Chelsea-area farmer donates mammoth remains to University of Michigan

October 5, 2015

James Bristle, left, and Daniel Fisher, director of the U-M Museum of Paleontology. Image credit: University of MichiganJames Bristle, left, and Daniel Fisher, director of the U-M Museum of Paleontology. Image credit: University of MichiganANN ARBOR—The owner of the partial mammoth skeleton uncovered near Chelsea decided on Monday to donate the bones to the University of Michigan for display and study.

James Bristle, a farmer who discovered the bones while installing drainage pipe in one of his fields last week, said he wants to share the excitement of the discovery with the public and allow U-M researchers to learn more about our past.

“This isn’t just mine. It belongs to everybody,” Bristle said at his farm southwest of Ann Arbor. “This is our way of giving back. A lot of people will benefit from being able to see this mammoth for many years to come. If I can make people happy by doing that, then I consider that a good day.”

Bristle met Monday at his farm with U-M paleontologist Daniel Fisher, director of the U-M Museum of Paleontology. Fisher, who led last week’s dig, said he is working on plans to display the bones at the U-M Museum of Natural History.

One possibility might be to combine the partial skeleton from Lima Township, which will be known as the Bristle Mammoth, with bones from other Michigan mammoths to form a complete mammoth skeleton for display at the museum. Fiberglas casts of the bones would likely be used in the mounted specimen, he said.

“We are enormously thankful to landowners like Jim Bristle who are willing to donate material like this,” Fisher said. The display would be a partnership between the U-M Museum of Paleontology and the U-M Museum of Natural History, he said.

“Our knowledge of the past depends entirely on the generosity of landowners who provide us with this type of material,” Fisher said.

A team of U-M paleontologists and two excavators who donated their time—Jamie Bollinger and Trent Satterthwaite—worked all day at the site in Lima Township on Thursday. Bristle gave them one day to recover as many remains as they could before he resumed his drainage project.

The paleontologists were able to recover about 20 percent of the animal’s bones, including the skull and two tusks, numerous vertebrae and ribs, the pelvis and both shoulder blades.

The bones are from an adult male mammoth that likely lived 11,700 to 15,000 years ago, though the remains have not yet been dated, Fisher said.

The Bristle Mammoth appears to be a hybrid between a woolly mammoth and a Columbian mammoth, Fisher said. The remains of more than 30 mammoths have been recovered in Michigan over the decades, and more than half of them are hybrids of this type, said Fisher.

Fisher said the dig uncovered “excellent evidence of human activity” associated with the mammoth remains, he said.

“We think that humans were here and may have butchered and stashed the meat so that they could come back later for it,” said Fisher, who is a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

The team’s working hypothesis is that ancient humans placed the mammoth remains in a pond for storage. Caching mammoth meat in ponds for later use is a strategy that Fisher said he has encountered at other sites in the region.

The first step in exploring that hypothesis will be to clean the bones and examine them for cut marks that could indicate butchering by human hunters or scavengers.

Mammoths and mastodons—another elephant-like prehistoric creature—once roamed North America before disappearing about 11,700 years ago. Over the years, the remains of about 300 mastodons and 30 mammoths have been recovered in Michigan, Fisher said.

“We get one or two calls like this a year, but most of them are mastodons,” he said. Most of the mammoth finds in Michigan are not as complete as the remains uncovered by the U-M team, Fisher said.

Evidence supporting the meat-caching hypothesis includes three basketball-sized boulders recovered next to the mammoth remains. The boulders may have been used to anchor the carcass in a pond.

The researchers also recovered a small stone flake that may have been used as a cutting tool next to one of the tusks. And the neck vertebrae were not scattered randomly, as is normally the case following a natural death, but were arrayed in their correct anatomical sequence, as if someone had “chopped a big chunk out of the body and placed it in the pond for storage,” Fisher said.

The date that humans arrived in the Americas is unclear and is the topic of heated debate among archaeologists. Depending on the age of the Lima County mammoth and confirmation of the suspected links to human hunters or scavengers, this week’s find could help push back the date for human habitation in what is now Southeast Michigan.


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