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In the mud of Lake Pleasant, a mammoth find

Monday, February 28, 2000

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

George Moon, a scuba diver, didn't know what he had in June 1991 when he pulled a big chunk of bone out of the muck and mire 20 feet below the surface of glacial Lake Pleasant.

  This fellow at the Carnegie Museum of Natural history is a relative of the beast found at the bottom of Lake Pleasant. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

"When I saw it in the lake, it looked like maybe a fisherman had snagged it and pulled it partially out of the silt," Moon said. "It was three feet long with a V-shaped socket and I knew it was definitely not from a cow or horse. I came up with it thinking I'd found a dinosaur."

Not quite.

But it was a mammoth find nonetheless.

Moon took the bone down the road to M. Jude Kirkpatrick, an anthropology professor at Gannon University in Erie, who identified it as the scapula, or shoulder blade, of a woolly mammoth -- a shaggy, long-tusked, five- to six-ton ancestor of the elephant.

And the rest -- as they are wont to say in anthropology and paleontology circles -- is prehistory.

Over the next two months, Moon and a team of five divers secretively slipped below the surface of the 64-acre lake in eastern Erie County more than 30 times to pull up more of the mammoth.

"We tried to do the work without setting up a grid like at a normal anthropological dig because that would have laid it out for everyone else, and we were very worried about being swarmed and having the site disturbed," Moon said. "We found what looked like big fingernails that turned out to be teeth, and 6 to 8 feet from the jawbone we found the tusks under two feet of mud."

The longest of the tusks measured 8 feet, 9 inches from end to end.

While more bones were being brought to the surface, Kirkpatrick set up a lab at Gannon to clean and preserve them, and contacted Daniel Fisher, a nationally known paleontologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who agreed to study the find.

Mammoths lived 9,000 to 13,000 years ago, as did their cousins, the mastodons. Both were hairy herbivores about 10 feet tall at the shoulder, and both are related to the modern elephant. The way to tell them apart is by looking at their teeth -- mastodons have bigger teeth because they browsed for twigs and small woody plants in addition to grasses, while mammoths dined on grass.

Skeletal remains of both animals have been found throughout the Northeastern and Southwestern United States, although the distribution varies. In the Great Lakes region, mastodons outnumbered mammoths by 10 to 1, while the opposite ratio holds in the Southwest.

In Michigan, Fisher said, they've found 250 mastodons, but only about 30 mammoths. He is studying mammoth or mastodon remains from about two dozen sites.

The Moon Mammoth, as it is now known, was a young but mature male in his early 20s, according to the dental and tusk records, developed by Fisher.

He said the mammoth from Lake Pleasant is noteworthy because its remains are among the most complete discovered in the Great Lakes region -- all that's missing is the upper head.

It's also noteworthy -- and this tied in to the headless thing -- because the bones are scratched in a way that Fisher believes indicate the animal was killed and placed in the cold lake water by Paleo-American man for storage. Moon and the other divers also found dumbbell-shaped stones around the remains in the lake that may have been used to weight the butchered pieces of meat, and fibers that could have come from ropes or nets.

"There is evidence of human association in the marks on some of the bones and the pattern of the remains," Fisher said. "A good case can be made that man hunted, killed and butchered the mammoth, then stored the remains in the lake for later retrieval."

About the head?

Fisher said it may have been eaten first.

"There are several ideas about that, but it seems that the brain and the mucus membrane in the nasal cavities of animals may not store well, and they taste good," Fisher said, adding that making the head the first course would be consistent with known practices in some Eskimo cultures.

When Fisher is done studying the Moon Mammoth, in three to five years, it will be returned to Pennsylvania. The state Museum Commission wants to display it in Harrisburg, but several Erie County museums have also expressed an interest.

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