A small group of students from the Tahlequah Homeschool group in northeastern Oklahoma had a chance to get up close and learn firsthand about a mammoth found in their own home state just last year. The chance to see these delicate remains and learn about them from the Oklahoma State University scientists who are working on them in the lab was an amazing opportunity.
My kids were part of the group that enjoyed this unique encounter, and although they had seen mammoth and mastodon exhibits in museums, they had never experienced anything quite like this. They were able to see the bones, just as they came out of the ground, and learn about the process the scientists go through to piece the skeleton back together. They were also amazed to learn how the researchers piece together evidence, not only to discover what type of mammoth the specimen was, but how it died, how long ago it lived, and more.
Not a woolly mammoth
When we arrived at Oklahoma State University, our group was welcomed by professors Carlos Cordova and Dale Lightfoot, the head of the geography department. Dr. Cordova first invited us to a lecture in one of the department classrooms, where the students learned about different types of mammoths, their range in North America, and the time periods during which they lived. They also learned about their comparative sizes, their tusks, and other features.
Because we had previously read about the mammoth dig in the Oklahoma State University magazine, we were not surprised to find out that the scientists had determined this mammoth was not a woolly mammoth, but a Columbian mammoth. Columbian mammoths ranged further south than woolly mammoths, had less hair, and were significantly larger.
Might have been killed by humans
The femur of this mammoth was broken, which is not terribly unusual for artifacts thousands of years old, but it was broken in a way that suggested it may have been broken with a tool. The spiraling fractures of the bone, the professors told us, may be an indication that the bone was broken by humans, and that the mammoth may have even been killed and taken as prey.
This Columbian mammoth may have lived in Oklahoma as recently as about 13,000 years ago, but according to Dr. Cordova, soil core samples taken at the site will be further analyzed to help determine the age of the specimen.
We didn’t see all the bones
OSU student, Shawna Smith was working hard to catalogue the bones in the lab the day we visited, but she took the time from this mammoth sized puzzle to show our students some of the most interesting pieces. The kids were amazed by the gigantic vertebrae, the toe bone nearly the size of a bowling ball, and the pieces of leg bones that, put together, would have been taller than most of them.
We didn’t, however, see the skull. It is being kept offsite in a top secret location for now, partly because it is very, very heavy and yet delicate, and partly because it is just too large to fit through the doors of the lab. We did get to see photos, though, and learn about how the missing pieces will be added back to the skull with careful, scientifically calculated replicas made to match the original as closely as possible. We hope to see it all again, when it is put back together and eventually made viewable to the public.
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