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Mammoth bones recovered in Wyoming ‘triage’ excavation

After four days of intensive and hurried excavation, a crew of about 15 archaeologists and helpers removed the intact backbone and ribs of what is believed to be an adult mammoth from the shoreline of Wyoming’s Buffalo Bill Reservoir Tuesday.

“This was a salvage operation. We were doing triage,” said Bonnie Smith, an archaeologist with the Draper Museum of Natural History in Cody, Wyoming, who helped with the dig.

Bones gathered included a portion of the animals’ vertebrae, ribs, two teeth and 80 to 100 fragments that had been exposed by the reservoir’s water and strewn across the beach, according to Greg Pierce, the Wyoming state archaeologist who led the operation.

“We didn’t find any evidence of cultural association,” Pierce said, “but it’s early in the investigation.”

The large section of bone was encased in plaster casts to be safely hauled to the University of Wyoming’s archaeology lab. When it is exposed, it could show whether there are any butcher marks from human hunters. If the bone turns out to be 14,000 years or older, that would place the animal before known human occupation of the region.

“We’ll start working on it in the next couple of months,” Pierce said. “By sometime in the fall we should get a handle on it.”

Mammoths were an ice-age, elephant-like animal with long, curved tusks. Fully grown, the pachyderm relative could weigh up to 10 tons. Northern species, such as the woolly mammoth, were hairy. It’s believed the animals first migrated to North America around 1.8 million years ago. Most of the animals had died off 11,000 years ago, either from climate change caused by the end of the ice age, human hunting or a combination of the two.

“Where it was found is beautiful,” Smith said. “It’s a natural migration corridor into (what is now) Yellowstone National Park.”

The bone was exposed as the Bureau of Reclamation drew down the level of Buffalo Bill Reservoir in preparation for heavy mountain snowmelt. By the end of March the water level was at an elevation of about 5,364 feet. By Tuesday, April 17, when word of the discovery circulated in the nearby community of Cody, the water had dropped 10 feet, about half full or 42 feet below full.

“This is not something that happens every day,” said Lyle Myler, deputy area manager of the Wyoming Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation. “It’s an important resource find, and hopefully it can shed some light on (ancient) activities in the area.”

The site was discovered by an individual who is being investigated for “potential unlawful removal” of bones from the find, Myler said. He said the investigation is ongoing but federal law specifically forbids such bone collecting under the Paleontological Resources Protection Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. A special agent from the Billings Area Office of the bureau is investigating the incident.

“We’ve been advising everyone to help us,” Pierce said. “There’s a procedure to follow when you find something like this. The natural tendency is to pick it up. But it’s better to take a picture of it and forward that to the land management agency.”

Because part of the bones were largely intact, Pierce is hoping that the animal was deposited onsite and more remains could be recovered from the beach in the future.

“The stuff exposed at the surface was really beat up,” Pierce said. “The stuff below the surface was in fairly decent shape. Hopefully the vertebral column will reveal some information for us.”

One thing that made the dig so much fun was that members of the public were present, providing a positive educational opportunity, Smith said. They learned about the process of recovering the mammoth remains, allowing them to take some ownership of the bones found in their backyard, she said.

“We would probably have 40 to 50 people a day,” Smith said. “There were easily 100 people Sunday.”

One 19-year-old discovered the tip of what turned out to be a mammoth tooth and alerted one of the archaeologists so they could document and recover it. It ended up being one of only two teeth found, she said.

“That’s why you do this.”

Brigid Grund, a University of Wyoming anthropologist, helps prepare a mammoth backbone and ribs for casting along the shores of Buffalo Bill Reservoir in Wyoming last week.