Farmer’s Mysterious Discovery Turned Out To Be Something Incredible
This discovery revealed something incredible about our ancestors, their primitive technology, and challenges what scientists previously thought they knew.History
Most farmers go about their days tending to their land and crops, giving little regard to what lay beneath their spuds and carrots. Turns out, the earth holds some extraordinary finds that take farmers completely by surprise, and sometimes, could make them incredibly wealthy.
Such is the case of farmer James Bristle from Lima Township in Michigan. One day, in October of 2015, while installing drainage tiles with his neighbor Trent Satterthwaite in one of the new cornfields he’d bought just a few months earlier, James unearthed what looked like a fence post, caked with mud.
What he actually found, was something far more precious and ancient than he could have ever imagined. The discovery revealed something incredible about our ancestors, and their primitive technology, and challenges what scientists previously thought they knew about our history.
Discovery of Large Bones
As James kept digging around this mysterious object in the soil, he slowly realized it wasn’t a fence post at all. The object in the soil had an unusual shape, resembling something he’d never seen before. As he dug some more, it became clear what he found were bones, but unlike those from any other familiar animal; they were uncharacteristically shaped and abnormally large.
Knowing he’d unearthed something special, James contacted Daniel Fisher, director of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan. He just so happened to be in town, so he made a trip out to the site immediately and inspected the bones. Daniel surmised that what James had found was part of a pelvis from a prehistoric creature.
Fearful the find might postpone his drainage project for months on end, James gave Daniel a single day to carry out his work of excavating the bones.
The next day work began, and hundreds of people visited the site, knowing it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to see prehistoric bones unearthed. At first, James and his family were overwhelmed, having to accommodate as many as 30 cars in the family’s driveway at one time, but they knew it was for a good cause. In the end, researchers dug 10 feet down and recovered about 275 bones.
They were very impressed by the quality, abundance, and shape of them. They also found three large out-of-place boulders, crucial to their later discovery.
Looking at those two huge tusks, they were quite sure what they found was one of the most complete mammoths ever discovered, but they couldn’t be certain. It could have also been a Mastodon, which are similar, but are noted for having straighter tusks, lower shoulders and flatter heads.
They’re a different species of the Proboscidean family, but about 10 times as common. 300 mastodons and 30 mammoths have been discovered in Michigan, though James’ is one of the most complete ones they’ve found, being about 40% of the entire skeleton.
Unsurprisingly, they’re highly valued. The most intact wooly mammoth skeleton ever found was sold in 2017 for a mammoth price of about $645,000.
That means, the discovery could have netted the Bristle family a nice financial windfall, since they own it. In the end, however, they chose to instead donate it to the university for research and display purposes.
James stated ‘’It belongs to everybody’’, which is an incredibly selfless thing to say and do. In fact, a lot of people do end up keeping the remains and selling them for millions of dollars, as we'll explore later in this article.
Mystery of the Missing Limbs
During their excavations, the paleontologists were confused as to why they were unable to find the limbs and feet of the animal. They found its skull, jaw, tusk, many of its vertebrae, as well as its ribs, pelvis, shoulder blade and knee cap. But they couldn’t find its limbs or feet.
To help them uncover the mystery, and put the mammoth into context, the team ensured to document the sediments, spores, and pollen from the site. The samples, taken at 2-inch intervals from a wall of the excavation pit, helped to confirm when the mammoth died, and pollen helps identify the plants nearby and their precise pollination period, helping to reconstruct the environment in which the mammoth lived.
In the end, their research revealed some incredible findings. It was indeed a mammoth, as suspected. It was found to be a large male Jeffersonian mammoth—a hybrid between a wooly mammoth and a Columbian mammoth.
Killed By Humans
The mammoth was about 45 years old and estimated to have lived between 11,700 and 15,000 years ago. Analysis of the sediment suggested it laid within a pond, butchered and purposefully put there by early humans.
This is a revelation, since previously, the oldest evidence for humans in the state dated to about 13,000 years ago, when the Clovis people were thought to be in the area and hunting with spears.
Not only that, the mammoth’s skull was cut up in a way that only an intelligent butcher might. Someone had accessed the pulp of the animal's tusks by breaking into the back of its skull. The marks on the skull suggested tools were used to do this, as the bone all around it had been broken loose by a series of wacks!
Perhaps the limbs of the animal had already been devoured, and the ancient humans brought the rest of the mammoth for storage in a pond with the intent to come back later to retrieve it later when they needed meat.
But, why would they dump the body into a pond? Surely it would rot? Well, not exactly. What you have to remember is that 15,000 years ago the area would have been a vast expanse of tundra. This was a period of 3,000 years before the end of the ice age, after all. The large rocks found aside the mammoth are thought to have anchored the carcass in a cold pond.
