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A Mammoth Celebration

by Jack MacRae,
Community Services & Education
The Conservationist, Spring 2002

It was the first day of summer, 1977. And although it was only a few weeks after school had let out for the year, three kids in particular were already bored. They were spending their day at Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville watching a man use a dragline to dig clay from the old field near their house. As they watched the large piece of equipment scoop soil from the ground, the children noticed something odd. Huge bones were sticking out of the pile of clay. The man operating the equipment had also noticed the unusual bones and stopped his work to investigate the contents of the bucket. As they looked over their peculiar find, the importance of the enormous bones slowly dawned on them. These three kids, Mark, Kelly and Rich, had just witnessed something special, for the man, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County employee Gary Jones, had just discovered the bones of a prehistoric woolly mammoth.

News spread quickly of the mysterious discovery. Everybody in the Forest Preserve District began talking about “Jones’ Bones.” By early the next morning, the educational and scientific staff were already at the site planning their strategy. Some of the larger bones had been cleaned and were being examined. The educated consensus was that the bones were from a prehistoric elephant, either a mastodon or a mammoth.

The District contacted major scientific institutions in the region and informed them of the discovery, but the institutions could only offer advice. They instructed District staff to work slowly and carefully, to uncover the bones without removing them, and to leave them in place, for the location of the bones might be a vital piece of information to the scientists.

Early Thursday morning, within 48 hours of the discovery, Dr. James Springer from Northern Illinois University visited the site. An expert in archaeological excavations, Dr. Springer and his team of students inspected the site and soon agreed to complete the scientific removal and ultimate preservation of the bones.

Soon, the local media were alerted to the find, and the discovery was made public. Forest Preserve District naturalists prepared a short educational program for the public. The beautiful summer weather brought out large crowds of interested onlookers. The following weekend, approximately 4,000 visitors trekked through the field to see the operation and to view the bones. Each night, groundwater was allowed to seep into the excavation area, flooding the bones and preventing unauthorized visits to the site.

By midsummer, over 1,000 bone fragments had been removed for study by Dr. Springer and his research team. Unfortunately, the skull, teeth, tusks and front limbs were never recovered. The absence of these bones was not unusual; the skulls of modern elephants that perish in water often become detached and float away from the body.

After several additional months of study at the NIU laboratory in DeKalb, close examination of the vertebrae revealed that they were from an adolescent woolly mammoth. This identification was a bit surprising to the researchers, as the mastodon was seemingly more common in our area than the mammoth. Through carbon-14 dating, it was determined that the animal died approximately 13,300 years ago.

Nobody knows how the Blackwell Mammoth died. Circumstantial evidence indicates that it became stuck in the wet soil and was unable to extricate itself. There is no proof that the animal was a victim of a group of primitive human hunters, although in nearby Kenosha County, Wisconsin, scientists have located several mammoth-butchering sites.

At the time of the discovery, the site was an old, dry agricultural field approximately 1/2 mile north of Mack Road and 1/4 mile east of the DuPage River. However, the soil indicated that the area had once been a wetland. It was this muck soil that ultimately protected the bones from bacteria and decomposition. Today, after the re-creation of the pre-settlement wetlands, the specific spot where the bones were found is now under several feet of water in McKee Marsh.

Although such discoveries are uncommon, the Blackwell Mammoth is not the only prehistoric mammal that has been found in our area. The skeletal remains of a mastodon were discovered in October 1963 along the East Branch of the DuPage River on the Glen Ellyn property of Judge Joseph Perry. Further south along the DuPage River, in Naperville, the bones of mammoth, mastodon and giant beaver have been found over the years. All in all, bones from prehistoric mammals have been found in nearly 200 sites in northeastern Illinois.

Science has been unable to determine why the prehistoric megafauna became extinct, but there are a few ideas. One thought suggests that the slowly warming climate reduced suitable mammoth habitat to the point that food and water became scarce for these large grazing and browsing animals. The support for this hypothesis is waning, however, as there are still hundreds of thousands of square miles of suitable mammoth habitat across Canada and Russia. Further, when layers of calcium in the tusks are examined, the great majority of mammoths show little sign of being malnourished at the time of death, which would be an indication of habitat loss.

A second hypothesis for the demise of the mammoth looks at the relationship between the animal and the spread of the human species across the globe. It has been proven that humans did hunt mammoths, but could all of these creatures have been hunted to extinction? Perhaps they succumbed to an unidentified, deadly hyperdisease, possibly even introduced by early human immigrants (or, more likely, their dogs). As is so often the case in science, the answer probably involves a complex combination of factors.

Mammoths, like the great majority of life forms that have existed on earth the last billion or so years, have become extinct. They are gone forever. The notion that a mammoth can be brought back to life, either by selectively breeding an Asian elephant/mammoth hybrid or using 12,000-year-old tissue to create a clone, is preposterous.

The events of June 21, 1977, are still vivid in many people’s minds. Kelly, Mark and Rich still live in the area and have returned to Blackwell many times. Kelly has also brought her own young children to see the bones on display at Fullersburg Woods Environmental Education Center in Oak Brook. All in all, the bones of the woolly mammoth are fascinating evidence of the early life of our county.

Learn about the natural and cultural history of the site where the mammoth was discovered in "McKee Marsh Natural History Hike" on Aug. 9 from 9 to 11 a.m. at Blackwell/Mack Road.  

District staff paid attention to scientific detail as they mapped each bone's location while collecting each from the odorous pit.
Kelly, Mark and Rich, as shown here at Blackwell Forest Preserve in 1977, fondly remember the day when the woolly mammoth was discovered.
Forest Preserve District employees delighted thousands of onlookers by providing spontaneous programs with discovery details from the excavation site.
The spot where the woolly mammoth bones were first found are today covered by several feet of water at McKee Marsh.
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