we expect humans to be killing it in order to stash it for the winter.”

Overall, Harris said she was pleased with the success of the exhibit opening and is looking forward to the following research.

“From our perspective as a natural history museum, part of our goal is to get people excited and inspired about science,” Harris said. “Something as charismatic as a mammoth, especially one that is found locally, really gets people excited and interested in finding out the science about it.”

LSA sophomore Kristen Cimmerer, who worked as a museum docent for the opening weekend, said she enjoyed the opportunity to talk to museum attendees about archaeology and the role humans have in our natural history.

“I get to talk a lot about the human side of things,” Cimmerer said. “What is especially cool is that (the remains) have been found in what we think is a pond storage system weighted down by rocks, which indicates that Paleo-Indians were either scavenging or hunting mammoths and storing the meat in really neat and innovative ways.”

There were a number of components in the exhibit, including a hands-on demonstration and planetarium shows. On Sunday, several University researchers presented their research to the public, with interactive and kid-friendly displays for a Scientist Spotlight.

One of the scientists at the event was David Gerdes, a professor of physics and astronomy, well-known for his discovery of a new dwarf planet.  He said he believes bringing children to the mammoth exhibit helps foster their creativity and intellectual curiosity.

“I think it’s really important to get interested in science when you are young,” he said. “I got interested in science as a kid because I went to museums, because I went to planetariums, because I got a chance to talk to scientists. It is so great for kids in this area to be able to come to a place like this museum and meet real scientists who do real work who were kids like them once.”