MOUNT HOLLY — In some parts of the United States, finding enormous bones in the course of farm work and construction is not uncommon. Mammoths and mastodons are well-known from the Midwest and Western states, notes Dartmouth College archaeologist Nathaniel Kitchel. These Ice Age relatives of today’s elephants have turned up in New York, as well.
In some places, says Kitchel, evidence is clear: Humans and mammoths shared the landscape. But, says Kitchel, “the farther East you go, the more scarce the material evidence for human-mammoth interactions becomes.” In New England, researchers have not determined conclusively whether humans and mammoths ever coexisted. But Kitchel’s new research suggests they could have. The mammoth that made him think so had been at the bottom of a mountaintop bog in Mount Holly for nearly 13,000 years.
“When you think of fossils, you don’t think of New England,” says Dartmouth paleoanthropologist Jeremy DeSilva, who co-authored the new research with Kitchel. Vermont’s thin, acidic soils are not amenable to preserving fossils, Kitchel said.
“We don’t have a good fossil record here, and because of that, there’s a lot we don’t know about the end of the Pleistocene (the last Ice Age) and the beginning of the Holocene (our current geologic time) in this region,” says DeSilva. “(M)any folks suspected that there were megafauna — large animals such as mammoths — here, and that they may have overlapped in time and space with the first people to arrive here.”
Abenaki oral traditions reflect the presence of these huge animals as well, he said.
In 1848, a railroad crew, which had started in Boston, was working its way north and west, while another crew had begun at Lake Champlain and dug its way south and east, notes Mount Holly Community Historical Museum board member Judy Nevin. The two were to meet right around Mount Holly. As workers dug out a bog near town for the railroad’s construction, they found bones and enormous teeth, Nevin says, adding that it is not clear exactly how much of the animal was recovered.
The leg bones were not found, which is odd as they would have been huge and hard to miss, Kitchel says. It’s possible that some bones just went home with railroad workers, says Nevin. Others ended up at Harvard University, and some headed to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, says Kitchel — then made their way back to Harvard. “Our mammoth is very well-educated,” Nevin said.
The mammoth’s tusks went to the University of Vermont, before traveling back to Mount Holly, where, Nevin said, the Mount Holly Community Historical Museum could house them in a controlled environment to ensure their preservation.
One rib would land on a shelf at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, New Hampshire.
“Every single fossil has a story to tell, and every fossil deserves to have its story told,” DeSilva says. “And here we have this fragmentary, seemingly unimportant fragment of rib that’s been sitting on a museum shelf for decades, and has been out of the ground since 1848, and nothing (had been) done with it.”
In this case, “The stories that can be told from that bone haven’t been yet,” DeSilva observes. “That bone has sort of kept its secrets.”
The researchers used radiocarbon (or carbon-14) dating to determine how old the mammoth was. Kitchel and DeSilva determined that the Mount Holly mammoth had died between 12,882 and 12,792 years ago.
Although very old archaeological sites in Vermont are difficult to date precisely — those thin soils again — radiocarbon dating has been used to date archaeological sites in New England, Kitchel says. Sites in New Hampshire and Massachusetts have been dated at around 12,700 to 12,800 years ago, he notes. Another indicator of human activity in New England during this time is the presence of fluted points, or a projectile point.
Kitchel said fluted points are highly distinctive, and they appeared across North America between 12,000 and 13,500 years ago.
He is careful to note that while his and DeSilva’s research suggests overlap in time and place between mammoths and humans in Vermont, it does not prove they interacted. “This research brought humans and mammoths closer together in time in New England,” he says, “but it hasn’t established an unequivocal connection between the two.” More research is needed for that, and the story is still unfolding.
“What the Mount Holly find has done, at least for New England, is at the very least brought humans closer to megafauna in time in the region,” Kitchel says. “It doesn’t provide material evidence that humans and elephants were interacting in any way, or even saw each other on the landscape here in New England.”
With many questions still to answer, this winter the team undertook a ground-penetrating radar survey of the bog (which provides a preview of what may be underground, without needing to dig), and may return to the site for more investigation.