Chasing Mammoth and Fossil Bison: The Hunt Continues


by Les Davis

Mammoth tusks beneath a county road in eastern Montana? They could be the subject for a "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" segment. But you can believe it! In July 1966, Joe Walker, a farmer from the Lindsay, Montana, area was operating his combine along a Dawson County road northwest of Glendive. He saw whitish substances that a midsummer cloudburst had washed down the south borrow pit. He stopped to examine the material, which resembled styrofoam, and recognized what were instead fragments of mammal tusk.

Dawson County Commissioner Don Gibson relayed news of Walker's find to Montana State College anthropologist George W. Arthur and MSC paleontologist/geologist Dr. William McMannus. They visited the location later that year and concluded that Walker had found pieces of a mammoth tusk exposed by erosion and washed downslope from where the skeleton had been buried. They spotted agate fragments nearby, which cued the possibility that the mammoth had been killed by early Stone-Age North American hunters. Arthur obtained funds from Dr. Roy E. Huffman, vice president of the MSC Endowment and Research Foundation, to explore that possibility. That investigation recovered most of the Lindsay mammoth skeleton and tusks (named for the townsite near where Mr.Walker found it) from the very place where the animal perished more than 11,500 years ago.

While a pre-doctoral student in North American archaeology at the University of Calgary in 1967, I was hired by MSC to direct the Lindsay mammoth recovery project. During 30 days in July and August, six students and I excavated and recorded the site.

Mammoth Skeleton

With help from MSC student Larry Lahren from Livingston, we cast and delivered the skeletal remains and geological samples to the Museum of the Rockies. The Lindsay mammoth and site were interpreted in the Museum during a 12-year period. Research has continued.

The Lindsay specimen is a Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), a proboscidean, not an elephant, as identified by Dr. Christopher Hill, MOR Curator of Geology and Biology and a geoarchaeologist. Once widespread in North America, Columbian mammoths had high-crowned molars, plates of hard enamel alternating with softer dentine, that served as vegetation-grinding surfaces. The Lindsay mammoth, a mature bull about 45 years of age at death, towered 14 feet at the top of his skull, and weighed tons. The 150-pound right tusk measures nine feet in length along the outside of the curve and eight inches in diameter where it joined the skull.

The Lindsay mammoth ranged, and eventually perished, in gently rolling uplands in the shortgrass plains of east-central Montana. Radiocarbon dates obtained from mammoth bone and tusk place its time of death about 11,500 years Before Present (B.P.), within the Clovis Complex life span (ca. 11,500 to 11,000 B.P.). The area was probably cooler and more moist then than today. The warming and drying trend that had caused the glaciers to melt was well-advanced in the Northern Plains by that time. The decaying ice front had receded into northern Saskatchewan. 

The Lindsay mammoth was discovered 12 miles south of the glacial moraine deposited by the much-earlier Late Pleistocene continental ice sheet that extended from Canada southwestward into northern Montana. Long after the glacier had retreated northward, and after the glacial meltwater lakes had dried up, winds scoured, lifted, and deposited fine lake silt and sand downwind across the countryside. The Lindsay mammoth, which died on such a surface, then became buried beneath four feet of silt. Burial helped to preserve the skeleton for thousands of years until its discovery.

Certain key bones of the Lindsay mammoth were found seemingly "arranged" in ways unlike those that result naturally from the decomposition, deterioration, and dispersal of carcass parts by downslope erosion or by large predators feeding, gnawing, and consuming flesh. For example, one upper hind leg bone (femur) was found lying across the other, both atop ribs from the forward part of the chest cavity, a pile of refuse that only people would have gathered and stacked in that manner. 

A hard blow to the mammoth's mouth had detached two upper molar plates that were found 15 feet away from the jaw near articulated vertebrae of the spinal column. The jaw had been manually repositioned from its collapsed position, turned nearly 130 degrees away from the direction in which the much-heavier skull pointed, and the fronts of some molars had been damaged. The upper end and side of both of the upper front leg bones (humerus) had been battered and broken open, perhaps to extract the protein-rich marrow and grease inside. None of the pieces of bone thusly removed were found during excavation of the bonebed, indicating their removal from the deathbed. 

Eight sandstone "blocks" of various shapes were found beneath and beside the modified upper limb bones, the spinal column, and the jaw (mandible). We do not know the purpose of those chunks, which together weigh less than 10 pounds. Their edges do not show crushing or breakage damage expected as a result of the chunks having been used to break into massive bones or to chop through tendons and tissues while dismembering or butchering the mammoth. 

