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The bones of a mammoth that died more than 15,000 years ago in what’s now west-central Kansas could hold revolutionary clues for a group of Kansas University researchers.
But the scientists aren’t hoping to learn about the giant elephant relative that once roamed the Great Plains. They’re looking for evidence of humans — the earliest evidence of humans ever found in the middle of the country.
And, Rolfe Mandel says, they may find it.
But a hunch won’t be enough to disprove some scientists who still don’t believe that humans existed in North America before about 13,500 years ago.
“An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence,” said Mandel, a senior scientist for the Kansas Geological Survey and a professor of anthropology at KU. “So, we gotta really find something that’s irrefutable.”
The “smoking gun” Mandel and his colleagues are searching for is a connection between the remains of human-fashioned stone tools and bones from a mammoth, which were found about 150 feet apart on a bluff in Scott County.
Carbon dating has shown the mammoth remains to be about 15,500 years old, and if researchers can find a human-made tool underneath or close to a mammoth bone — or, if they’re lucky, part of a tool that was embedded in a bone — they’ll have evidence that humans lived in the Great Plains about 2,000 years earlier than previously thought.
It would be among the earliest evidence of humans found anywhere in North or South America, Mandel said.
Some findings in recent years have challenged the previous conventional belief that humans first arrived in the Americas about 13,500 years ago, when they were thought to have crossed the Bering Strait to arrive from Siberia.
But some scientists still believe that no humans were here before that age, referred to as Clovis.
That’s why it would be “extraordinary” for Mandel and other KU researchers to prove that humans lived in the Plains so long before the Clovis age, he said.
He believes it’s likely that the stone tool remains they’ve found likely were fashioned by humans either killing or scavenging the nearby mammoth, but they’ve not yet found definitive proof.
“You would think that if you were butchering a mammoth, you would be off to the side, sharpening your tools,” Mandel said.
The tools and the mammoth bones were found in the same layer of sediment on a property northeast of Scott City, where the bones were discovered in 2011 while the landowner was installing a terrace.
“It was fortuitous,” Mandel said. “That’s how it often is.”
But because the tools could have been, and the site had been, disturbed by construction, more proof is required that the two collections are related.
Mandel and his colleagues are on this mission because of the KU Odyssey Archaeological Fund, created in 2002 by a $1 million endowment from a Denver couple. Joe and Ruth Cramer made such endowments at six universities around the United States, each one creating a mission to find the oldest evidence of humans in a different region of the country.
Mandel directs the program at KU, which is devoted to the Midwest: to be specific, the area between the Rocky Mountains and Mississippi and from Kansas up to the Canadian border.
They’ve excavated materials at about 10 sites in Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri and Colorado, and they’ve surveyed other areas.
The crew this month completed its third visit to the Scott City site, which lasted about three weeks.
They returned with a new set of samples that they’ll analyze over the next several months, but they’ve still collected less than 10 percent of the mammoth’s skeleton.
The endowment pays for the project with about $60,000 in interest every year, and it’s designed to fund the effort in perpetuity. So even if Mandel and his colleagues confirm that humans were around at the same time as that mammoth, they won’t be done searching for discoveries.
“There will always be that search for something older,” Mandel said.