Hebior Mammoth, Kenosha Public Museum


Kenosha is Rewriting History - By Dan Joyce, Director of Kenosha Public Museums

Just over 21 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. Clearing away soybeans. Soon, we were driven off the open field by a hailstorm. Not an auspicious start. As crazy as it sounds, that unusual but simple action of walking, wacking and getting hit by hail, started a chain reaction that 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 28 years earlier, 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 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 anthropology in New Mexico, working at the museum and at the archaeological site of Blackwater Draw, where in the 1930's they unearthed the first mammoths definitively butchered by humans - the Clovis culture. Again, accidentally drawn to mammoths. Years later having my DNA tested, my paternal ancestors lived 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 15 hours a day, six days a week, we had unearthed the remains of a 32-year-old male mammoth that had been butchered by Native Americans 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 were known from the west. The Chicago Tribune front page headline was "Ancient Beast Buys Farm" and my photo was on the front page above the fold - and I wasn't a politician or a criminal! The news went worldwide and Kenosha was on the map as a place where the earliest Americans lived and ate (well!). TV crews descended on the site. It was mayhem for three days. The press coverage led to two temporary exhibits on the mammoth, a one season Kenosha Mammoths baseball team and a city that was behind the development of a new property for the Kenosha Public Museum to showcase the mammoth and the museum’s other great collections. One museum led to another [Dinosaur Discovery Museum] and another [Civil War Museum] and now Kenosha has one of the best museum campuses (including the Kenosha History Center and Southport Light Station Museum) in the Midwest. The opportunity for a museum professional to build a museum during their career is rare. I am fortunate in being able to build two and renovate another.

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 Native Americans 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 succeed, but it took 20 years and the efforts of many others. Over those twenty years, we completed almost endless analysis on the mammoth proving the validity of the site and its dates. Last October, 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 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 now). For the last two decades the Schaefer Mammoth (one of our Kenosha treasures) has made archaeologists look harder for pre-Clovis sites and they have found them. We are no longer in the mist before the well-documented Clovis culture - there are others now. Unlike twenty years ago, pre-Clovis cultures are a fact now. They are in the college textbooks and another generation is looking harder and finding more evidence changing our ideas about how people adapted to the Ice Age and when they came 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 people of Kenosha and travelers who visit our museums, and feel fortunate that in my dual career as a museum professional and an archaeologist, that I have had the opportunity to do so many unique and interesting things.


This originally appeared in the KACVB Blog, author Dan Joyce, Director of the Kenosha Public Museums, May 23, 2014


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