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Scientists offer mammoth opportunity

Mon., April 3, 2006, midnight

SEATTLE – A mammoth that died thousands of years ago near what is now Yakima is slowly revealing its secrets to scientists, and they’re putting out the welcome mat for people interested in pitching in – and helping to cover the project costs.

“It’s a pretty cool find,” said Patrick Lubinski, a Central Washington University archaeologist and lead scientist of the Wenas Creek Mammoth project, during a Seattle meeting Friday.

The adventure began with the discovery of an upper foreleg bone, or humerus, at a road project in March 2005.

The skeleton is one of several from the Pleistocene period, when these relatives of today’s elephants roamed the region.

But most prior discoveries of mammoth bones have involved fragments washed down during the prehistoric floods that repeatedly swept across the Columbia Basin at the end of the Ice Age.

This mammoth, found on a ranch outside the small community of Selah, is outside the prehistoric flood zones, Lubinski said.

“We know it wasn’t washed in, that it was a local mammoth,” he said, adding that he hopes to discover that the skeleton is intact.

“If it is, that would be pretty rare,” said University of Washington paleontologist Bax Barton. He’s working with Lubinski, studying the soil found around the bones for what it might reveal about the prehistoric environment or climate changes.

At the first dig last summer, the scientists and nine students recovered both the right and left forelegs along with a wrist bone. CWU geologist Karl Lillquist helped establish that the bones were deposited on top of creek gravel and then buried by a mudslide.

Various labs are doing radiocarbon-dating of the bones to date them more precisely. They’re probably about 16,000 years old, Lubinski said, but not all the data are in.

Soil analysis will also help date the remains, using a relatively new technique that measures the quantity of trapped electrons in soil atoms.

But lack of funding is a chronic problem. The team is $60,000 over budget and likely needs at least $300,000 more to finish its work.

From June 19 to Aug. 11, anyone interested in paying the $2,300 CWU tuition can help the team dig out the remaining bones – and see how scientists unearth the mysteries of another age.

Participants will also engage in mapping, lab work, skeletal anatomy studies and many other aspects of paleontology, geology and archaeology.


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