Chelsea History Series: A Mammoth Find


On October 1, 2015, an ordinary Chelsea farmer named James Bristle made a startling and truly amazing discovery. While digging with a friend in one of his fields, he came across a strange, curved object, which he initially confused for a bent fence pole but soon discovered to be the fossilized rib of some prehistoric monster. Bristle quickly contacted the University of Michigan, who sent a team of paleontologists to the scene. Further excavations revealed a skull with tusks still attached, most of the rib cage, and almost the complete spine of a woolly mammoth.

After being examined at the University, the skeleton was discovered to be very unique, holding implications for archeology as well as paleontology. The bones and the excavation site both hold clues that this mammoth did not suffer a natural death but was hunted and killed by prehistoric humans. One of these clues comes from breakages in the skull at the base of the trunk and tusks as well as in the back of the skull. Paleontologists believe that these were caused by the attempts of human butchers to access nutritious tissues from the brain and trunk.

Further evidence of human involvement comes from three large stones found on the site, which certainly did not originate in the pond-sediment landscape of the Bristle farm and were not carried there by a river or other natural force. Daniel Fisher at the University of Michigan, who led the excavation, has made similar findings at other mammoth excavation sites in Michigan and theorizes that the stones were used by prehistoric humans to weigh down cuts of meat that they stored at the bottom of frozen ponds in a kind of prehistoric refrigeration system.

Many of the mammoth bones, moreover, were discovered in a position that would be expected of a mammoth that suffered a natural death, but some of the bones were sorted into separate piles, this was almost certainly done by humans as no other animal would have the intelligence to organize parts of their kill in this way.

The Bristle Mammoth, as the skeleton was named, had two more features that made it even more noteworthy than other mammoth fossils. One of these was its age, which has much to tell us about Stone Age human migrations to the American continent. Most historians have assumed that the first migrants to the americas were the Clovis people, a stone-age tribe characterized by a distinct and advanced style of spearhead that allowed them to hunt more effectively and spread farther than other human groups. The first Clovis spearheads found in the New World date back to 13,000 B.C., but the remains of the Bristle mammoth suggest that it lived around 15,000 B.C., suggesting that other human tribes had reached the American continent during an earlier age. Another distinct feature of the Bristle mammoth is that it may have been a hybrid, as it shares features of both the woolly mammoth and the Columbian mammoth, making the fossil even more unique and noteworthy; however, the bones still need to be officially tested for genetics before scientists can reach any conclusions.

Few animals have been more important to the survival of our species than the woolly mammoth, which gave food, nutrition, and even shelter to thousand of our early ancestors. Perhaps the greatest thing we can do to honor this pivotal creature is to find out more about the role it played for us, identify the causes of its demise, and prevent other species from meeting a similar fate.The Bristle Mammoth was truly a mammoth of a find, altering our perspective of  human migrations and prehistoric technology, but paleontologists think there is more to uncover. Samples of the fossilized tusks and bone have been sent to laboratories for further testing that may help scientists determine the cause of the extinction of the woolly mammoth, and further excavations are being planned to find more evidence.