A Mystery That Took 13,200 Years to Crack

Hidden in the tusk of a 34-year-old mastodon was a record of time and space that helped explain his violent death.
Eric Bronson / Michigan Photography / University of Michigan Museum of Natural History

In 1998, outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana, a hydraulic excavator at Buesching’s Peat Moss & Mulch stripped back a layer of peat and struck bone in the underlying marl. Bone is the right word: This bone belonged to a mastodon, and mastodons are still fresh bodies in the dirt, not petrified fossils entombed in the rock. Although they might be popularly imagined living way back with the dinosaurs, the Ice Age megafauna went extinct only moments ago, in staggered waves over human history. The last mammoth, for instance, died after the first pyramids were built. Yet we know little of the lives of these animals with which we shared the planet for hundreds of thousands of years.

The mastodon pulled from the Indiana muck now lives in the state museum, looming over visitors, a stand-in for his entire species and epoch. Such relics rarely get to speak of their own lives. That this animal, nicknamed Fred, might have had his own biography is betrayed only by the ominous hole on the underside of his skull. “It got a tusk tip into the cheek,” says the University of Michigan paleontologist Daniel Fisher, grimly signaling to the roof of his mouth. That is, the mastodon was probably killed by another one. But inscribed in Fred’s own bowed tusks scientists have found a “ticker-tape record of his entire life.” Written in bone are 13,200-year-old memories of a mastodon living in the twilight days of his species. He migrated across the Midwest with the seasons, living in a world about to change forever.

Release Date: 06/30/2022
Tags: Museum of Natural History