More evidence of woolly mammoths found

Posted: Sunday, March 06, 2011

Moose in the yard and bears fishing in streams don't require a leap of the imagination, but woolly mammoths on the Kenai Peninsula?

Ap Photo/ Homer News, Michael Armstrong
Ap Photo/ Homer News, Michael Armstrong
This Feb. 22 photo shows an ankle bone and a piece of a tusk that are among the woolly mammoth remains found in the Homer-Anchor Point area.

The increasing number of remains being found and recent radiocarbon dating of two pieces done by the University of California Irvine are additional evidence pointing to the massive creatures populating the peninsula between 60,000-25,000 years ago.

A tusk fragment found on the beach between Homer and Anchor Point by Mike Lettis of Anchor Point has been placed at about 27,040 years BP, before present time. An astragalus, anklebone, found near Bishop's Beach by Janet Klein of Homer has exceeded the limits of radiocarbon dating.

"It can only go up to a certain age and then it's no longer effective. Forty-eight thousand five hundred years BP, that's the limit," said Klein, an author of books on local history and anthropology.

Those dates fit within a window Soldotna geologist Dick Reger has identified as a time the Kenai Peninsula could have sustained these huge, hairy creatures that may have reached heights of 13 feet at the shoulder and became extinct about 13,000 years ago.

"Although we know that finding these eroded bones does not prove that mammoths lived on the Kenai, it strongly suggests that they did and, as such, might encourage others to be more aware of this very fascinating environment and the many stories it has to reveal to us," said Klein.

Reger shared Klein's excitement.

"These findings mean that animals that lived in the past here on the Kenai were different than the animals that live here today," said Reger.

Woolly mammoth remains have placed them in Alaska's interior and a leg bone found in a gravel streambed has identified them in the Copper River basin. Pinpointing the existence of woolly mammoths south of there, specifically on the Kenai Peninsula, has been a challenge.

A tusk fragment found in 1976 on the beach near the Spit by Homer resident Judy Winn was reported by Klein in "Kachemak Bay Communities -- Their Histories, Their Mysteries." Klein has slides of a fossilized mammoth molar found on the beach a few miles south of the Anchor River by the late Harold Shafer in 1989. She has heard of another molar that was found and then given to someone overseas. Klein recently made contact with a Ninilchik woman who recalled a mammoth molar being uncovered by a slide along the bluff above the beach near Clam Gulch in the mid-1960s.

The existence of these pieces could be explained a number of ways. Perhaps the remains were transported from far away through glaciations. Perhaps they are discarded pieces collected in another area. Perhaps, with a stretch of the imagination, they are a hoax.

With each piece found, the area of the discoveries becoming broader and now with dates provided by radiocarbon dating, the possibility of woolly mammoths on the peninsula increases.

Fragments found on the peninsula show erosion -- the edges have been smoothed; the roots of the molar found by Shafer worn away. Klein suggests they have become water-worn after tumbling down streams from the peninsula's interior. That fits with the scenario proposed by Reger, when Kenai glaciers were restricted to mountains, allowing woolly mammoths to travel south from the interior to the Copper River area and, finally, to the peninsula.

"If these mammals were down here in what we call the interglacial period, between the last major glaciations, their remains could be preserved in the Caribou Hills," said Reger of a 510 square mile area he has identified as potential mammoth habitat. "I think that's probably what happened. ... (Klein) told me everything found along beach was water-washed and moved down the beach and that makes sense to me."

Findings away from the shore could prove an important piece of the woolly mammoth mystery.

"It would be terrific if someone found a tusk fragment or molar in a riverbed such as Deep Creek or the Anchor River," said Klein. "That would support the idea that these animals may have occupied the Caribou Hills region and a search for mammoth elements could occur above the location where the bone was found."

What have yet to be found are woolly mammoth remains in situ, in place.

"Until we find those, we can't say with any certainty that mammoths actually lived on the peninsula, but the more we find, the greater the possibility that they actually lived here," said Klein, encouraging anyone with photographs or artifacts to contact her.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.



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