Earthquakes, people no longer prime suspects in deaths of ancient elephants

by Allen Best, Special to the Aspen Daily News

Do earthquakes explain all those mastodon bones at Snowmass? Not likely, say scientists, although they haven’t completely shelved the idea.

And did humans kill a mammoth 50,000 years ago and then cache the meat for later use? Circumstantial evidence of rocks intermixed with bones suggests that was the case. If so, it would rank as one of the major scientific discoveries of the decade, putting people on the North American continent some 36,000 years earlier than what is now generally agreed upon by archaeologists.

That intriguing idea also remains on the shelf, just beyond touch for lack of corroborating evidence.

Discouraged? Hardly. Scientists still think the 6,000 bones plus leaves, pollen and other organic matter retrieved in two brief bursts of intense digging in 2010 and 2011 ranks as among the best time-capsules ever discovered from 50,000 to 130,000 years ago, the last glacial interlude.

“It’s one of the premier finds of the last decade, and arguably — because of the high elevation and the quality of preservation — I think it is one of the five top Pleistocene sites in North America,” said Ian Miller, curator of paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. “It’s right up there with the mammoth site at Hot Springs [in South Dakota], La Brea [tar pits, of Los Angeles], and the other top finds.”

A layer of clay had created an exceptionally well-preserved archive of life at 9,000 feet during the last interglacial period. Spades upturned leaves still green and insects iridescent after 50,000 years. Logs that had gathered along the ancient shoreline were so well preserved that chain saws were used to slice them.

“It’s really a crystal-clear picture into the ecosystem archives between 50,000 and 130,000 years ago,” Miller said.

Occasionally during the digging there were shouts of glee as Miller and other scientists, plus geologists and other scientific specialists, triumphantly hoisted bones. They found the remains of 40 different animals, from mice to a mighty bison now extinct and a ground sloth many times the size of what now exists. There was also a camel.

Mostly they found elephants: the grass-eating mammoths, three meters tall at the shoulder but with long, curving tusks and trunks shorter than those found in elephants today in Asia and Africa. Deeper in the sediments and more plentiful were mastodons, which are slightly shorter and have teeth better adapted to eating leaves and twigs.

With the bones of at least 34 different individuals were out, it’s among the biggest mastodon discoveries ever in North America.

Just how so many mastodon bones came to exist in one place perplexed the scientists. One early hypothesis was that an earthquake, or perhaps several at different times, had occurred while the mastodons were in the lake. Earthquakes can have the effect of liquefying lake sediments, anchoring whatever animals are stuck in them like quicksand and preventing escape.

If they have not discarded that idea, scientists now favor a simpler explanation of individual deaths from less exceptional causes, the bodies then scavenged by various opportunists.

“Think of a watering hole in Africa,” said Miller. “That seems to be the best analogy.”

But a mammoth found near the surface poses a mystery. Rocks were intermixed among the bones in ways that didn’t seem natural. Quietly, the scientists wondered if the rocks had been used by people to cache the meat, for later use.

If that were the case, it would be one of the top scientific discoveries of the decade. Archaeologists have only been able to confirm human existence in the Western Hemisphere to about 14,000 to 15,000 years ago, near the end of the last ice age. This would, if proven, extend human habitation to 50,000 years ago.

With the need to get out of the lake in 2011 when it was converted into a regulated reservoir, museum personnel wrapped this ensemble of mammoth bones, peat and rocks into a protective cast of plaster for transport to the museum in Denver.

Once in Denver, they took three-dimensional photographs, so that scientists in the future can see everything just as they found it.

Top archaeologists from around the country were invited to examine the remains.

 Rendering courtesy of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science
This rendering shows what the pond at Zeigler Reservoir might have looked like 120,000 years ago.

“Everybody was super intrigued,” Miller said. “Nobody was like, ‘You guys are out to lunch.’ But at the same time everybody said, ‘You need to find extraordinary evidence to indeed prove that it was a human cache.”

So far, that extraordinary evidence is wanting — and may remain so.

“It will likely remain a mystery but sometimes that’s science,” Miller said.


An unprecedented window

The greater significance of the Snowmass find is likely to be its ability to document the changing climate of that last interglacial period, when humans had little or no influence on the planetary environment. That record, in turn, may help us better evaluate our own era, when humans more clearly are driving changes.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Miller said, “and after spending $1 million [on the dig], we would like to have a very good answer to that.”

The site of the excavation is on a ridge, surrounded by aspen trees. The ridge was created about 130,000 years ago when glaciers of the Bull Lake advance receded, leaving the moraine. The lake where the mastodons and mammoths died was created as the result of an oddity of this geography.

From 130,000 years ago to about 50,000 years ago was a time of relative warmth, sometimes much warmer than our own. This is the period in which the mammoth and mastodon bones were left, as well as some creatures that can still be found in the Rocky Mountains.

By about 50,000 years ago, glaciers had begun to wax again. This time, they didn’t advance quite as far down the valley of Snowmass Creek, but they substantially cooled the climate and lowered timberline.

That last glacial period peaked about 16,000 years ago — then the ice rapidly receded.

Temperatures suddenly warmed 7 degrees Celsius (12-13 degrees Fahrenheit) in just a decade about 10,000 to 11,000 years ago. Presto: The Earth was out of the ice age and in what we now like to think of as normal.

Even that period of stability, however, has been a roller coaster. Temperatures have swung widely. One pronounced cooling for several centuries froze the Thames River in London during winter months, stalled the advance of civilization, and aborted Norse settlement of Greenland. Now, the planet seems to be heating again — rapidly so, say some scientists, taking note of the rapid breakup of the Arctic sea ice and other evidence.

Important to the value of the Snowmass site is its elevation, nearly 9,000 feet. High elevations are more sensitive to changes than lower elevations.

Jeff Pigati of the U.S. Geological Survey oversaw dating of the site, establishing a stratigraphy for the excavations at Ziegler Reservoir.

“We have been able to date this site incredibly well,” said Pigati, who shares direction of the research with Miller.

This crisp dating will enhance clarity for the emerging story of the last interglacial period, called the Eemian.

“How did the plant communities change? How did the animal communities begin to change?” said Pigati. That, he explains, is where the Snowmass site will provide a new window of understanding.

“This site opens up a window that we have not been able to see into. We are now able to see into a window that was previously closed to us. Scientists see it as absolutely amazing now as when we were out there pulling bones out of the ground,” he said.

The new insights will soon become apparent. Some 47 to 50 scientists of various disciplines continue their laboratory tests and are scheduled to begin submitting 18 to 20 papers in about a month, some of which will be presented in late October at the Geological Society of America conference in Denver. Close to 10,000 people are expected for the conference, and one session will be devoted purely to the Snowmass conclusions. The papers will be published in early 2014.

Pigati describes himself like a child at Christmas, eager to unwrap the boxes.

“It’s kind of like coming down and seeing all the gifts under the tree,” he said.

This story is a partnership of Allen Best’s Mountain Town News and Brent Gardner-Smith’s Aspen Journalism project.