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.
Crosscut archive image.

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

Seattle's early development turned up more than just dirt when they brought in all those backhoes.

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.

A combination of hunting and climate change seems to be responsible for their extinction, though that is still debated. Nevertheless, it would seem that Seattle is not only built on a foundation of glacially deposited silt and clay. It is at least partly built on the remains of prehistoric animals who moved in as the glaciers retreated.

Perhaps the most important prehistoric find of the era is "Meg," the giant ground sloth (Megalonyx jeffersoni) dug up at Sea-Tac airport in February, 1961. A crew from Sellen Construction uncovered the bones of this 12,000-year-old creature while sinking an anchor for a runway lighting tower. The excavation equipment destroyed the skull, but most of the sloth was found intact in soggy ground and it is now reconstructed and on display at the Burke Museum with a new head. It is impressive, with enormous claws and size reminiscent of a huge grizzly. It was, however, an herbivore with soft teeth. It was too big for climbing trees, but it could use its massive claws to pull down tasty branches and strip them of greenery.

One story I read reported that analysis of "dung balls" recovered from the bone site indicated the sloth was likely feeding on alder trees. Who here can't imagine a soggy stand of alder? Meg died in a wet area of glacial melt that became a bog before it became an airport.

The Meg find was significant, contemporary accounts say, because it was the first of its species found in Washington state and not simply a random bone but a mostly complete specimen. The find also helped generate publicity of the UW's new carbon-14 laboratory (opened in '58), which tested samples of the peat found around the bones.

The ground sloth is named for the first American to find and study the bones of one — Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson believed them at first to be the bones of a lion-like creature (just look at those claws!) that could still be living, perhaps in the unexplored wilds of the continent. He wrote, "In the present interior of our continent there is surely space and range enough for elephants and lions." And when he said lions, without knowing it he meant giant ground sloths. President Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to keep their eyes peeled for rare critters. The expedition didn't find any sloths or mammoths but they did encounter prehistoric fossils which they described for the boss in their journals.

In the '60s, the go-to guy for fossils was a Burke Museum geologist and paleontologist with the wonderful name of Prof. V. Standish Mallory (know to his friends as Stan). He was sometimes photographed in the paper standing with workers at construction sites, looking tweedy in coat and tie while holding bones as Sherlock Holmes might handle a curious clue. Mallory was the man who could tell you if a bone belonged to an ancient mammoth, mastodon, bison, horse, hippo, sloth or, as in one case, a modern whale.

One reason for the outbreak of fossil publicity in the early '60s was probably public interest in the construction of the new Burke Museum at the UW. The new Burke was built during the world's fair period. Contracts were let in April, 1961 (same month the Needle was started) and it opened to the public in '64.

As we were envisioning the future, we were also making sure the Burke's important collections had a permanent home. The Space Age might have had our attention, but news consumers also knew that the New Frontier rested on foundations that, literally, were built on the old bones of a much more ancient one.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.