Discovery of mammoth remains near Kenosha rewrote history

  • A workman digging a tile trench through Frank Schaefer's Kenosha farm unearthed mammoth remains that date back 14,500 years.

    A workman digging a tile trench through Frank Schaefer's Kenosha farm unearthed mammoth remains that date back 14,500 years. Courtesy of Dan Joyce, Kenosha Public Museum

  • The Schaefer farm find is one of the three oldest mammoths in North America. Another mammoth was located on a nearby property and is the most complete mammoth discovered. Both are on display at the Kenosha Public Museum.

    The Schaefer farm find is one of the three oldest mammoths in North America. Another mammoth was located on a nearby property and is the most complete mammoth discovered. Both are on display at the Kenosha Public Museum. Courtesy of Dan Joyce, Kenosha Public Museum

 
Updated 3/28/2018 12:38 PM

"How do we have traces of woolly mammoths?" asked a young patron from the Wauconda Area Library.

Remains of two of the world's oldest mammoths were found within 10 miles of Lake County, Illinois, in Kenosha County, Wisconsin.

 

Turn back the clock nearly 14,500 years to the end of the Ice Age, or Pleistocene era. A glacial ice sheet more than a mile thick extended from Canada to the northern half of the U.S. Supersized mammals, such as mastodons and their mammoth relatives, thrived in the year-round cold, with temperatures low enough to keep snow from totally thawing in summer.

When these specimens were stomping around, southeast Wisconsin was on the edge of a melting glacial ice sheet. Scrubby black and white spruce trees and tall grasses crossed the landscape. The glaciers bulldozed the earth to create troughs and land formations still visible today. Melting water formed lakes surrounded by mud and clay.

"The glaciers were melting -- retreating -- northward and there was glacial meltwater everywhere. A very wet environment that was good for a mammoth or mastodon that drank at least as much as an elephant -- as much as 50 gallons a day," said Dan Joyce, executive director of the Kenosha Public Museum, where visitors can marvel at the skeletal remains of two of the world's oldest mammoths.

Joyce and a team from Great Lakes Archaeological Research carefully excavated two farm sites in Kenosha in 1964 to uncover these giant mammals.

Archaeologists were stunned; no such mammoth evidence had been identified west of the Mississippi. Even more surprising, cut marks are noticeable on the forelegs and on other bones, evidence that stone tools were used to chop the giant beasts into smaller eating portions.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

An analysis reveals a missing tusk on one of the mammoths was removed after the animal died. Perhaps the Paleo-Indians who inhabited Kenosha needed the tusk to create other useful items.

Along with the bones and tools, the team found mammoth footprints preserved in the watery clay-silt that had been the lake where the beasts met their deaths.

Stone blades at the sites ranged in size from about one inch to about five inches long. These blades were used to cut meat from the animal carcass.

Joyce said the type of stone used by the Paleo-Indians is not as strong as the stone used in other blades from that time period. These and many other stone tools uncovered in Kenosha archaeological digs are on view at the museum.

Finding these mammoths meant rewriting the timeline and migration routes for the first humans who settled in North America.

Until Joyce and his team discovered these remains, archaeologists and other scientists believed humans came only through the Bering Strait and settled in the western regions of the United States, then migrated to Central and South America. But these two mammoth finds provide evidence of humans migrating to the Middle West about 1,500 years before others settled in the Americas, although no one knows definitely how or from which direction they traveled.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Mammoths died out when the glaciers fully melted. No one knows exactly why, but researchers are still trying to find answers.

"Some have looked at environmental change at the end of the Ice Age as a reason. There is no definitive answer," Joyce said. "Did they have few predators, or why does it seem like they were in abundance across North America just before they became extinct?

"There would be few predators of animals as large as a mammoth or mastodon. Sabre-toothed cats and short-faced bears might have been factors early on, but they died out before the mammoths and mastodons. One argument has always been that, as humans came into the continent, they over-hunted these animals. While we have evidence that they did hunt or at least scavenge them, we do not have evidence of over-hunting."

Find out more about mammoths, mastodons and dinosaurs at Kenosha's Public Museum and the Dinosaur Discovery Museum nearby. Both are free. Open daily except some holidays, the museum offers exhibits and hands-on activities. Search the museums' website at museums.kenosha.org.