Or, as Daniel suggests, the piles of sand and gravel found around the remains could suggest the mammoth’s intestines were loaded to make sure it was firmly secured to the bottom of the pond.
The pond ensured other animals would have had a hard time scavenging the material, and the bacteria in the pond protects the remains from other, harmful bacteria.
Fisher was so confident in his hypothesis, he actually put his own health on the line by periodically eating horse meat that had been butchered and sunk in a shallow pond. Tasting it every 2 weeks, he found that it was preserved in the cool water for 6 months, proving that Pleistocene humans could use water bodies as wooly mammoth refrigerators.
All of this builds on the mounting body of research suggesting it was humans who played a role in the mammoth and mastodon extinctions, rather than changes in climatic conditions.
When you think about it, it's incredible what we can learn from a load of dirt and bones. But James, who’s now aptly renamed his farm Mammoth Acres, isn’t the only farmer who’s found amazing things under his crops. Let's investigate two more incredible stories of farmers who have found lucky discoveries in their fields.
Most Complete T-Rex Skeleton
First up, a farmer who managed to cash in on their find, despite not doing any work. Maurice Williams, a cattle ranch owner, was approached by paleontologist Pete Larson who offered him $5,000 to look around his property for a couple of years and if they found anything, Williams would receive a 10% cut of the profit.
Seeing this as essentially free money without having to do anything, Williams agreed. Around a year later, Pete and his crew got a flat tire, which is usually bad news, but in this case, it was a stroke of luck.
As the group went into town to repair the truck, Sue Hendrickson, a crew member, decided to explore the nearby cliffs that the group had not checked. There, she found bones dripping out of the side of the cliff. It turned out to be the most complete t-rex ever found with around 90% of her original bones still intact.
The skeleton contained amazing details that had been preserved, like broken ribs that had healed, and holes in her lower jaw which Pete thinks were from the teeth of another T-rex. After 3 weeks of digging, cleaning and preparing, Pete and his team had uncovered an impeccable, 13 ft tall, 40ft long tyrannosaurus rex.
Pete named it Sue, after the woman who had discovered it, and planned on using it to start a museum where people could view the T-Rex and learn about the past. But that’s where the good news ends. Unfortunately, Pete’s house was raided by the FBI who spirited the dinosaur away. The rancher claimed he allowed Pete to dig up the bones, but not sell them, which led to an intense custody battle to find out who really owned Sue.
Despite all his work, Pete lost, and the rancher decided to put sue up for auction to anyone who wanted it; from museums to casinos and even private individuals who wanted it as an ornament in their living room. Eventually, Sotheby’s sold it for $8.3 million to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, for everyone to see.
Unsurprisingly, it led to increased enthusiasm for dinosaur bone prospecting in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana; the only places T-rex bones are found. In fact, only 50 T-rex specimens exist, and 10 were found by Pete. T-rex bones are the most valuable dinosaur bones that can be found and have gone from scientific artefact to cash crop.
Although commercial diggers lose lots of valuable information by doing an improper job; on balance, it's probably for the best. Prior to the commercialisation of dinosaur bones, only 1 T-rex had been found every 10 years, but in recent time we've been finding about once every 6 months.
Not only that, but these remains will crumble as they reach the surface, so excavating them this way may be for the best, even though it may prevent us from learning about them in the future.
The last incredibly lucky farmer I have to mention is Jose Antonio Nievas, who owns a farm 40 kilometers south of Buenos Aires in Carlos Spegazzini. On Christmas day of 2015, he found something much better than a present under the tree while strolling along his grounds. The bizarrely spherical object was found inside a riverbank, deeply entrenched in the mud.
Do you think you can tell what it is by looking at it? Jose’s wife, Reina Coronel, said that at first, her husband believed the black scaly shell was a dinosaur egg. Jose immediately began excavating the strange discovery, using his bare hands to reveal what was hidden.
But when the police first showed up, they were as stumped as Jose. They knew it was something out of the ordinary, so they brought in the Paleontologists. As it turns out, the fossil was in fact the shell of an ancient Glyptodon, which are Prehistoric relatives of armadillos.
This was confirmed by paleontologist Alejandro Kramarz of the Bernardino Rivadavia Natural Sciences Museum. The species dominated South and Central America up until a couple of thousand years ago. While their shells were mainly for protection, their tails were used in intraspecies fighting, much like male-to-male competitions among deer using their antlers.
They are thought to have coexisted with early humans for several thousands of years. It’s also believed that climate change and the rise of humans, who likely hunted them for their shells, contributed to their extinction.
If you want to snag yourself a glyptodon shell, you can find them for sale online for around $30,000. Like the other farmers in this article, Jose really hit the jackpot.
After learning all this, I think I need to go and buy some cheap farmland somewhere to dig it all up to uncover its secrets. Thanks for reading!