Yank that sucker out!

Mastodon rib from Manis site, showing protruding end of an intrusive object. Source: CSFA

The Manis Mastodon site near Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula (map) is one of the great enigmas of Northwest Coast archaeology.  The site has been known since the 1970s and is purportedly a Mastodon kill-butchery site.  With radiocarbon dates (on plant material associated with extinct mastodon) of 13,500 to 13,900 calendar years ago, the site is clearly pre-Clovis.  As a pre-Clovis site on the Northwest Coast, Manis  should be of comparable stature to, say, the Clovis-killer Monte Verde site in Chile, which dates to about 14,500 calendar years ago.

Doubts remain about this site, though, mainly because it is not yet completely reported.  A preliminary report by Gustafson et al. in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology (which I don’t have handy — hey CAA, I know you sell CDs of your back issues, so how hard can it be to put them online?) was equivocal about the association of some flake and cobble tools with the skeleton, and while interesting conclusions were drawn about the fragmentary nature of the skeleton, nothing conclusive was resolved.  This is despite one of the clearest possible “smoking guns” one could hope for in archaeology.

One of the mastodon ribs has an anomalous object embedded in it (see picture above): this has widely been interpreted as the tip of a bone point, around which the mastodon bone has healed.  While clearly not the killing blow, it is hard to imagine what non-human agencies could have embedded this object in the rib of a living animal.  Frustratingly, though, the point has never been fully examined.  It was subjected to a CAT scan some years ago, but even these results have not been reported, other than to confirm the object is intrusive.  Whether it is bone or antler is not even clear.  And though I have said often enough to my students, “someone, please, just grab some pliers, pull that sucker out and put us out of our misery” (and am saying so again now, publicly) the fact is when I contacted the Sequim museum, which curates the Manis mastodon, a few years ago they had no idea where this particular bone was.  Oops.

Manis mastodon rib undergoing a CAT scan. Source: CSFA.

Manis is too important to be ignored, yet still equivocal enough to be dismissed.  With recent finds on the Northwest Coast returning dates of over 12,500 calendar years, and with the intriguing, contemporaneous, but similarly equivocal, 13,500  year old Ayers Pond bison kill-butchery site on Orcas Island ( not to mention pre-Clovis occupation at Paisley Cave in Oregon,) we may be closing the temporal gap towards Manis, making it less exceptional and hence less controversial.  It is interesting to contemplate a confirmed Manis site as an example of how, in a classic symptom of a Kuhnian paradigm shift, the evidence for the new paradigm of the peopling of the Americas has been with us, ignored, for 30 years.  The Monte Verde site, which waited 20 years before the Clovis Police accepted it as real, is another example.  What other evidence is sitting around, waiting for the intellectual climate to catch up?  Step one to an answer: someone find the Manis bone in question, and lets yank that object out and take a proper look.  If its cultural: direct date it, and case closed.

Manis mastodon bone with intrusive object. Source: CSFA

Anyway, the point of this post is to draw your attention to a small but interesting photo-gallery of the Manis object at the Centre for the Study of First Americans.  In all likelihood, these are the best pictures of the Manis enigma that you will ever see.  There is a good wrap up of the site at historylink.org and another at the Sequim Museum, which has its own photo-gallery of low-res pictures of the site and Mr. Manis himself.

For the record, here is Manis as described in a canonical article by Donald Grayson and  David Meltzer, which you can download here:

Manis. Excavated during the 1970s, this site provided a “virtually” com- plete mastodon skeleton (Gustafson, 1985, p. 285). One of the specimens from this skeleton accounts for the site’s fame: a fragmentary rib with the tip of a bone object protruding from the near the rib’s head (see the illustration in Gustafson et al., 1979). The assumption this protruding object must be the tip of a projectile led to the further assumption that this animal had been attacked by people. In addition to the fragmentary rib, two other lines of evidence have been used to argue that the Manis mastodon is archaeological. First, “the  bones of the right limb were scattered about and possess numerous cuts, scratches, and breaks suggestive of butchering” (Gustafson, 1985, p. 284). Second, a “flaked cobble spall” is said to have been found associated with the mastodon bones (Gustafson et al., 1979, p. 163), as were “several pieces of worked bone and tusk” (Gustafson et al., 1979, p. 157).

