Prehistoric Profile

Dr. Daniel C. Fisher and MDOT's Margaret Barondess discussing the St. Johns mastodonIn Michigan, between 14,000 to 12,000 years ago, as the glaciers slowly retreated to the north, new habitat developed suitable for immigration of both plants and animals, including humans. Coincidentally, as these vast environmental changes were taking place, the archaeological and paleontological records indicate that the mastodon (Mammut americanum), a resident prehistoric mammal resembling the elephant, became extinct shortly after humans arrived in the Great Lakes region between 12,000 to10,000 years ago. This correlation is sometimes viewed as being no accident. Some researchers, including Dr. Daniel C. Fisher, Curator of Paleontology at the University of Michigan Museum, hypothesize that these early human immigrants hunted and scavenged mastodons which could have been a major contributor to their extinction. Yet, presently, there is insubstantial direct archaeological evidence to support this interpretation.

Imagine, then, the surprise for an MDOT field inspector who found himself staring at the large teeth and upper palate (or roof of the mouth) of a 12,000-year-old mastodon as it was unearthed during a grading operation along US-27 in Clinton County, Michigan. Now referred to as the St. Johns mastodon from its place-name of discovery, the partial mastodon skull discovered in 1994 has added another page in the paleontological record of Michigan. Dr. Fisher, at the request of MDOT, studied the mastodon specimen which was later curated by, and is now stored at, the University of Michigan Museum.

St. Johns mastodon upper plateThrough Dr. Fisher's study, it was determined using radiocarbon dating that the St. Johns mastodon dated to around 11,970 (+ 80) years ago. While there were no tusks preserved, Dr. Fisher identified the mastodon as a nearly fully grown male by the size of the tusk openings observable on the skull. Additionally, analysis of tooth growth revealed that the mastodon was in its 30's and that it was at the end of winter when it died of natural causes. Also, through analyzing the soils where the mastodon was found, it was revealed that our mastodon died along the margins of an ancient lake at the end of the last Ice Age. Still, while there is some indirect evidence for possible human food scavenging and storage activity, there is no direct archaeological evidence of human hunting or scavenging activity associated with the St. Johns mastodon.

Much was learned about the extinct mastodon's life cycle through our study of the St. Johns mastodon. More importantly, however, through the efforts of numerous persons beginning with the discoverer, MDOT field inspector - Dave Weber, a very valuable piece of Michigan's prehistory puzzle has been recovered, studied, and preserved for today and for future generations. As to the question of human hunting activity as a key contribution to mastodon extinction, conclusive archaeological evidence still remains buried awaiting discovery.