Thousands and thousands of years ago, a herd of mastodon families died together by a lake near what is now called Snowmass, Colorado.
The first discovery of bones at this site was made in October, 2010, by Jesse Steele, a bulldozer operator, who recognized them as fossils.
Steele and his supervisor, Kent Olson, did some research on line which helped them to correctly identify their find as a mammoth skeleton.
Olson then discovered a rare American Mastodon fossil, but he and Steele misidentified that one, assuming it was just another mammoth, so it was a good thing they eventually tipped off the project Director, who in turn contacted Dr. Ian Miller, curator of paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Miller sent in a team to dig more bones.
Almost 5,000 more bones from 26 different kinds of vertebrates were discovered. There were Jefferson sloths and American camels and a tooth from some kind of horse, deer, and smaller creatures, including otters, chipmunks and salamanders, as well as mammoths, but mostly what they discovered were mastodons, male and female, at all ages and stages of the mastodon life cycle. Their remains were so well preserved that DNA could probably be taken from them for cloning. The team also found plant material that was still green and beetle exoskeletons that had not lost their iridescence.
Why did these Ice-Age elephant ancestors, male and female mastodons of all ages, die at the same time and place?
In a television documentary, one paleontologist said that there were natural terraces on area slopes indicating that land and rock slides had occurred over time. He also pointed out that rocks and boulders lay between the bones of many skeletons. Hmmm.
He then went on to theorize that the mystery of the mass mastodon death could be explained by an earth quake that temporarily liquified solid ground to quick sand around the pachyderms' feet. After the quake stopped, the ground hardened up again, and they were trapped!
Why not a land slide? I wondered. He continued.
To test out the quicksand theory, scientists took what looked like a cat litter box and filled it with sand. Then they carefully poured in some water and placed a small wooden elephant, representing a mastodon, on top. See? they said. The mastodon is not sinking down.
They removed the elephant and shook the box so that the water was distributed between all of the grains of sand, making it soupy, and put the elephant back. He sank in a little. Then, as the water went down to the bottom of the box, the sand hardened up again, proving their theory, they supposed. But I wonder how scientific that experiment really was.
I mean, what allowance had they made for weight and volume? And what if they had used a plastic camel or sloth? Would the effect have been the same?
Then they said, what if the mastodons were all stuck there in the sand, unable to find food, starving to death? Cool.
What if fierce, gigantic Ice-Age predators, dire wolves, short-faced bears, saber-toothed tigers, had come upon them thus mired and feasted on them as they stood, helpless? Really cool.
However, strangely enough, no predator bones were found at the site.
One scientist had seen some marks that might have been made by a stone tool on one of the fossils. This might mean that they had discovered the first humans to inhabit Colorado!
What if these hypothetical humans had found the mastodons stuck fast in the sand, slaughtered them, then dried the meat to preserve it? Totally cool.
Oh yeah, said a paleontologist, hang out the meat and wait for the dire wolves to show up. No, thank you.
What about lake water? he suggested. Lake water is acidic. Nature has ways of shutting down the process of putrefaction. Perhaps the hypothetical humans threw the carcasses into the lake to preserve the meat, thereby ensuring that the bones would also be preserved.
Another scientist however said that the chisel like marks were not made by prehistoric humans, nor was there any other proof that humans had visited the site during the Ice Age.
So much for the theories. Too bad Jesse Steele and Kent Olson, the bulldozer guys, weren't there to weigh in, but by this time they were probably off working on another construction project. I'm pretty sure they'd go with the rock slide theory. It's so obvious. And the scientists? They're probably cloning a mastodon right now. Very cool.
Have a good week.