Even though Gustafson (1985) quickly turned the Manis locale into a “kill site,” we concur with Carlson (1990) in finding no compelling evidence for human involvement with this animal. This is an easy conclusion to reach because so little has been published on the results of the excavations that occurred here. There are no descriptions of the “several pieces of worked bone and tusk,” and only a crude illustration of the flaked cobble spall said to be an artifact. What has been published leaves us in strong doubt. The “flaked cobble spall” was not the only stone object found in the mastodon component at Manis. Instead, it was selected as archaeological from amongst a number of other, apparently larger, objects that had been “chipped and broken” but none of which “can be shown definitely to have been altered by man” (Gustafson et al., 1979, p. 163). Given this context, and given the nature of the “flaked cobble spall” illustrated by Gustafson et al. (1979, p. 163), we are unconvinced that this is an artifact.

We are also unconvinced that the “cuts, scratches, and breaks” mentioned by Gustafson (1985), and in part illustrated by Gilbow (1981, figures 3.12, 3.12), are of anthropogenic origin. None of the marks is such that it would have suggested human interference in the absence of the pointed bone object found in the mastodon rib.

That object is certainly curious. One of us (DKG) arranged to have a tomogram made of this specimen shortly after it was excavated. Although the image has never been published, the results are accurately reported in Gustafson et al. (1979). What we do not know is what this apparently intrusive object is. Gustafson et al. (1979, p. 157) make it very clear that they did not know either, referring to it as a “supposed projectile point.” Given that the Manis mastodon site has never been adequately discussed in print, other than the paleoenvironmental analysis conducted by Peterson et al. (1983), and that the critical rib fragment has never been analyzed in any detail, this site cannot be accepted as providing secure evidence for human interaction with or predation on mastodon.

DK Grayson, DJ Meltzer 2002.  Clovis hunting and large mammal extinction: a critical review of the evidence. Journal of World Prehistory

Mammut americanum, the American Mastodon.

18 responses to “Yank that sucker out!

  1. Having slept on it, something occurs to me which I don’t recall seeing addressed anywhere in the thin Manis literature.

    Assuming the facets on the near side of the rib are where it articulates with the spine (Mastodon anatomists chip in, please), then the object is penetrating almost vertically from above. This makes it seem even less likely to be some kind of bizarre accidental phenomenom since the critter would have to roll right over onto its back to get impaled, but who knows.

    However, it could readily fit with an ambush strategy of hunting Mastodon, with hunters concealed in trees or on cliffs, surprising the Mastodon with a hail of darts from above.

    Also, bone points might not fit with classic conceptions of elephant hunting gear, but:

    (a) they can be made long and narrow yet strong, ideal for sliding between ribs (or not) and penetrating deeply for a slow kill, which hunters could track.

    (b) at Gaadu Din 1 in Haida Gwaii there is an 11,900 calendar year old tip of a bone point, found in a context which only makes sense as a bear hunting site.


  2. It is this kind of situation that can give archaeologists a very bad name. How is it possible that a site of potentially such huge importance can be not analysed and reported fully? Is it just supression by the “Clovis police” as you term them – did they somehow make it impossible to get research grants or to publish manuscripts? Or were the people involved in the project just never good at publishing anything, or daunted by the task of doing it properly?

    Why, for instance, publish such an important find in the CJA, a journal that has, sadly, almost no international profile and apparently likes to keep it that way (is it even in the citation index yet or available on-line to non-members)?

