The owner of a gravel company discovered a skeleton in his company’s backyard.
No, it’s not human. It’s an almost complete skeleton of about a 30-40-thousand-year-old mammoth. That’s right, mammoth.
The owner, who’s company is in southern Ellis County, was mining through sediment on the property in May when his backhoe hit something that didn’t feel right, said Sunday Crider, a paleontologist on the dig sight. The backhoe grazed and slightly damaged a tusk when the owner hit the bone, but other than that, the skeleton is practically in pristine condition, said Tom Vance, the dig site director and a Navarro College professor and paleontologist.
“There are two other finds (in Ellis County), “ Vance said. “One going back to the 1920s and this were in Northern Ellis County, and then there was another one not far from Lake Bardwell. But those were just fragments of maybe a molar or an unidentifiable bone of a mammoth. Certainly, not a skeleton like we see here. This one appears to be articulated. That means the bones are where you’d expect to find them and because of that, we think this animal died right here on this very spot.”
That owner then told friend Ken Wolaver, who happened to be a past student of Vance’s. Now for 12 days, excluding the rained-out ones, Vance, who is site director, and Crider, who has been on paleontology digs with Vance in the past, have brought selected, interested volunteers to the location to help uncover the animal.
Each volunteer must sign a waiver of liability as well as a non-disclosure agreement regarding the location of the site. Vance and Crider both asked the Waxahachie Daily Light to not disclose the location or the owner’s name to help protect the “scientifically valuable specimen” to learn as much as possible about when the mammoth existed and how the mammoth existed, and to keep out those seeking financial gain from the discovery.
The mammoth does belong to the landowner, who wasn’t available for comment by press time, and is still in the process of deciding what to do with the discovery, Vance and Crider confirmed.
“A this point, we’ve uncovered a tremendous amount,” Vance said. “The way the skeleton is positioned, it’s laying on its side and there are few unusual things about this. For one, both tusks are present. Typically, when you come across something like this, the tusks are totally separate and often lost. They fall apart and deteriorate real fast because they’re in layers.”
The diggers also uncovered part of the skull, the lower jaw, various neck vertebrae and back vertebrae, two shoulder blades, two collar bones and a number of other limb bones, as well as ribs and the pelvis. From the diameter of the tusks and the shape of the pelvis, the paleontologists are thinking the mammoth was female, Vance said. They call her "Ellie May." The sediment and gravel the mammal was found in is how the diggers are determining how old the skeleton is, Vance said.
“We think she may have been 20 years of age when she died, but that’s all we can guess right now until we can get a better look at the molars of the animal,” Vance said.
Often when animas die, scavengers or predators will attack them and scatter the bones. Water can also reposition bones, Vance said, and even other mammoths would reposition bones similar to how elephants often do. The one in southern Ellis County appears to be untouched, Vance said.
“It does confirm, definitely, the existence of mammoths in Ellis County,” Vance said. “This may have been part of a herd because they’re thought to have traveled in herds.”
About an hour south in Waco is another mammoth site called the Waco mammoth Site, Vance said, and there were 22-24 individual mammoths found there. Most of those were females, which meant the herd was matriarchal, which is typical elephant behavior, too, Vance said. It’s too early to tell at this point whether this has any connection to the Waco site.
“It’s exciting, it’s a discovery. It’s seeing something that nobody else has,” Vance said. “Being involved with it also, it just adds to the excitement, to the expectation. Every time you turn over a little shovel of dirt, you come across something you haven’t seen or that anyone else has seen. This is something that would really, I think, should interest anybody in Ellis County because this animal walked across our backyard, probably about 40 thousand years ago.”
While Vance has helped uncover mammoths before, like one in Limestone County, the volunteers see this as a chance to not only learn about past history, but live out a dream of discovering something incredible, they said.
“I skipped out on my 30th reunion for this,” said Waxahachie resident Christine Drozdowski, who heard about the site from her supervisor at the concrete plant she works at. “I’ve never gotten to do anything like this before, but it’s like one of those little childhood dreams I always had. I work at a cement plant, and so when I have to go down to the quarry, I’m always looking for stuff. I’ve found shells and stuff down there and I get all excited about them and bring them back, but getting to do something like this is just — I had a hard time sleeping last night, to get here today.”
At this time, it’s unclear how long the excavation for the Ellis County mammoth will take, Vance said, stating it could take months, it could take years. Also, Vance and Virginia Friedman, a geologist at the sit, will be collecting and recording data throughout the dig to preserve their findings, depending on what the owner decides to do. The pair will then write a paper together to present in 2015 at the International Paleontological Congress, a global meeting devoted to Palaeontology throughout the world. First, however, they’ll have to determine the exact age.
Friedman will be gathering samples from the site to send off to a lab, possibly in Colorado, to determine the age of the mammal, she said. It’s important to record as much research as possible because it gives a deeper look into history, she said.
The site isn’t open to the public for visitation, but Vance said he’s hoping to bring his students down to the area to get some hands-on experience. Those interested in volunteering can search for "Ellis County mammoth Site" on Facebook.
“This find is connected to so many things around here,” said Wolaver, who was at the site on Saturday. “This is connected to so many things around here. I grew up seeing people hunt Indian artifacts all around here. I have boxes of artifacts from this area. Some of these artifacts go back thousands and thousands of years, some of them only go back 150 years, and this goes back 30-40 thousand years. The people out here, they thrive on this. You either have a passion for it, or you don’t. For me, it’s finding answers and going back into the past and what I’ve been walking on all these years. We had no idea what all was under our feet.”