Archive for Monday, August 8, 2005

Road crew in Wichita unearths prehistoric tusk

August 8, 2005


— Archeologists will examine what appears to be the tusk of a prehistoric animal discovered late last week by crews working on a Wichita freeway construction project.

On Saturday, the day after the find, a Wichita State University geologist said it probably came from a mammoth or mastodon. The city turned the matter over to the Kansas Department of Transportation, which will call on archeologists for further investigation.

The finding caused a bit of a stir locally, with police due to keep the area under round-the-clock surveillance until further investigation to determine the significance of the piece is completed.

But similar findings are not that unusual for Kansas. Rolfe Mandel, a geoarcheologist at Kansas University, said pieces of mammoth and mastodon tusks turn up throughout the state. The rest of their skeletons have usually been washed away by time or scavengers.

"It's not unusual to periodically turn up mammoths," said Mandel. "Really, you can find them just about anywhere in the landscape." He said that just a week before someone brought him a mammoth tooth from a Wichita area construction site.

Mammoths were the largest land mammals known to have lived in North America, growing up to 13 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, according to the Kansas Geological Survey. The slightly smaller mastodons had teeth designed to chew a wider variety of foods.

Mammoths ranged along the front of the glaciers and southward as far as Texas and Florida during the Ice Age. In Kansas, their lives overlapped with the Clovis people, a nomadic group that likely came over the Bering Strait to to what is now America.

Many archeologists believe mammoths became extinct because of climatic changes, while others think they may have been over-hunted and that predators such as saber-toothed tigers also died out as their prey disappeared.

The item found Friday was discovered as crews were scraping away the final grade of the old roadway was about 17 feet below ground level.

"Another foot deeper and it probably would have been gone forever," said construction site supervisor Scott Middleton said. The workers tried at first to hand-excavate about three feet of the find, then decided to leave it to archeologists.

No archeologists or paleontologists had visited the site yet, but Wichita State geologist John Gries was there Saturday.

Based on bone density and diameter, Gries believes it's a mammoth or mastodon tusk, said Kathy Morgan, senior planner with the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historic Preservation Division.

"It's an exciting thing," she said.

Alan Moore, visiting a friend who is the president of a local museum, got a chance for a look at the find.

"It's pretty amazing," he said. "It helps you realize how long this earth has been around. No telling what else might be deeper below."


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