by Lou Varricchio
MT. HOLLY | A Vermont wooly mammoth fossil, discovered in a railroad right-of-way at Mt. Holly near Rutland, is still helping paleo-researchers understand what life was like in the Ice Age.
The fossil was unearthed during railroad construction in 1848.
According to Dartmouth College researchers last week, radiocarbon dating of a rib fragment from the Vermont fossil shows that the beast walked the icy steppes of prehistoric Vermont in 12,800 B.C. That year, the researchers suggest, maybe around the same time, too, that the first humans arrived in the Green Mountain State.
“It has long been thought that megafauna and humans in New England did not overlap in time and space and that it was probably ultimately environmental change that led to the extinction of these animals in the region but our research provides some of the first evidence that they may have actually co-existed,” said Nathaniel R. Kitchel, a postdoctoral fellow in anthropology at Dartmouth.
The Mount Holly mammoth, Vermont’s state terrestrial fossil, was discovered in the summer of 1848 in the Green Mountains during the construction of the Burlington and Rutland Railroad.
“One molar, two tusks, and an unknown number of bones were excavated from a hilltop bog near Mount Holly,” according to a March 4 Dartmouth news release. “Over time, the specimens became scattered across several repositories, as they transferred from one collection to the next. A rib fragment from the Mount Holly mammoth became part of the (Dartmouth) Hood Museum of Art’s collection and some of the other skeletal materials are now housed at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and the Mount Holly Historical Museum.”
Kitchel said he came across the old Vermont mammoth rib fragment in Dartmouth’s offsite storage facility.
The researcher unpacked a big bone that was colored brown, probably stained while buried in an Ice Age bog.
Kitchel reported that he had a hunch the bone he found was from a mammoth.
“…The tag… read, ‘Rib of fossil elephant. Mt. Holly R.R. cut. Presented by Wm. A. Bacon Esq., Ludlow Vt.,'” he said. “This was rather serendipitous.”
Kitchel, along with Jeremy DeSilva, an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth, made a 3D scan of the bone.
The sample was then sent out for radiocarbon dating and radioisotopic analysis, the men noted.
Radiocarbon dating determines just how long an organism has been dead based on its concentration of carbon-14, a radioactive isotope that decays in a known period of time.
“The Mount Holly mammoth was one of the last known occurring mammoths in the Northeast,” says DeSilva. “While our findings show that there was a temporal overlap between mammoths and humans, this doesn’t necessarily mean that people saw these animals or had anything to do with their death but it raises the possibility now that maybe they did.”
Both men cautioned that there’s scant evidence that prehistoric humans hunted or scavenged mammoths in Vermont or elsewhere in New England.
Kitchel and DeSilva suggested that more of the iconic Vermont mammoth’s remains may still be hidden at the Mt. Holly site awaiting discovery. The pair will likely be exploring the original 19th-century fossil locality this summer.
The extinct mammoth’s closest living relative is the modern Asian elephant.