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Excavation of The Schaefer mammoth by archeologist from the Kenosha Public Museum. View Photos

Kenosha Public Museum (Wisconsin)

The Schaefer site was first discovered near Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1964, when a contractor hired to cut a drainage tile ditch through Frank Schaefer's field ran into what turned out to be the end of a mammoth's femur and cut a tusk in half. The find was not fully excavated until 1993, when Dan Joyce, the curator of the Kenosha Public Museum's exhibits and collections and an archeologist, was able to secure permission to excavate from Mr. Schaefer. With the help of a 1964 map made by Phil Sander, Mr. Joyce was able to relocate the Schaefer Mammoth. He, Dave Wasion, and his wife, a fellow archeologist, began excavations in earnest. Over the next two field seasons, Mr. Joyce and his colleagues were able to uncover a mammoth skeleton that turned out to be eighty percent complete. When scientists examined the skeleton, they determined the Schaefer mammoth was a 32 year old male, twelve feet tall at the shoulder, and still growing.

In 1994, two stone tools were found beneath the pelvis, which, in conjunction with the cut marks found on the bones, suggested a significant human component to the site. Radiocarbon ages from the site yielded dates of 12,290 ± 60 years before present (BP) and 12,570 ± 45 BP, meaning the mammoth died roughly 14,500 years ago. Together, the tools, cut marks, and ages of the bones indicate that the Schaefer mammoth is the earliest known butchering site east of the Mississippi.

During the excavations at the Schaefer site, a neighboring farmer by the name of John Hebior approached Mr. Schaefer about a large bone he had uncovered on his land in 1979. The find was enough to pique the interest of the archeologists at work on the Schaefer site. The bone was given to Dr. David Overstreet, and the next year Dr. Overstreet and a group from Marquette University began excavations at the Hebior site. The find was strikingly similar to the Schaefer mammoth, with cut marks on the bones. Bone piles and stone tools were also found in close association with the bones. The mammoth was again a fully-grown male of 40 years old and twelve feet tall. The Hebior mammoth dates to 12,300-12,500 BP as well.

The evidence at both sites implies an impressive story. Around 12,000 years ago, in the area that is now Kenosha, WI, glaciers were retreating from southern Wisconsin, and spruce trees and sedges were colonizing the tundra. A pond had formed from glacial meltwater, and was slowly being filled in with sediment. On the edge of this pond, humans had butchered two young, healthy male mammoths, and thrown the bones to the bottom of the pond, where they remained perfectly in place until their discovery in 1964. Scientists cannot say if the mammoths had been hunted down and killed by the humans, but they can definitively determine that the animals were butchered by humans. The ages from the bones at the site, and the presence of stone tools tightly associated with the bones, place people at the edge of the glacier in Wisconsin as the Ice Age was ending.

The story of the Kenosha mammoths does not end there. If we consider the bones in the context of what they have to say about prehistoric life, we learn that the Schaefer mammoth is one of the oldest butchering sites east of the Mississippi, and that the Hebior mammoth is the largest and most complete mammoth excavated in North America. The archeologists and paleontologists who helped to excavate and interpret the information from the fossil record recognized the importance of the sites, and because of their diligence we can imagine how the mammoths lived and what happened to them after death. We can also consider the Kenosha mammoths in the context of modern-day life. Fossils like these mammoths are finite natural resources, and different laws determine who has ownership of the fossils depending on where the fossils are found. Since these mammoths were found on private land, the archeologists and paleontologists working at both sites needed to secure the permission of the landowners in order to excavate, and to bring the fossils into museum collections. The Schaefer mammoth entered into the collections of the Kenosha Public Museum when Mr. Schaefer generously donated the fossils and artifacts to the museum and its curators, and the Hebior mammoth found a home at the Milwaukee Public Museum in 2007 when, thanks to a generous grant, the museum purchased the fossils, artifacts, and field notes from that excavation.

Mammoth partner feature articles:

Big Bone Lick State Park | Channel Islands NP, Pygmy Mammoth | Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose | Denver Museum of Nature & Science Snowmastodon Project | Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County | Kenosha Public Museums | The Mammoth Site at Hot Springs | Paleontological Research Institution, Museum of the Earth | The Tate Geological Museum at Casper College | Tule Springs Ice Age Park | Waco Mammoth Site

Last updated: February 17, 2012