Mastodon bones found at dig on Michigan construction site

BYRON TOWNSHIP, MI — “Hey we got one!” Roger Hunderman yelled, holding the potentially 10,000-year-old American mastodon bone fragment up above his head.

“We got a bone!”

It was the first of many discoveries found at the Eagle Creek Homes’ Railview Ridge development in Byron Township Wednesday, Sept. 13. The owners of the company and their families all sifted through the dirt, looking for the remains of a prehistoric mastodon.

Mastodon bones will be donated to University of Michigan

Mastodons are the distant relatives of elephants and roamed the earth thousands of years ago. Nowadays, you can find their remains in someone’s backyard.

This might seem like a surreal idea to some, and some of the property owners and their colleagues didn’t believe it when they were told about the bones being in the area.

Joe Siereveld, one of the owners of Eagle Creek Homes, recounted what he thought when he first heard the news.

“Wow yeah right,” Siereveld said. “You’re kidding me. There’s no mastodon bones back there.”

That initial belief was definitely disproved as the excavation of the site proceeded Wednesday, with at least six bone fragments found by 12:21 p.m.

Roger Hunderman found both the first bone fragment Wednesday, which ended up being one of the largest bones recovered.

“If we go deer hunting or something like that I’m usually the first person to see something like that,” Hunderman said. “So he said your eye sight might be good today. And apparently it is.”

Mastodon bones unearthed at Michigan construction site

Hunderman is the father of Steve Hunderman, one of the owners of Eagle Creek Homes.

Digging through dirt to find the remains of mastodons is dirty work, but Roger Hunderman said he didn’t mind. He was having fun.

“You know how when you’re a little kid you want to play in the mud?” Hunderman said. “I’m 66 and I still play in the mud.”

One of the bones he found was identified as a humerus bone — or the upper arm or forelimb — of the mastodon. Hunderman estimated it weighed 25-30 pounds.

According to Scott Beld, a research lab specialist from the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology, it was a smaller-than-average humerus for a mastodon. 

The size of the bones were among the clues that led Beld and other University of Michigan personnel to identify the remains found at Railview Ridge as female. Experts initially thought the bones belonged to a male, but later realized the bones were too small to have belonged to a male of the species.

Female mastodon remains are harder to find than male remains, Beld said.

That this is because females traveled in herds, while while males tended to be solitary, he said. When humans hunted, it was much easier to hunt mastodons on their own rather than those within a herd, so they tended to target the males.

After a kill, Beld said, humans would store the animals in ponds where they ultimately became preserved.

Beld has been an archeologist for 40 years and supervised the excavation site to make sure the bones were properly handled. When a bone or bone fragment was unearthed from the ground, Beld would place the bone in a bag to protect it from the sun’s rays.

“We don’t want them to dry up too fast,” he said. “If they dry up too fast they’ll start cracking.”

Beld said when he takes the bones back to the museum that there will be a whole preservation process waiting for them. First, the bones will be washed off with a sprayer and then put into plastic bags. After that, the bones will be left to dry for a couple of months or even up to a year.

The excavation ended around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. By then, the group had collectively accumulated 18 bones and bone fragments.

Beld said among those finds were vertebra, half a mandible and a part of the skull. One piece the group did not find was a remnant of the animal’s tusk, which Siereveld described as a “treasure at the end of the rainbow.”

Beld said that the whole life history of a mastodon can be revealed by the tusk, and that it can provide a wealth of information. Studying the tusks, he said, can help scientists determine information like whether a female mastodon had a calf, which can impact the thickness of the tusk at that time.

“(It) Essentially preserves the whole life history of the animal right in the tusk and they’re sort of like a tree,” Beld said. “There’s growth rings in the tusks that are sort of annual, bi-weekly and daily. By studying those we can tell a lot of things about the life of the animal.”

Beld said that an additional crew probably would not go back to the site from the University of Michigan. However, he said, there are hundreds if not thousands more sites like these waiting to be found.

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