Mammoths and Mastodons: All American Monsters

A mammoth discovery in 1705 sparked a fossil craze and gave the young United States a symbol of national might

Columbian mammoths were larger than mastodons. Both once roamed North America. (Velizar Simeonovski / The Field Museum, Chicago)
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It’s almost enough to give Clemmer an inferiority complex. But then she gets onto an interesting piece of bone and starts to “develop” it, going back and forth between the trowel and, for close work, a sharpened popsicle stick, with a pastry brush for cleanup. The bone gradually widens out and turns a corner. The crew chief comes by and speculates that it might be the coracoid process of a shoulder blade. Or not: “It has a lot of calcite on it, which conceals the shape.” Clemmer announces that she’s skipping the afternoon break so she can keep digging.

“It’ll still be here next year,” the crew chief advises. It’s Friday afternoon, the last day of work for this crew, but Clemmer makes a deal with Agenbroad to let her dig the following day while everybody else goes off on a field trip.

When Agenbroad gets back late Saturday afternoon, he looks down at Clemmer’s work and says, “Nuchal crest,” meaning the anchor point for the massive muscles that once stretched up across the back of the neck. The bone is, in fact, the complete skull of a male mammoth brought down in his prime. The animal lies on his right cheek. The top of his left eye socket just barely peeks up above the dirt. Clemmer goes home triumphant, having assisted one more ice age American hero into the light of a strange new world.

Richard Conniff is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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