Mast' From the Past

Mast' From the Past

Illustration by Kirk Design Inc.

When Brad Lepper called Denison geology professor Tod Frolking one day in December 1989, he was looking for help in a hurry.

Lepper, the curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society and a regular instructor in the Denison Sociology/Anthroplogy Department, had been called to a Licking County golf course, just 10 miles from Granville. What began as a new water hazard ended up a major scientific event, as the excavation revealed the most complete mastodon skeleton ever found. The golf course owner was asking them to complete the dig in just two days, so Lepper, Frolking, and a small team of volunteers set out to quickly and carefully unearth the find. It turned out to be more extraordinary than they expeced.

Talk of mysteries!–Think of our life in nature,–daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,–rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?

–Henry David Thoreau

Radiocarbon dating indicated the animal perished 13,300 years ago, the period just after the last glaciers left central Ohio. Marks on the bones and their arrangement in three distinct clusters proved that the animal was killed by humans, who seemingly cached the remains for future use in a shallow lake. The team successfully identified and preserved the massive mammal’s gut contents, which allowed a new look into mastodon diets a dozen millenia ago (cedar twigs and sedge grasses along with seeds of waterlily and swamp buttercup). More notably, microbiologists were able to “reactivate” intestinal bacteria, which were for a time listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest living organisms known to science.

A mold of the fossil is now on display at the Burning Tree Golf Course; the original find has since been purchased by a museum in Japan.

After the first strange thud, the dredge operator who discovered the mastodon remains knew right away he had hit no ordinary rock. A little more digging revealed the skull peeking from the prehistoric muck (left). And after much more careful excavating, nearly 95 percent of the bones were recovered–the most complete find of any mastodon fossil and third largest on record.

Published November 2020