Archaeologists at White Sands Missile Range have stumbled across the first mastodon fossils from the Tularosa Basin.
Footprints of what where believed to be mammoths at the time were found near the area in the early 80s, according to WSMR cultural resource manager Stan Berryman. Due to funding, the environmental survey of the area was placed on hold until earlier this year. In January, Berryman and a group of archaeologists, geologists, and paleontologists from R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates were tracing stone artifacts that lead towards an ancient mammal track site in the Lake Otero area when they noticed tooth enamel fragments scattered along the way. Geologist and lead paleontologist Kate Zeigler and the team from R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates tracked the tooth enamel back up to the gulley. They found what appear to be two rib bones sticking out of the ground. Zeigler said the tooth enamel remains they found appear to have very little wear, leading the team to believe that they are dealing with a very young mastodon.
“We have a pretty good record of mammoths, camels, horses, dire wolf. Mastodons are known (to have existed) from southeast New Mexico over towards Roswell, Artesia, Carlsbad, and over to the Rio Grande valley, but we don’t have evidence of them from this particular basin, so this is a very important first piece of data for that,” Zeigler said. “We would absolutely be overjoyed if when we start to go through the excavation we find more than just a couple ribs and a beat up tusk and tooth. If we could get enough of the individual it’s very useful in paleontology to have different ages of the animal, because it tells you about how they grew.”
Pieces of human artifacts were also found during the initial findings of the tooth enamel. With these early findings, the team is hoping to find artifacts that could provide proof of Paleo-Indians, the earliest humans, which date back to the mastodon. Charlotte Pevny, a project manager with R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates, specializes in the settlement of the Americas and is hoping to find evidence that this mastodon was killed by Paleo-Indians as a source of food. The team is in the early stages of unveiling the ribs, but is hoping to find artifacts near the body or an incision on the body from a human artifact.
“That would mean (that if they did find human artifacts) they might have been used to butcher the animal. So in other words, this wouldn’t just be a random mastodon that died, but it would have been hunted down,” Pevny said. “It would tell us that folks were in this area at that time. It would have been potentially a good place to be. With the lake here, the water levels were higher at that time. People would have been using this landscape to make tools and hunt game.”
Though difficult to imagine, the findings of mastodon remains prove that the desert terrain of the Lake Otero area was once a very different environment with plenty of trees and shrubbery.
“When you think about mammoth teeth they look like astronaut footprints (used to chew through grass). Mastodons have these big cuspy teeth because they’re stripping leaves and branches off of trees and shrubs. This is telling us that this was not just grassland. When you introduce mastodons into the equation that’s telling us that there is a second story of vegetation out here,” Zeigler said.
The age of the mastodon fossils is unknown, but Dave Rachal, a geomorphologist with R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates is looking at a hillside nearby to try to date them. He has exposed layers of soil in the hillside. Rachal plans to conduct what geomorphologists call a radiocarbon dating test on the soils to determine the ages of the soils. The soil from the excavation site can then be compared to the soil from the hillside to help determine the age of the fossils. From Rachal’s current findings he believes the fossil deposit was left during the last glacial maximum between 25 to 20,000 years ago.
Excavation findings will determine the timeline for the project. Principal investigator R. Christopher Goodwin said the current rib excavation will take about two weeks. If there are other human artifacts that are found along with the rib the project may expand significantly in size.
“The good thing here is that we’ve got a very interesting set of questions that we can answer with this data. One of the real interesting things is to place the remains of the individual into a chronological sequence and a sequence of change in the basin, and develop an understanding of the paleoecology of the area,” Goodwin said.
John Taylor-Montoya, project manager and lead archeologist with R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates said he hopes the findings will allow for a wider search of the area and a wider study.
“We have a multidisciplinary team now doing multiple tasks that are going to give us different lines of evidence that we can use to understand more about the lake environment, the ecology, the animals, and how people figured into that picture in the past,” Taylor-Montoya said. “We’re hoping that we can get enough data that shows that this is an area of tremendous research potential and that it leads to more research. What we’re doing is just the tip of the iceberg.”
The excavation is closely measured. The team records the location where each fossil is discovered to the nearest millimeter. It is important to keep a record of the location where the fossils were found in order to date them, but it is also important for future excavations. After the excavation is over, the characteristics of the site will be changed. Archaeologists can look at the data and try to reconstruct the site if necessary during future excavations.
“This will give us evidence that this is an area that we need to do additional study in and that we need to do some level of protection in,” Berryman said. “At the same time (we’re) help(ing) support the mission by opening up some of the areas for mission activities that right now are shut out.”
The study serves as an environmental survey and would help clear the area for future testing missions once the excavation is complete.