Posted in Extinction, Mammoths, Mastodons, Pleistocene

The Death of the Manis Mastodon

I imagine how the Mastodon in My Backyard died:

Near a small, bog-rich pond, the pearl-gray catkins of a pussy willow rattle in the driving sleet.  Ice coats the bare branches of a soopolallie growing at the water’s edge.  Frozen red berries still cling to its stems.  Upslope from the pond, in a brushy part of the tundra, a herd of elk seeks shelter from the spring squall.  Higher still, the mountains are sheathed in glacial ice.

The temperature drops and the sky clears.  When night falls curtains of light shimmer in the north, an aurora rippling in solar winds.  Oxygen atoms bombarded by geomagnetic storms turn the whole hemisphere red.  Glazed with the colors of fire, the pond flickers and burns throughout the night.

A muskrat surfaces and swims towards her burrow.  The legs of a frog dangle and twitch from her mouth.  The wake behind her broad tail sends ripples through the aurora’s reflection, shimmering the four-legged silhouette on the pond’s surface.  Looming over his own shadow, an old mastodon bull curls his trunk into his mouth and releases cold clear water down his throat.

All day, during the icy storm, the mastodon browsed on sage, spirea, rosehips, frosted buttercups, wormwood and sedge as the wind left ice crystals in his eyelashes.  He trudged across a marshland through sticky, hydrated clay, pulled out each foot with a loud, sucking sound.  Sunshine and snow, both opalescent, washed over him in waves.

On the tall-grass prairie, he saw herds of equus and pricus, horses and bison, standing with heads lowered, their backs to the stinging wind.  He saw a shaggy outline, obscured by blowing snow, sweeping the tall grass clear with her curled tusks.  Barely visible, a small calf nuzzled the fur between her front legs and suckled from a hidden breast.

Recognizing her high domed cranium and sloping profile, the mastodon did not cross the prairie to meet her, though he has seen her foraging at this place before.  She is a mammoth and not a member of his low-browed kind.

At a gravel bar he crossed a crystalline river formed from glacial outmelt.  A goose feather spiraled down from a migrating flock.  His pace was slow and he often stopped, his trunk resting on the ground.  An Arctic fox circled in behind him, veered away when he wheeled and held his huge tusks high.

Finally, in the middle of the night, he reached the pond and waded in.

Now he drinks and eats listlessly, pulls out hippuris, water plants with long tails and sweet green stems.  The sky is clear, cold, and the blood-red aurora flames and dances over his head, wildfire in the sky.  Cattails chatter in the wind.

He staggers toward the bank of the pond and into boggy mud, rich, black, and carnivorous.  He touches his side, where the hole-that-hurts still bleeds.  Mired, he closes his eyes, sways, falls.

Near dawn the two-legged hunters find him on his side, half in water, half out.  They build a fire and settle to their work.

Posted in Extinction, Mammoths, Mastodons, Pleistocene

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.

Posted in Extinction, Mammoths, Mastodons, Pleistocene

Mammoth

Outside my window shaggy shadows move among the firs. An immense shape assembles and disassembles in the wind.

Fourteen thousand years ago, mastodons and mammoths roamed North America, grazed alongside the buffalo.  Paleolithic peoples followed the woolly giants across the Bering Bridge to lands as game-rich as the Serengeti.  Projectile points can be found embedded in the bones of their prey.

But now the great ones are nearly everywhere gone.

Time twists as I stare out the window at the huge ghost facing me.  A giant form conjured from a smear of rhododendrons and shadows lifts his trunk into the wind, changes back into a bush beast with flowers in his stomach, and is extinct once again.