June 28, 2008

Archaeology Close to Home: Digging Up Mammoth Fossil

By Jean Guerrero, Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash.

Jun. 28--SELAH -- Short of a time machine, your best chance to see a Columbian mammoth is on a hillside overlooking the Wenas Valley where anthropology students are excavating one that died an estimated 16,000 years ago.

Since the bones were discovered about three years ago, Central Washington University students and professors have uncovered ribs, a shoulder blade, vertebrae and several arm and leg bones of the creature that probably stood about 12 feet tall at the shoulder.

They said they feel like they're digging up the part of history about an animal that died off 4,500 years ago.

"It's like a detective story," said Patrick Lubinski, a CWU professor of anthropology involved in the excavation. "You're trying to figure out what these little clues tell you about what happened here and what life was like 16,000 years ago."

The excavation is part of a summer field course on archaeology, paleontology and geography that began in 2005, when a construction company building a road on the hillside hit a really large bone in the process.

It turned out to be the left humerus of a Columbian mammoth, which is the state's fossil because of re-current findings in the area.

But unlike the 30 others that have been found around the Yakima Valley, this mam-moth is special because its bones were situated conven-iently above flood deposits, which usually provide scrambled information about paleo-environmental context.

Doug Mayo, the owner of the land where the bone was found, wanted to work with the university to put his hill's dead mammoth to a noble use.

"This is about teaching students to perform archae-ology-level explorations and excavations," he said. "We're not in a hurry -- we want to get the context, not just the bones."

Bax R. Barton, museum research associate and paleontologist, said the ex-cavation could have been completed in a month and a half.

But it was prolonged to give students and professors a chance to find out how the mammoth lived those thousands of years ago. A new group of students con-tinues digging where the previous one left off each summer, the only time the students are available to work all day.

"There's a whole written history we all know about, but we're digging through stuff that way precedes that," said Daniel Ecklund, a third-year archaeology student at CWU. "It's nice to have an idea of what happened way back then."

The excavators said they look forward to sharing this experience with the local community when public visitation begins.


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