Mammoth Task It’s A Big Summer For Modern-Day Mammoth Hunters Digging Up A Bonanza Of Bones In North-Central Idaho
Sigurd Grove was digging a water line on his property just off U.S. 12 in 1957 when he unearthed a mammoth leg bone and other remains.
Researchers came to inspect the find, but Grove didn’t like the way he was treated by a Seattle paleontologist. The scientists were sent packing and the skeleton covered back up with dirt.
After Grove’s death in 1989, his widow, Martha, reconsidered.
Bones from the tiny site - sandwiched between two trailer homes, a few steps off the highway - were removed this summer by University of Idaho archaeologist Lee Sappington and his students.
“I’ve waited a long time to get it out of the ground. It was really quite exciting,” Martha Grove said.
It’s a big summer for modern-day mammoth hunters in north-central Idaho. Thirty miles down the road at Grangeville, several spots were being excavated at Tolo Lake.
Mammoths, hairy cousins to elephants with long trunks and huge ivory tusks, were about 13 feet tall at the shoulder and weighed 10 tons. The North American or Columbian mammoth evolved from the same ancestors as the woolly mammoth, generally found in Eurasia.
The behemoths came to North America across the Bering Strait 1.5 million years ago and found their way to the parklands and open woodlands of the Northwest.
They roamed the area until about 10,000 years ago, becoming extinct near the end of the Ice Age. No one is quite sure why.
Sappington hopes this summer’s research will provide some important clues to that and other prehistoric mysteries. The Kamiah find is believed to be between 10,000 and 12,000 years old.
Mammoth bones have been found in many places, including Eastern Washington, Oregon, Montana, Alaska, and such famous fossil sites as Hot Springs, S.D., and the Rancho La Brea tar pits in downtown Los Angeles. A substantial deposit of mammoth dung was found in Utah’s Bechan Cave.
“There could be one in your back yard. You’ve just never dug down that far,” Sappington told a reporter from Eastern Washington.
The Kamiah skeleton, 6 to 8 feet underground, was not intact nor complete, he said. It had a washed-in look, indicating the animal probably died somewhere nearby and the bones were carried by mud flow or water to the Kamiah site.
Modern debris, including car parts and plastic toys, also had accumulated at the site since Grove disturbed it 38 years ago.
“We have all the major parts of the body - teeth and tusk, vertebra, ribs, upper and lower legs and some of the ankle and foot bones,” Sappington said.
The bones and other bits and pieces from the site will be studied and catalogued before they are returned to Kamiah’s Lewis County Historical Society, which has been asked by Martha Grove to display the items.
“We want to learn about the environment, the elephant’s health, what other animals are around,” Sappington said.
The most exciting possibility would be to find hunting tools or other indications that humans co-existed with the mammoths, Sappington said. Evidence of human activity has been found at 15 or 16 of the many mammoth sites in the West, he said.
Researchers are optimistic about the prospects for such finds at Tolo Lake. If the site was attractive to animals, they figure it might also have drawn early humans.
The remains of seven or eight mammoths are in the lake. The big bones were uncovered by a construction crew hired by the state to dredge the 30-acre mud hole.
Tolo Lake also plays a role in Nez Perce Indian history. Chief Joseph camped at the lake after he was driven from Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, before the start of the Nez Perce War in 1877.
The site has long piqued public interest, and thousands are expected to visit the dig, scheduled to continue into October.
“It’s exciting. It interests everybody,” Sappington said.
On Aug. 27, the U.S. Postal Service will set up a booth to offer special cancellations of a four-stamp series featuring prehistoric animals, including a mammoth. The Tolo Lake Replica Committee will sell collector’s envelopes. The Lewis County Historical Society advertised the Kamiah dig across the country and drew spectators from as far away as Australia.