SEATTLE – It’s not unusual for an archaeologist to get stuck in the past, but Carl Gustafson may be the only one consumed by events on the Olympic Peninsula in 1977.
That summer, while sifting through earth in Sequim, the young Gustafson uncovered something extraordinary – a mastodon bone with a shaft jammed in it. This appeared to be a weapon that had been thrust into the beast’s ribs, a sign that humans had been around far earlier than anyone suspected.
Unfortunately for Gustafson, few scientists agreed. He was challenging orthodoxy with less-than-perfect evidence.
For almost 35 years, his find was ridiculed or ignored, the site dismissed as curious but not significant. But earlier this month, a team that re-examined his discovery using new technology concluded in the prestigious journal Science that Gustafson had been right all along.
The pierced bone was clear evidence that human beings were hunting large mammals in North America 13,800 years ago – about 800 years before the so-called Clovis people were thought to have migrated across the Bering land bridge from Asia.
The announcement came as sweet vindication for the now-retired Washington State University professor.
“I was pretty bitter about the whole thing for a long time,” Gustafson, 75, recalled last week. “It was so frustrating. But I’m very humbled and happy it turned out this way.”
Manny Manis was turning over dirt with a backhoe in August 1977 when he unearthed what looked like the tusk of a mammoth.
In Pullman a week later, Gustafson heard about the find. He drove to the Olympic Peninsula, expecting to be done in a few days. He would spend every summer there until 1985.
Within hours Gustafson found the rib bone.
Gustafson’s find was called inconclusive, or simply reinterpreted. The “weapon” was probably just a piece of tusk left behind by another mastodon after a fight, some said. It could have been a broken antler from a charging elk, others argued.
Mike Waters, director of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, and his team put the rib bone through an industrial-strength CT scan. They used DNA sequencing and protein analysis. They sent samples to other labs to rule out other possibilities.
The CT scan showed the embedded shaft in the rib clearly had been whittled to a point. And other tests revealed it, too, was made of mastodon bone – not tusk, not elk antler.
As for Gustafson, he’s already gone back to his basement and begun poring again over his reams of data. Waters’ research has given him the confidence to start working on one more scientific paper.