Michigan Farmer Stumbles on a Mammoth Skeleton

Paleontologists excavated the skeleton, prying the bones from the dark muck of the field

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The team had a single day to uncover the massive mammoth's skeleton. Daryl Marshke, University of Michigan

When Michigan soybean farmer James Bristle tried to install a drainage pipe in a low spot in one of his fields, his backhoe struck something hard. He thought it might be an old fence post, but it was part of a mammoth pelvis.

Paleontologists from the University of Michigan led by Daniel Fisher rushed out to the field and started digging, reports Rachel Feltman for The Washington Post. "We get calls once or twice a year about new specimens like this," Fisher told the paper, but many of those calls end up being mastodons.

It’s not the first mammoth to show up unexpectedly: An irrigation ditch uncovered a mammoth skeleton in Idaho in 2014 and two brothers found a mammoth on an artichoke farm in California in 2010. But specimens are rare enough that any finds are exciting. Over the years, people have found about 300 mastodons and 30 mammoths in Michigan.

Digging through the muck, paleontologists have unearthed much of the mammoth’s skeleton, save for its limbs, feet and a few other bones. The team hasn't yet dated the bones, but Fisher suspects this adult male lived 11,700 to 15,000 years ago and was killed by humans for its meat.

With a single day to excavate the remains, the paleontologists had to work quickly but carefully. They discovered that the vertebrates weren’t lying haphazardly, as they might in a natural death, but neatly arrayed as if someone had "chopped a big chunk out of the body and placed it in the pond for storage," Fisher says in a press release.

The team speculates that the ancient human hunters stashed the mammoth in a pond for later retrieval, a strategy identified at other sites nearby. Three basketball-sized boulders near the find might have weighed the carcass down. A stone flake also at the site could have been part of the butchering process. Careful inspection of the cleaned bones should reveal more.

Since the Bristle found the mammoth on his property, he owns the bones. As of Friday, the team was awaiting the farmer’s decision on what to do with the specimen, Avianne Tan reports for ABC News.