LA GRANDE. Ore. — A fossil is a messenger from the past.
Eastern Oregon University now has such a message-carrier on campus — the partially fossilized remains of a mammoth or mastodon, recently recovered near Prineville by EOU students and faculty.
What information does this creature, which is at least 10,000 years old, have to share? The complete answer may not be known until the mid 2020s.
Faculty and students from EOU’s anthropology and biology departments are now beginning the long process of painstakingly cleaning and examining the partial remains of the creature.
“We will be working on this for three to five years,” said Rory Becker, an EOU anthropology professor who led a group of students on a dig at the Prineville area site in October with fellow anthropology professor Linda Reed-Jerofke and biology professor Joe Corsini.
The remains are of the front quarter of the creature. EOU professors and students hope to find out what happened to the rest of it.
“Where did the rest of it go? It is a bit of a mystery,” Corsini said.
One possibility is the remains were carried away by carnivores in Central Oregon when mammoths roamed. Corsini said the mammoth will be examined closely for teeth marks that could reveal another animal pulled its remains away.
Construction workers in a gravel quarry owned by Craig Woodward, an EOU alum, discovered the prehistoric remains earlier this year. He immediately alerted Eastern about the find. Woodward died not long after the bones were discovered and his family carried out his wish of making them available to Eastern.
The bones were 30 feet below the surface, according to an EOU news release, but only 6 inches of soil covered them when the party from EOU arrived. This meant they had to be exceedingly cautious about where they tread. EOU student Erin Blincoe noted she was surprised at one point to learn she was nearly standing on an ancient vertebrae.
“I had to be careful,” she said. “I did not want to damage it.”
The vertebrae were successfully removed from the site in addition to giant front-leg bones, including ulna, radius and humerus, as well as tusks and a cranium. Corsini said the animal may have been a juvenile because the ends of its long bones do not appear to be fused at the shaft.
To protect the bones found at the Prineville area site, they were packed in sediment and then covered with plaster before being transported to La Grande.
Some of the smaller bones, including teeth, may be enclosed within the larger sections that were carefully packed out. Corsini said he hopes the teeth can be found because they would help determine whether the creature is actually a mastodon rather than a mammoth. Mammoths and mastodons were similar elephant-like creatures.
The time period the mammoth or mastodon died will be determined later by dating the age of the sediment around it through a process known as optically stimulated luminescence. The OSL dating work will be done at a Utah State University, Becker said.
The sediment samples from the dig site have not been exposed to light for thousands of years. The sediment was placed in tubes in a manner to prevent light exposure.
While EOU faculty and students don’t yet know how far back in time they stepped during their dig, the magnitude of the opportunity it provided is not lost them. Some, like EOU student Hannah Wilhelm, were students new to anthropology who found themselves thrust into a graduate level atmosphere.
“It is a cool opportunity to experience this in an intro level class,” she said.
EOU student Lydia Hurty knows she might never be a part of something like again. She described it as “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”