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15,000 Year Old Mammoth, Burning Man, and Petroglyphs

Clues to our pre history ancestors, Mammoth in the Black Rock Desert, and cool petroglyphs in Nevada.

There are two parts to this post, 1). Information I’ve known for a while on a Mammoth dig that happened back in 1981 out in the Black Rock Dessert, North of Reno, NV. Yes, this is the same area where Burning Man takes place every year! And 2). Just this summer, information on 15,000 year old petroglyphs have been released. They were found 10 years ago near Lake Pyramid, NV. The information is just now being revealed. Freaking cool, huh?

So, where am I going with this? It’s just further cool evidence that early humans (our ancestors) inhabited North America much earlier than previously thought!

Let’s start with the furry critter, the mammoth. In 1979, Steve Wallmann, a logger from Oregon, found the exposed bones on the ancient Lake Lahontan (now the dry Black Rock Dessert). He reported his findings to archeologist, Dr. C. William Clewlow of the University of Los Angeles. The following summer, Clewlow and Paleontologist, Richard Reynolds were guided back to the site by Wallmann, and sure a shootin’, the mammoth it was! Tusks and all! A more detailed read of the findings and dig can be found here on the Division of Museums and History website.


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Now, Sessions S. Wheeler, author of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, noted that the team on the dig were hoping for a complete animal skeleton. They almost found a complete one. However, a rear leg, part of a front leg, and most of the backbone were missing. 

This is where it gets good. (rub those hands together – SLOWLY!)

…”A stone scraper which had been sharpened by chipping was found near one of the tusks, and a milk tooth of a sabre tooth tiger was recovered” (you know that big tooth we all think about when Sabre Tooth is mentioned?). To quote S. Wheeler further, …”flakes of rock, undoubtedly produced during the shaping and sharpening of stone knives, scrapers and projectile points, protruded here and there from the walls of the dig trench to a depth of more than six feet below the vegetation stratum.”

Interestingly, the bones of the mammoth were not fossilized (more coolness!) and they had to be handled with extreme care before removal. The team had to coat them with plasters and wrappings before hauling out. So, where were the missing bones of the legs and backbone? We’re not sure, but the other bones were “piled” in a manner indicating no anatomical relationship. If animals ripped the mammoth apart, the bones likely would have been scattered far and wide. This leads the researchers to believe Early Humans were involved. 

This “bad boy” is a very large Columbian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi). I love saying that. HE, a big bull mammoth, stands 13 feet at the shoulder and weighing 6 1/2 tons! This is considerably larger than most Columbians and has caused lots of debate. His size puts him in the range that of the Imperial Mammoth species – to be continued on the research.

Dr. Clewlow once commented on this general area of the Black Rock Desert, “I know of no geographical locality in this hemisphere which has yielded such an abundance and variety of Early Man materials. In the quantity and quality of Paleo-Indian data, the Black Rock Desert must be thought of as a New World Olduvai Gorge.

Even though the evidence of that early dig is still a bit inconclusive about Early Man’s presence during that same time slot of the mammoth, it provides some great bedtime stories AND the possibilities for what lies out and around that playa! So, the next time you’re in Carson City, Nevada, check out our “Columbian” at the Nevada State Museum, Carson City

So, all that mammoth talk is fine and dandy, but if you’re still with me on this post, I had a #2. The petroglyph finds in the same general area, Pyramid Lake area!  The recent NPR audio interview can be found here. Give a listen!

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Larry Benson, University of Colorado, Paleoclimatologist, is finally getting his findings out to the public. He discovered a heap of big boulders in the desert 10 years ago, but the story is just now getting out. The abstract of the original paper can be found here in the Journal of Archeological Science. The rock pile is mostly tufa rock, which is a variety of limestone. A very large pile, with almost every surface being carved with geometric shapes, treelike images, and very creative geometric patterns. This art is very complex and this sample is very early in the history of humans on our continent. The dating on the rocks are still incomplete, but according Benson, he estimates the artwork to be 10,000 years old and possibly pushing 15,000+ years old.

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What does this all mean? It’s very likely that Early Man (oops, and women) inhabited what we now call North America, long before we once thought. Mammoth discoveries with artifacts created by humans around the dig site and then to find very detailed and intricate art work discovered recently dating older than 12,000-15,000 years ago is awesome! Keep in mind, the recent art work is VERY detailed….

So, ponder this for a bit, as art evolved in North America during this prehistory, when was the most simplistic piece of art drawn? 15-20,000 years ago? How long did these designs take? Were the stories and designs passed on from generation to generation to add and to complete? We may never know all these answers, but for now, it sure is fun to wonder, isn’t it?

Now go draw something!





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