A mammoth discovery: 14,000-year-old tusk found in Alaska

Published: Apr. 11, 2017 at 11:51 AM AKDT
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A group of archaeologists has discovered a tusk from what may have been the last surviving mammoth on the Alaska mainland.

“This is exactly the kind of find we were hoping for, and that we knew was possible in interior Alaska,” said Kathryn Krasinski, a professor with Adelphi University who was one of the leads on the dig. “And yet, it’s so hard to find.

“I’ve been looking for almost two decades,” she said.

Krasinski and 22 other archaeologists, all representing 19 different universities across the United States, found a 14,000-year-old mammoth tusk in the Delta Junction area in 2016.

The dig site, called the Holzman site, lies along the west bank of Shaw Creek, a tributary of the Tanana River. Initial excavations had revealed ivory fragments, bone fragments, and stone tools hidden in deeply-buried deposits. After a month of work at the site last summer, the group knew they were at the end of their dig, when suddenly, the tip of the tusk appeared.

"They said, 'Hey, we've got something here,'" Krasinski said. "We couldn't tell what it was yet, but we knew it was big."

The tusk is 155 centimeters or a little more than five feet long from tip to tip, and was almost five-and-a-half feet under the ground surface.

"Having a tusk like that in an archaeological site that's so highly definitive gets us closer to how humans and mammoths were interacting," Krasinski said.

The discovery is especially significant, she said, since the area of the discovery around Shaw Creek has been an important place for some of the first humans on the continent. A report from the team states that "the discovery contributes to a growing body of evidence, suggesting extensive use of the middle Tanana Valley during the Late Glacial period."

“These kinds of discoveries tend to happen when you’re packing up, getting ready to leave,” Krasinski said, “and that happened for us too.”

Dr. Charles Holmes, who has done extensive work for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Dept. of Anthropology, said the discovery was exciting for the whole team.

“For archaeological sites, this is pretty rare,” he said. “To be associated with human remains, we probably have three or four good cases discovered in the last 20 years.”

After recent radiocarbon analysis, the tusk – which could have something to do with the cultural behavior of humans 14,000 years ago, or could be a piece of a more complete mammoth skeleton after the animal died of natural causes – was determined to be the youngest mammoth tusk found thus far in all of Alaska, besides St. Paul Island.

“There are younger ones on St. Paul Island,” Krasinski said, “but there’s no evidence that there were humans on the island at that time, which is probably a big reason why the mammoths survived so much longer.”

Krasinski and her team found the site of the tusk discovery in 2015. The fragments they'd already found there kept them coming back.

“We thought that was a good enough reason to come back and learn more about the site,” she said, “so we returned with a much larger crew.”

Krasinski said the team plans to return to Alaska for more field work.

“I’m pretty excited,” she said, “and hopeful that we can answer even more of those questions about what mammoths’ lives were like.”

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