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MAMMOTH MYSTERIES: Why Huge Beasts Here? Who Killed Them?

October 4, 2015       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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As University of Michigan archaeologists sort the massive bones of a mammoth found buried in a farm field at Chelsea, near Ann Arbor, the question arises: what was such an animal doing here?

And, even more intriguing, who killed it?

According to Prof. Shepard Krech III, of Brown University, animals who lived in Michigan included exotic hulking tusked mammoths and mastodons, which towered elephant-like over almost all else on prairies and in boggy woodlands.

What would attract such behemoths to Michigan? Salt!

We have written of the Michigan Brine Basin in a recently published book, "Mysteries of Skull Island and the Alkali." Chemical rich brine drew Herbert H. Dow to Midland and the United Alkali Company of Liverpool England to Bay City about 1897.

Massive industries grew up on the banks of the Saginaw River here and the Tittabawassee River in Midland. Dow, of course, survived and grew to be a world leading chemical firm. The United Alkali's North American Chemical Company thrived until 1928 when it was purchased by Consumers Power Company. Its ruins (depicted in the book along with the original factory) still lie south of 41st Street, attracting generations of curious visitors.

The huge mastodont and mammoths craved salt that experts explain was necessary to their diet; without it, they might die.

Salt deposits accumulated in Michigan in shallow evaporative seas during Silurian and Devonian eras, approximately 300 to 400 million years ago. The upward crustal movement of the basin exposed one of the largest salt deposits in the world, explained J. Alan Holman, Michigan State University professor of paleontology. Holman has written a book, "Ancient Life of the Great Lakes Basin: Precambrian to Pleistocene," published by the University of Michigan Press in 1995.

Prof. Holman explains that massive animals like giant rodents and musk oxen, along with sea creatures like whales and walruses, lived here about 12,000 years ago. Two thousand years later they were all gone.

The prehistoric landscape of Michigan also included, Prof. Krech said: "Several types of slow-moving giant ground sloths as large as mammoths, a kind of giant armadillo, armored 2000-pound six-foot-long glyptodonts resembling nothing known today, single-hump camels, stocky six-foot-long capybaras, 500-pound tapirs, 300-pound giant beavers, four-horned antelopes, horses, bison-sized shrub oxen, stag-moose with fantastic multiple-palmated and -tined antlers, dire wolves whose large heads and powerful jaws made them resemble hyenas, huge fearsome and agile 1500-pound short-faced bears, scimitar-toothed cats which fed on mammoth young, and great saber-toothed cats that could gape, sharklike, opening their jaws to a one-hundred-degree angle before stabbing or ripping open their prey with their enormous canines.

"They all vanished," he said, "some at indeterminate times but many between 11,000 and 10,000 years ago, or at the moment or shortly after the moment that Paleoindians arrived. That coincidence has spawned debate as fierce as that over the question of human arrival and dispersal in the New World."

According to some theorists, the early peoples crossed a land "bridge" that stretched from Asia to North America in ancient times. They gradually multiplied and moved South and East gradually over the millenia.

"The Paleoindians almost surely came to the New World on foot, walking across land exposed when sea levels were much lower," wrote Dr. Krech. "The colder climate from 65,000 to 10,000 years ago locked water up in continental ice sheets and other ice masses, exposing where the Bering Strait is today a land mass known as Beringia.

"In one scenario, one hundred Paleoindians arrived on the Alberta prairies some 12,000 years ago, each year moved southward twenty miles and killed one dozen animals per person, and their population doubled every twenty years?all fairly modest assumptions except for the last. In only 300 years they numbered 100,000, spread two thousand miles south, and killed over ninety million 1000-pound animals. In more conservative scenarios it still took relatively few centuries to reach Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, and to hunt megafauna to their doom."

The mammoth whose bones were found at Chelsea supposedly was killed by Paleo-indians, who had learned to hunt in groups using spears, surrounding the huge prey to dispatch them.

The Chelsea find showed evidence the carcass of the beast was crudely preserved by sinking it in a pond, explained by scientists as an early form of preservation of the meat.

Several hundred of either the mastodont or mammoths have been found in Michigan over the years, according to anthropologists.

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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