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Mammoths and mastodons and ground sloths, Oh my!

Seattle's early development turned up more than just dirt when they brought in all those backhoes.
A sabertooth tiger takes down a giant sloth in an Los Angeles exhibit

A sabertooth tiger takes down a giant sloth in an Los Angeles exhibit Dalla Krentzel/Flickr

A replica of a mastodon at the Natural History Museum in Victoria, B.C.

A replica of a mastodon at the Natural History Museum in Victoria, B.C. Todd Anderson/Flickr

While I was researching my book on the Space Needle, I talked with George Schuchart, whose father — also named George — was a partner with Howard S. Wright in the construction business and an investor in the Needle. Young George told me that during the excavation of the Needle's foundation, workers dug up a mammoth tooth.

"My dad brought it home to show the family and I took it to Lowell Elementary School for show-and-tell. It was in a cardboard box, lined with a plastic bag," he told me. He remembered it being like a big molar, still wet, dirty and smelling like modeling clay.

It didn't make the newspapers, nor did the archaeological find halt the hurry-up Needle construction schedule. which saw the tower completed between April '61 and the topping of the tower in December. When I dug into the newspaper records, the only historic artifact I could find that had been uncovered at the Needle site was an old horseshoe.

The Needle was erected on land formerly occupied by a turn-of-the-century fire station, from the days when horse-power was done in the flesh. The Needle ironworkers hung the horseshoe above the supervisor's shack for good luck. George told me the prehistoric tooth had probably been donated to the Burke Museum, but a check there proved negative.

What I also learned browsing through newspaper archives and checking with the Burke was that, while Seattle was focused on the future in the early 1960s, it also was frequently digging up the past.

When we think about what might be beneath our feet, we envision Pioneer Square's "Underground" tours of old storefronts in basements. Digs have often turned up 19th century bottles and artifacts from Seattle's early settlement days, and sometimes, as at West Point in Magnolia, ancient native settlements. When people dig around here, cool stuff comes up out of the ground.

Maybe it was because of a rash of major city projects, or perhaps it was due to an interest in local history that seemed to coincide with our celebration of Century 21, but it seems like just about every major construction project in town in that period yielded the fossilized remains of ancient creatures that lived here in the late Pleistocene period; a period that ended around 10,000 years ago, as the glaciers retreated.

Prehistoric bones or teeth were dug up at the site of the new Seattle City Hall in 1961, at Sea-Tac airport, and while excavating the foundation for a new UW campus dorm that same year. They popped up during I-5 freeway construction near South Lake Union (at Yale & Mercer) in 1963 and at other sites. It seemed that bulldozers and shovels had a knack for turning up finds.

In the Burke's collection there are specimens from five different mammoth finds in the 1960s, all in or around greater Seattle, from downtown to Snohomish.

One was dug up on the site of the UW's Schmitz Hall in '68, and more multiple bone fragments were found at the construction site of the IBM building at 6th and Seneca in '63. From a fossil standpoint, hulking mammoths seem to have left the most commonly found evidence of their presence. The Burke counted eight mammoths found in Seattle in the '60s, which is about average, says Ron Eng, the Burke's geology collections manager. But it doesn't necessarily reflect all the finds reported in the press, or never reported officially (like the Needle's tooth). There are also some fossils at the Burke whose provenance is not clear.

We know that mammoths and mastodons survived into the era of human occupation, as they were hunted by early Northwest residents. The recent confirmation of a spear-point embedded in a mastodon bone found near Sequim emphatically makes that point, and it indicates that humans were hunting local megafauna for longer than previously understood.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Oct 19, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting article - liked hearing some history of the Burke, my grandson's favorite place - my niece did the paintings of the ground sloth and mammoth on the walls - it will be the site of my wedding in two week - we are old, so it seemed fitting to get married amongst the fossils!

Posted Fri, Oct 19, 1:46 p.m. Inappropriate

I keep thinking that, after the next big earthquake swallows up Pugetopolis, about 800 years from now future archaeologists are going to have great fun digging up our stuff buried in the mud. Our problem looking back has been that the artifacts of the local natives were mostly shaped out of wood or woven out of grasses and roots; so after a hundred years or so they returned undetected to their elemental origins. The major exception of course was Cape Alava out on the Olympic coast, where a big mud slide suddenly encased a village and its vegetative matter in a very effective anaerobic preservative, thus making it available for future generations to admire.

But since most of our contemporary junk is plastic made in China, it will live on nearly forever. I wonder if 800 years from now this garbage will somehow have managed to take on an aura of grace and beauty. Or will it look as ugly to our successors as it does to us?

woofer

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