Since damage to the mouth below the trunk could have been sustained during combat with another mammoth, that blow need not have been struck by aggressive hunters. No stone, bone, or other artifacts were found in the mammoth bonebed. Dr. Michael Wilson, collaborating zooarchaeologist, noted possible tool cut marks on some bones. Carnivores might have gnawed the ends of other bones before they were buried and protected from weathering by overlying wind-laid silt and sand. 

Clovis Complex hunters at North American sites sometimes used bone projectile points. Had the Lindsay mammoth met his death that way, bone points, possibly used to kill him, might have disintegrated or been carried away. If stone points had been used, they, too, could have been carried away when hunters departed the carcass. Had hunters chanced upon a badly wounded mammoth, or one that had recently died, they might have scavenged the carcass for meat and marrow, leaving behind no artifacts and scant indications of their presence. 

If the Lindsay mammoth was killed or scavenged by humans, this site would be the earliest yet radiocarbon-dated presence of mammoth hunters active in early Montana. If so, the big-game hunting adaptation followed by 500 succeeding generations of prehistoric peoples in the Rocky Mountains and Plains of Montana was established a very long time ago. In any case, such specialized big-game hunters should have set the stage for later peoples who, in their turn and in their own ways, added their debris to the slowly developing scientific record of Northwestern Plains and Rocky Mountain prehistory. 

The molars, bones, and tusks of extinct new World Pleistocene proboscideans are found in river gravels and eroding from streambanks around Montana. Mammoths and other giant Ice-Age herbivores, and several kinds of large carnivores, had drifted into North America from Asia via the 1,000-mile-wide Bering Land Bridge beginning millions of years ago. Mammoth hunters from Siberia, Homo sapiens likely of Mongoloid stock, trailed their prey across this resurrected surface and into the uninhabited "New World" thousands of years later. By at least 15,000 years ago, small bands of mammoth-hunting peoples had become adapted to the climate and resources within the unglaciated interior of Alaska. By a few thousand years later, their descendants had breached the continental glacial ice barrier that stretched across North America, possibly moving southward via a north-south ice-free corridor east of the Rockies or by following the Pacific coastal plain, which took some of them eventually to the cool, well-watered grasslands of Late Glacial-Age Montana. 

Although evidence is presently limited, early hunters were preying on mammoth by 11,500 B.P. at scattered Montana locations. These hunters are called "Clovis" after the community of Clovis, New Mexico, which is near the site where distinctive projectile points were discovered along with bones and tusks of mammoths they had been used to kill. Clovis hunters typically killed mammoths with spears or hand-held lances. Clovis hunters used large points from which they had pressured off one or more long, thin flakes (flutes) from the base part way to the point tip on both faces. That procedure thinned the base and the center of the lower half of the point, enabling effective hafting to a heavy wooden shaft. 

Clovis points picked up nowadays might indicate that mammoth hunters had once passed nearby. Unfortunately, then, as now, inquisitive individuals sometimes picked up interesting relics and carried them off, to be lost again somewhere else where Clovis hunters might never have been. 

The Clovis archaeological complex appears to have spread rapidly throughout the United States, Canada, and northern Mexico before it vanished ca. 11,000 B.P. Somewhat later, mammoths and more than 30 other North American Ice-Age species became extinct. At this time, Clovis is still the best-known, indisputably accepted, early prehistoric human cultural presence in North America. Evidence for pre-Clovis cultures, which is regarded as inevitable and eventually forthcoming by many archaeologists, is beginning to accrue, but will not be accepted without much debate.

While Clovis points are not common in Montana, they are widely scattered east of the Continental Divide in areas where mammoth were once hunted, slain, and their carcasses, bones, and tusks utilized.

Probably descendant from and replacements for Clovis peoples were peoples of the Folsom Complex, named after a site near Folsom, New Mexico, where smaller fluted points were found intermixed with the bones of now-extinct bison (e.g., Bison antiquus) they had been used to kil. From ca. 10,800 to 10,400 B.P., these big-game hunters preyed on giant bison, camel, and other medium-sized herbivores. Folsom points, fluted along their entire length on both faces, are smaller than Clovis points. In Montana, Folsom points are found in scattered localities once frequented by herds and hunters of giant bison.

Both Clovis and Folsom peoples were active in Montana north of the southern margins of the Continental ice mass before the ice sheet had melted back to its origin at Hudson Bay. Continental glacial ice had long since melted and glacial lakes had dried up before early peoples expanded their range northward into the thereby vacated area. The mapped locations of known fluted point sites provides some idea regarding the distribution of the early postglacial humans who occupied Montana.

