One day in 2010 a farmer called John was foraging for berries with his two sons in the back yard of their family home in Oskaloosa, Iowa. As they scoured the land for fruit, John noticed something sticking out of the mud in a dried-up creek bank.
Down on his hands and knees, John took a good look at this new discovery. It was big, that was for sure, but to begin with, he wan’t entirely sure what he was looking at. And then he started to notice patterns. This wasn’t just some rock jutting out of the mud. It was something else entirely.
As John and his sons started to dig out their discovery, they surely didn’t know that they were putting into motion a chain of events that would reveal what life in Iowa was like some 12,000 years ago. And it was all thanks to John noticing the object and announcing, “Boys, that’s a bone, that’s a really big bone.”
John had spotted a telltale marrow line on the object. Indeed, it turned out that it was a leg bone from an ancient animal. And it was surely a big animal, because the knee joint was around the same size as a soccer ball. But there was even more to come.
John kept his discovery relatively quiet. It was on his land, after all. So for the next two years he dug on alone, uncovering even more bones in the creek. It was then that he decided to call in some experts to help with the excavation and figure out what was going on.
By the time John called in the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, he’d already dug up almost 20 different bones. He had ribs, he had phalanges and he had vertebrae. And they all belonged to one of the most intriguing creatures that has ever walked the Earth.
While looking for berries, John had inadvertently discovered the remains of a woolly mammoth. In fact, he’d done a lot more than that. He’d found one of the biggest treasure troves of mammoth bones that the region had ever seen.
In 2012, the archaeological dig started in earnest. What had begun as a family project became something much bigger. Over the next few years hundreds of volunteers would carefully dig in John’s land. And while the first discovery was impressive, by the end of their time there they’d uncovered something even more epic.
In fact, by 2015, bones from three different mammoths had been found. While none of the skeletons are complete, it still remains one of the most important discoveries of Ice Age bones in Iowa. And it gives an intriguing glimpse not just into the lives of the mammoths, but of entire region.
Initially, researchers thought that the creatures discovered were Columbian mammoths. These creatures roamed most of what we now call the United States. And while finding such an abundance of bones would be rare, the chances were that they’d belong to this species.
But examination of the teeth of the mammoths that have been found revealed that in fact these remains belonged to the smaller – and much rarer in Iowa – woolly mammoth. This makes the find even more interesting, because the stomping grounds of the two species of mammoths seems to have very rarely coincided. That means John’s discovery could shed light on more than was first expected.
But it’s not just the number of bones discovered that make this find so important. It’s that they belong to so many different mammoths and that both large and small bones have been discovered together. It allows archaeologists to paint a detailed picture of the time the mammoths were alive.
There are bite marks on some of the bones as well. And because of the proximity of the different bones in the find, it seems that they haven’t been moved around too much. The mammoths appeared to have died and decayed on the ground, before sinking to their resting place in the creek bank.
But there’s more to the bite marks than just that. They could give a glimpse into the other animals that lived around the time of the mammoth’s death. And it’s not just the remains of these Ice Age beasts that the paleontologists are interested in, either.
They’re also performing research on soil and plant samples that have been found in the trenches that the volunteers have dug up on John’s land. This will allow them to build a bigger picture of the way the mammoths lived, which in some ways is far more important than figuring out how they died.
For John though, there are plenty of questions that remain. One of which is what he’s going to do with all the bones that have been discovered on his property. He currently has a variety of different mammoth bones just lying around in his house.
Talking to ABC News, he suggested that when the digging is done, he might need to add another room to his house. A place where he can try his best at putting the different mammoths back together again. Nevertheless, he admitted that he’s still not entirely sure about the best way to proceed.
For the university, though, the research doesn’t stop once the bones have been excavated. While John has to ponder what to do with his property, there’s a lot more work to be done elsewhere. That’s to make sure every piece of information possible is extracted from the literally mammoth find.
There are a number of tests the university can run. These include looking at the oxygen, carbon and nitrogen isotopes contained in the bones. This will uncover a wealth of information, from what temperature the water the mammoths drank was, to a good estimate of when they died.
It’s strange to think how such a chance find can give scientists a glimpse into the distant past. But thanks to John’s berry picking, the University of Iowa is now in possession of a piece of history. And once that’s going to reveal even more about how the world was thousands of years ago.