Tusk!

Millennia ago, the Columbian mammoth strode across Texas, stripping the bark from trees and fighting off human predators and saber-toothed cats. And for as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by these colossal creatures. So I finally went looking for them.
TUSK!
Illustration by Fred Gambino

Here’s the plot of an episode of a fifties TV show called Science Fiction Theatre:

A baby woolly mammoth has been found preserved in the ice of the Arctic Circle. A group of scientists, including a sorrowful-looking female zoologist in a Peter Pan collar, melt the ice and stare in wonder at the prehistoric creature lying motionless on the floor. Could it possibly still be alive, in a state of suspended animation? The scientists administer a “galvanic shock,” and the baby mammoth miraculously scrambles to his feet. But something is wrong: He misses his mother. He begins to pine away until the zoologist, whose own child has died, rushes to comfort him.

But then she is injured in a car wreck, and by the time she recovers and gets back to the baby mammoth, it’s too late. The weakened, heartbroken creature greets her with a forlorn bleat from his trunk and falls over dead.

Funny, isn’t it?” the zoologist says as she dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief. “Crying over an animal that should have died half a million years ago?”

When I tracked down this show recently and watched it for the first time since boyhood, it looked itself like an artifact of the Ice Age. The images on the DVD transfer were faded and skittery. The mammoth was played by a baby elephant wearing plastic-looking tusk extenders and scraggly tufts of hair glued to its head. But I had no trouble recalling the story’s haunting effect on me. Deep into adulthood the memory lingered: a lonesome lost creature imprisoned in time, a frozen heart made to beat again, a block of ice like a window through which the light of prehistory still dimly shone.

Back in the fifties in Abilene, as I sat in my cowboy pajamas watching Science Fiction Theatre, it did not occur to me to find this scenario far-fetched. I had a calm certainty that in my lifetime a mammoth would indeed be brought back to life. As it turns out, I might have been right. A number of frozen mammoths have been extracted from permafrost over the past century, and though they are very much dead and cannot be reconstituted by a galvanic shock, their nuclei could conceivably be inserted into the egg cells of an elephant, which would act as a surrogate mother. A group of Japanese scientists recently predicted that by 2016 the world may witness the birth of a baby mammoth.

If it happens, it will be a reunion of sorts, since humans and mammoths go back a long way. In Texas, the people we know today as Paleo-Indians were hunting mammoths a mere 10,000 or 11,000 years ago. By that time, the glaciers that had once covered much of North America were long gone. And they had never extended this far south, so there is no chance of finding a frozen mammoth in Texas, much less one in suspended animation. But mammoth bones are everywhere: emerging from eroded cutbanks, plowed up in farmers’ fields, unearthed in construction sites.

These bones are from Mammuthus columbi, the Columbian mammoth, not the woolly mammoth that was featured in Science Fiction Theatre. Columbian mammoths ranged farther south than their cold-weather cousins, throughout the Pleistocene grasslands and woodlands of North America, all the way down to what is now Mexico. They were larger than the woolly mammoths, reaching up to fourteen feet high, with domed heads and huge sweeping tusks.

Sixty or seventy thousand years ago, a herd of these creatures was foraging in a floodplain a few miles west of what is now downtown Waco. The landscape, in the waning millennia of the Ice Age, would have been prairies and lightly forested savannas populated with all sorts of vanished megafauna: camels, saber-toothed cats, ground-dwelling sloths that could rear up to twenty feet high, and massive armadillo-like glyptodonts that shuffled along like living boulders.

There were a few juveniles in the mammoth herd, but most were adult females. A flash flood, roaring out of the ancestral Bosque River, caught them at the bottom of a steep-sided tributary. Perhaps a few members of the herd were able to scramble up the banks of the tributary and get away, but the rest were struck by a lethal blast of moving water. The positions in which the mammoths’ bodies were found suggest that the adult females—in a protective gesture familiar to us from the behavior of modern elephants—tried to form a shield around the juveniles. But even full-grown mammoths could not keep their footing against the sudden velocity of the flood. Old and young drowned together as the water swept them away. Their bodies were then buried by subsequent deposits of soil and sediment and remained hidden from sight until 1978, when two Waco men, Paul Barron and Eddie Bufkin, came across what they thought was a mammoth bone exposed in the eroded wall of a ravine.

They knew they had found something interesting, but they didn’t know how interesting until archeologists from Baylor University began to dig at the site and uncovered the remains of five mammoths. Later excavations revealed as many as nineteen more, as well as the bones of an extinct camel and a single tooth from a young saber-toothed cat. Taken all together, it was a mother lode—“the largest single-herd, non-human-related [Columbian] mammoth death site in the world,” as John D. Bongino, a Baylor graduate student, described it in his 2007 master’s thesis.

In 2009 the Waco Mammoth Site opened to the public, adding to the reputation for eclectic tourism that Waco already enjoyed with the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and the Dr Pepper Museum. The site is located about four miles west of Interstate 35, where the Brazos River makes a northeasterly bend at its confluence with the Bosque. There is a parking lot for fifty or so cars and a small welcome center and gift shop, from which visitors walk down a path toward the site of the tributary. “Follow me to the Mammoths,” the signs

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