Research underway on prehistoric bones from Prineville site

PRINEVILLE, Ore. (AP) — Researchers at Eastern Oregon University are analyzing prehistoric bones that were unearthed in a gravel pit near Prineville by an employee of a company that mines for construction materials such as rock and sand.

The tusk, cranium and other bones likely belonged to a prehistoric mammoth or mastodon, The Bulletin reported on Friday, but it's unclear why there aren't more bones among the partially fossilized remains.

"Something looked a little funny in the ground, said Comstock, an employee of Knife River Corp., who found the bones in March. "I grabbed a couple of guys to see what we had discovered."

Mammoths and mastodons survived in North America until about 10,000 years ago. Scientists do not have a definitive reason for their extinction, although climatic changes and hunting by prehistoric people are believed to be the two most critical factors.

"I have been doing this work my whole life, and you always believe you might find something. It's just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said the 45-year-old Comstock, an operator of heavy digging equipment since the age of 12.

Knife River contacted Craig Woodward, the owner of the sand and gravel field, to report the find.

"It was (Woodward's) mammoth, and we wanted him to be able to see it as it was found. He was very impressed," said Tony Spilde, Knife River spokesman.

Woodward, a graduate of Eastern Oregon University, contacted his alma mater to assist in the recovery of the specimen. The 72-year-old died just a month after the discovery of the site. Shortly afterward, university faculty visited the area and agreed to conduct an excavation of the partially fossilized bones at a later date. Faculty and students returned in the fall to perform the dig.

"It would have been great if he could have watched the faculty and students from EOU — they were true professionals, and it was great to work with them," Spilde said.

The remains were taken back to the EOU campus in La Grande.

Recovered bones include the cranium, a front arm and several vertebrae and ribs, said Rory Becker, the anthropology and archaeology professor who led the dig.

A portion of the tusks nearest the cranium are still intact, but the tusks in general are in poor condition, said Becker, adding that the animal was probably a juvenile, based on the structure of the long bones.

Becker, who in recent years has been part of teams that studied Neanderthal cave sites in Croatia, said it's not clear why the majority of the bones went missing.

Further analysis of the bones and the sediment around them could provide answers, he said.

Other questions, such as what killed the animal and how many years ago it lived, are yet to be determined. Becker believes the research could last three to five years.

The team will try to determine if the animal was a mammoth or a mastodon — the two are distinct animals but remains of both have been found in North America.

Mastodons were shorter and stockier than mammoths, with shorter tusks. Scientists pay particular attention to the teeth because mammoth molars had flat surfaces designed for chewing grass while mastodon molars have pointed cones adapted for munching on leaves, twigs and branches.

The remains of the animal are expected to go on public view upon completion of the research. No official name has been given yet to the specimen, but Becker said "The Woodward Mammoth" is being considered.

In addition to the science that can be learned from the find, Becker said the project served as an outstanding, real-world project for students, and one that may help a few decide on a career path.

"As is generally the case with doing fieldwork for the first time, some folks really take to it, and for others, once is probably enough," said Becker, adding that the experience could help students make education and career choices.

The partial skeleton is so far the only such specimen discovered at Woodward's gravel site. Comstock, the excavator who dug up the bones, believes there could be more.

"We have a lot more digging out there so who knows what we'll find next," he said. "You never know what the next scoop of the digger will give you."

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Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com

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