Arts & Culture » Travel

Local Finds: Mammoth Bones of Contention



In November of 1990, Dave Wasion made the discovery of his life. Wasion, animal warden for the city of Zion, has, by his own account, searched for Indian relics for many years. He had come across an old newspaper article about the discovery of mammoth bones in Kenosha County in the 1920s and '30s, so he consulted with Dan Joyce, senior curator and archaeologist at the Kenosha Public Museum, and went to the Kenosha County Historical Society in search of more information. An intern mentioned there was a box of mammoth bones in storage, so they went to take a look.

"I almost fell on my face," Wasion says, when he saw a big femur lying on top of the box. "It was just full of hack marks all over it." At that time there was no universally accepted evidence that mammoths had ever been hunted east of the Mississippi. Now, there it was--a clear sign of human handiwork. He called Joyce, and then he called David Overstreet, an archaeology professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee and an old friend. "You better get down here," he said. The three met up two days later. "I showed them the bones and said, 'Look what I found!' They both stared in amazement."

However, the three had very little information about the origin of the bones. They had been found in a field many years before, but the historical society had not kept precise records. Joyce remembered that there was a map at the museum of another area where several mammoth bones had been discovered during some ditch digging. He suggested they excavate that site, on a farm, for further evidence of mammoth hunting. The three secured a Department of the Interior grant and began excavating in the spring of 1992.

They had no luck until Frank Schaefer, the farm's owner, told them a fence post they were using as a reference point had been moved 30 feet ten years before. He showed them where it used to be, and they found a pile of mammoth bones the next day. They showed clear signs of butchery.

Excavation of this and other "kill sites" on the Schaefer farm took two summers. Early in the process, Schaefer and John Hebior, a neighbor, approached Wasion, Joyce, and Overstreet. Schaefer handed Joyce a large, weathered bone and said slyly, "Is there anything interesting about this?" It turned out to be another mammoth femur, which Hebior's son had found 15 years earlier and kept lying around his barn. So in the summer of '94 David Overstreet returned to supervise the excavation of the Hebior farm.

Several months later the Hebior mammoth--the largest and most complete woolly mammoth to be found on this continent--was unearthed. An approximately 40-year-old male measuring 12 feet at the shoulder, with tusks 9 feet long, it's estimated to have weighed eight tons.

The question of who the first Americans were and how they got here has been a central issue in American anthropology for over 100 years. For the past 30, the accepted theory has been that the Clovis people were here first--big game hunters who arrived 12,000 years ago, as Ice Age glaciers receded, via a land bridge from Siberia. But when bones from the Hebior and Schaefer sites were carbon dated and analyzed, the Hebior mammoth was estimated to be 12,500 years old, the Schaefer slightly younger at 12,300 years. Bones discovered in the 20s and 30s at the nearby Mud Lake and Fenske sites, but unanalyzed until recently, turned out to be 13,440 and 13,470 years old respectively. All show obvious cut and hack marks and all are significantly older than those found from the 1930s onward at the Clovis sites in New Mexico. The Clovis bones, at 11,800 years old, have long been considered the oldest mammoth fossils in the Americas that show signs of human butchery; spear points and stone tools found at the site indicate human habitation as well.

The discovery of the Kenosha County mammoths--with their evidence of human activity--gives ammunition to scientists who argue that humans arrived in North America long before the Clovis people.

A March Science magazine article ("Pre-Clovis Sites Fight for Acceptance") lists the Kenosha finds as part of a band of sites stretching from the Yukon to southern Chile that show strong evidence of pre-Clovis culture. The article says Overstreet "aims to prove that stone tools and mammoth bones with cut marks are really as old as 13,500." Overstreet doesn't think there's anything left to prove: "These dates [in the Science article] demonstrate once and for all that our understanding of the peopling of the Americas has been wrong. We are finally going to overturn the Clovis paradigm."

A full-scale reproduction of the Hebior mammoth skeleton will be placed on permanent display this September when the new Kenosha Public Museum opens for business. Joyce has spent most of the past six years working on the new museum, which is being constructed on the site of Kenosha's old lakefront Chrysler plant. The museum's "walk through time" exhibit traces the development of life in the region from 440 million years ago, when southern Wisconsin was a shallow tropical sea, through the age of fishes, of dinosaurs, and, of course, the Ice Age and the age of mammoths. The Hebior skeleton and a re-creation of the Schaefer bone piles, complete with real bones, anchor the display.

If there are pre-Clovis sites in Kenosha County, then the continent's first inhabitants must have come from somewhere other than Siberia, as the land bridge to Alaska is generally believed to have been inaccessible until 12,000 years ago. One theory says they came along the Pacific coast from Asia, and were fishermen and foragers; another holds that they came from France and Spain, and the cave-painting and mammoth-hunting cultures there.

Joyce is open to both possibilities. But, in the meantime, he is reasonably sure there were humans in Kenosha County over 13,000 years ago, that they were the first people here, and that they hunted mammoths for over 1,000 years. He hopes to learn more about them when he excavates another mammoth kill site next summer.

The new 50,000-square-foot Kenosha Public Museum is slated to open September 15, at 5500 First Ave. in Kenosha. (The current museum at 5608 Tenth Ave. will close for the summer on June 15.) Call 262-653-4140 for more information.

--Chris Chandler

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

Add a comment