The Mastodon in My Backyard

In the summer of 1977, near the town of Sequim, Washington, which is about thirty miles from my backdoor, Emanuel Manis decided he wanted a duck pond in the low spot of his front yard.  His backhoe brought up a couple of blackish curved logs.  His wife Clare thought they might be tusks and started making phone calls, eventually contacting Washington State University.  The resulting excavation lasted eight years and attracted 50,000 visitors to the Manis farm.

In the loam of an ancient pond the archaeological dig found a mastodon.  The left side of the skeleton was intact, all its bones in a correct anatomical position.  The bones of the uppermost side, the right side, were scattered upslope from the pond.  The mastodon’s shattered skull faced backwards, as if staring at its own remains.  Many bones had scratches, indentations, rectangular gouges and sharp-edged cut marks – the type of fracturing done in large-scale butchering, butchery less like gutting a fish and more like chopping up a tree.

But the star of the excavation, the reason so many people journeyed to the Manis Mastodon site, was a fragment of rib that had a bone spear point embedded in it.

The first direct evidence that humans hunted mastodons.

The projectile made of elk bone penetrated three-fourths of an inch into the rib.  The rib was healing, so the mastodon may have died of infection, old age, or many more wounds that did not show on his bones.

Three charcoal beds, one on top of the other, were found near the pond.  During a later phase of the excavation, the partial remains of two more mastodons were unearthed.  Radiocarbon dating determined that their bones – which also had the square-cut marks of butchering – were even older than those of the mastodon originally discovered.  In 1996, the remains of a mammoth were also found near the site.  The two species lived there together, 14,000 years ago.

Emanuel and Clare Manis were more than generous.  They built a fence, arranged parking, allowed researchers to construct a laboratory and storage sheds – even gave tours.  And to the skeptics who questioned whether or not humans hunted mastodons, Clare Manis had a short reply.  “Did an elk explode?”

After the excavations were finished in 1985, the ancient pond was reburied to protect the bones that remained.  Recently, the land was donated to an archaeological conservancy.

Not long ago I visited the museum in Sequim, near the site of the Manis farm.  Some of the mastodon’s bones remain caged behind glass, chop marks clearly visible from the butchering.  A huge tank holds the tusks underwater so they won’t dry out and become brittle.  On a shelf nearby is a rib bone labeled “Please touch me.”  It’s highly polished by the thousands of hands that have done so.  And just as thousands of hands obeyed the impulse to caress its delicate, yellowed length, so did mine.  In nearby glass cases the mastodon’s bones tell their history, chop mark by slash, elk bone embedded in rib.  I missed him by only 14,000 years, an eyelash of time.

4 responses

  1. Hi, my husband I want to drive our grandsons by the site; we went out looking today but couldn’t find anything. Is there a sign or an address you could give us. We don’t want to bother anything, just show grandsons. We live in Sequim; it’s such an interesting story and wonderful scientific discovery.

    1. Hi Paula – Did you check at the museum? Since it’s still private property, the owners may want to retain their privacy. I’ve never tried to contact them; the site would now look like pasture. Thanks for reading the post!

  2. I love it. I had no idea…

    1. Thanks, Kathie. It’s really cool to rub a mastodon’s rib.

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