Finding Mammoths

3/8/2018 - Guest Blogger

Dan Joyce, Director of the Kenosha Public Museums, WISCONSIN Mammoths

Twenty-five years ago I did something that would irrevocably change my life. With my friend Dave Wasion, I walked out into a Kenosha County soybean field with a weed wacker and started cutting. It was the beginning of August 1992. We were looking for a mammoth. Soon, we were driven off the open field by a hailstorm. Not an auspicious start. But as crazy as it sounds, that unusual but simple action of walking, wacking and getting hit by hail started a chain reaction I could never have foreseen.

After following a long trail of hints, clues and proverbial breadcrumbs, Dave and I ended up in a farm field where in 1964, the end of a mammoth bone had been unearthed by a tiling machine and donated to the Kenosha Public Museum. In the intervening time, I had worked at the Field Museum in Chicago (where I met my wife and fellow archaeologist/mammoth digger) and often, before opening, stood underneath the mammoth skeleton, sipping my morning coffee, inexplicably drawn to these huge animals. I followed that up with getting a graduate degree in archaeology in New Mexico, working at the Blackwater Draw museum/archaeological site, where in the 1930's they unearthed the first mammoths definitively butchered by humans - the Clovis culture. Again, accidentally drawn to mammoths. I spent several summers in Alaska doing archaeological work and each summer I found many mammoth bones, one summer I found two nine foot tusks. Years later having my DNA tested, I found out that my paternal ancestors lived 20,000 years ago in what is now the Ukraine, hunting mammoths and living in mammoth bone framed houses - perhaps it was fate?

After walking into that field, two long summers passed. Working 12-16 hours a day, six days a week, we had unearthed the remains of a 32-year-old male mammoth that had been butchered by American Indians during the closing years of the Ice Age. It was big news - the first mammoth kill site east of the Mississippi River. Just over 20 mammoth kill sites were known from the west. The Chicago Tribune front page headline was "Ancient Beast Buys Farm". My photo was on the front page above the fold - and I wasn't a politician or a criminal!

The news went worldwide, Kenosha was on the map as a place where the earliest Americans lived and ate (well!). TV crews descended on the site. The extensive press coverage led to two temporary exhibits on the mammoth, a one season Kenosha Mammoths baseball team, and a new museum that would showcase the mammoth and the museum’s other extensive collections. The Dinosaur Discovery Museum and The Civil War Museum followed. Now Kenosha has one of the best museum campuses (including the Kenosha History Center,  Southport Light Station Museum, and Kemper Center's Durkee Mansion) in the Midwest. The opportunity for a museum professional to build a museum during their career is rare. I am fortunate to have been involved in building two and renovating a third.

It is even more rare to have the opportunity to dramatically change how we view our (pre)history. There was more to the story of the mammoth. After twenty years of scientific research on the Schaefer Mammoth and other mammoth and mastodon sites in Kenosha County, myself and my colleagues have proven that American Indians were in North America 1500 years earlier than previously thought. These "pre-Clovis" people were here 14,500 years ago. The scientific evidence and dogma for the previous 70 years was that the first Americans came into the continent 13,000 years ago. Changing 70 years of published fact was a daunting task that I was fortunate enough to be a part of and succeed in, but it took 20 years. Over those twenty years, my colleagues and I completed almost endless analysis on the mammoth proving the validity of the site and its dates. In 2012, I was one of 32 invited speakers to the Paleoamerican Odyssey Conference in Santa Fe. This conference occurs about every 15 years and concentrates on the archaeology of the first people who came into North, Central and South America. My paper was on the Kenosha mammoths and mastodons that show butchering evidence (there are four sites in Kenosha now). For the last two decades the Schaefer Mammoth, being one of the earliest archaeological sites in North America, made archaeologists look harder for other pre-Clovis sites and they have found them. We are no longer in the mist before the well-documented Clovis culture - there are other sites the same age as Schaefer now. Unlike twenty years ago, pre-Clovis cultures are a fact. They are in the college textbooks and another generation is looking harder and finding more evidence expanding our ideas about how people adapted to the Ice Age and when walked to our half of the world. My paper was published in a book entitled "PaleoAmerican Odyssey" along with many other fascinating papers.

I feel very fortunate that it all started with a weed wacker. I am thankful for the support of the museum, the interest of Kenoshans, museum visitors from around the world and my fellow scientists. I have had the opportunity to do many unique and interesting things because of a long ago unfortunate day in the life of a mammoth and a weed-whacker.

By Dan Joyce

Director, Kenosha Public Museums

Guest Blogger

Contributor to the Visit Kenosha Blog

Guest blogs are produced by visitors to the Kenosha Area, local residents who want to share their hometown with others, business leaders, and other people invovled in the tourism industry.