While more than two dozen Clovis points from scattered locations are known, finds of undisturbed buried Clovis artifacts are rare in Montana. A Clovis point, channel flakes, and numerous cutting and scraping tools were excavated 24 feet below modern ground surface on a 11,000-year-old buried surface at the Indian Creek site in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Townsend, Montana.

A highly significant Clovis discovery was made in May 1968, nearly 300 airline miles west of Lindsay, close to Wilsall, Montana. While using a front-end loader/backhoe to collect fill materials from below a rocky ledge near the Shields River, Ben Hargis and Calvin Sarver, residents of Wilsall, inadvertently unearthed more than 100 flaked stone, bone, and antler artifacts, and the bones and a partial skull of a 1 to 2-year-old child! These items had been intentionally concealed beneath slopewash and rockfall at the Anzick site. Red ocher (iron oxide) had been painted on the artifacts and bones, probably as an important element of burial ritual. Of most immediate significance were five complete Clovis points---and still others were turned up later! 

Archaeologist Dr. Dee C. Taylor of Missoula led a University of Montana crew to that location later that year after being notified of the find by C. Alan Carmichael, a Montana State University anthropologist. By the end of two weeks of fieldwork, the crew had not found the spot where the materials had originally been deposited by their makers. The bones and artifacts, both ochre-covered, originally had been placed there by early people. 

Thus, as circumstances would have it, the first to be radiocarbon-dated Clovis Complex human skeletal material known anywhere was found associated with Clovis artifacts, bone tools, and bone and antler-working technology. Dated initially to 10,680 years Before Present from a sample of human bone, this unique and remarkable assemblage is presently receiving more increasingly positive attention today than Paleoindian archaeologists have given it previously.

The Wilsall-Anzick site is called a Clovis burial site because of the fragmentary, ocher-covered bones and cranium of a child and because the artifacts are regarded as burial goods. At the initiative of archaeologist Dr. Larry Lahren of Livingston, part of this one-of-a-kind Paleoindian artifact collection is exhibited for the public at the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena.

Circumstances under which the Lindsay and Anzick sites were discovered might well forecast ways in which future glimpses into very early human activity in Montana will be conferred on archaeologists and the public alike. Obviously, not all Clovis artifacts are buried as deeply or are as well-concealed from curious eyes as those found at Indian Creek. The Lindsay mammoth skeleton was at rest only a few inches beneath a county road, while the Anzick grave and cache, originally emplaced by people at the base of an overhanging rock outcrop, had been buried beneath and concealed by slopewash and rockfall.

The Lindsay mammoth was discovered because county road construction had removed most of the sediment overlying parts of a buried skeleton, part of which was later exposed at the surface by erosion of the east borrow pit and recognized by a perceptive citizen as a fossil. The Anzick Clovis materials were exposed quite by accident during removal of rock talus by front-end loader and were recognized as artifacts by alert workers who went back later and recovered similar artifacts from disturbed debris. The Indian Creek Clovis point was excavated by in situ troweling during a problem-oriented, university-sponsored investigation. However, had 100 years of channel dredging for gold not deepened the valley floor sufficiently, those buried occupations, in place with artifacts and associated animal remains, would still be unknown. 

Folsom Complex projectile points have been excavated in original context at only two Montana sites, both in the upper Missouri drainage and the Elkhorn Mountains, contained within stream alluvium at the MacHaffie site southwest of Helena and at Indian Creek, 20 airline miles southwest of the MacHaffie site. Folsom points are found most often as isolated artifacts at widely scattered Montana locations east of the Continental Divide. That Folsom points barely outnumber Clovis points is unusual; more Folsom points should be found since they are more recent. It is remarkable that so many Paleoindian fluted points are known today because many picked up during the severe erosion of the 1930s in central Montana were never reported and have long since disappeared from Montana. 

Even though we now know that Clovis and Folsom big-game hunters were active in early Montana, we still cannot realize the full implications of their presence. Unfortunately, most available evidence lacks original context. Physical clues to prehistoric human activity are often subtle. When citizens find such clues and contact interested archaeologists, the longed-for combination of Clovis and Folsom Complex artifacts along with the bones, teeth, tusks, and horns of mammoths and giant bison they hunted will eventually be found together and radiocarbon-dated. Evidence such as that is sorely needed if the life and times of those Paleoindians who enjoyed the Montana outdoors of the truly long ago are to be more fully appreciated. Continue to the next page, Microscopic Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park.

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