    I hope these guys (the data holders and any intellectual bullies that might be involved) are embarrassed – there can be no acceptable excuses – and that they regret the missed opportunity.


    • Hi APM,

      I’m not sure what the funding was, but Gustafson worked there for a number of years, encountering several other Mastodons. It seems like a career-making site so it is curious.

      I don’t see this is a classic Type A Clovis Police move of a Bull-elephant charge at upstart heretics. Based on available evidence, the site deserves skepticism and I share in that myself.

      However, I do find it telling that Grayson and Meltzer are so uncurious about it. Grayson actually had the bone in his hand, and he is a leading zooarchaeologist. Does he really have nothing more to say about it? Can he settle the bone vs. antler question? Do those broken bits show any sign of shaping? He doesn’t say either way. I’ve been on the sharp end of Grayson’s keyboard myself so I know he has a point of view on the coastal route. But here, I suspect that the Type B Clovis Police mindset kicks in, which goes like this:

      (a) I am a fair minded neutral scientist

      (b) I accept that Clovis was the first archaeological culture in the Americas

      (c) Therefore evidence that is older than Clovis must have some fundamental flaw

      (d) Given (c), it is a matter of personal preference whether I bother to demonstrate the flaw or leave it as an exercise to the reader.

      At Manis, they make it easy because the supporting material is so weak. But a similar mindset operates at, say, Meadowcroft (where Adovasio has publicly given up rebutting what he considers to be irrational objections) and held for a long time at Monte Verde, which was seen to be “too good to be true” by Clovis gatekeepers who had no experience with water-saturated sites.


    • I should add, in this cause the “daunting” part and the expense part is not really applicable. Without the bone point, the evidence from Manis is circumstantial and weak, so far as we know.

      However, if this is a projectile point embedded in the rib of a mastodon, then you don’t need any other evidence:

      Extract the point, describe the cultural modifications, date the rib, date the point (or not, since the rib is healed it is a moot question), and it becomes essentially an inarguable case. (Or extract the point, find it isn’t cultural, open a beer).

      For $2,000 and a weekend’s time, you could nail down this story. That’s what’s so mystifying (and it’s what I had in mind one day when out of curiosity I emailed the Sequim museum. I suspect the bone is at WSU but I never followed that up). Such a minor project could either have blown up Clovis-first in 1979 or since, or, could have removed an irritating site from under the uniform of the Clovis-firsters.


  3. Something about looking at those photos makes me happy that you are not a Freudian.

    The bone point is certainly a different colour from the bone its implanted into. From the first photo, the end looks recently shattered as it is lighter than the rest of the point.



  4. Well, a mammoth altercation (I don’t think there can be a ‘mastodon’ one) ending with one chipped tusk and one very sore back could explain it. I think that was the story told by RG Matson in a class I took a LONG time ago – still makes sense though.

    I don’t know if digging it out would solve much. It is hard enough distinguishing bone from antler from tusk; and on many antlers (and I presume the same would hold for tusks) its almost impossible to clearly differentiate between cuts and abrasions from the animals using their antlers from butcher or manufacturing marks.

    I can see pulling it out (probably in a dozen pieces) and having a couple of enigmatic scratches and not being any further ahead.

    I wonder if scanning has progressed enough to give that another shot, seeing its non-destructive? Of course, you have to have the original…..


    • You could certainly tell if it was mammoth ivory I think, macroscopically even. You could do DNA and see if it was mammoth bone vs., say, elk or deer bone. I think if it was dense shaft bone of deer or elk then the just-so stories of natural causation would be very hard to tell. Also, by the scale of the US quarter and the finger, the mastodon tusk would have to come to a very fine point or be previously splintered: those tusks were simply not that sharp.

      I guess RG’s story is plausible, but you know, you only really need such a story if you believe that it is impossible for it to be what the simplest explanation would say: that is, it is a projectile point. In a way, that’s the point: the Clovis First model induced a lot of such strained stories, from the Blitzkrieg model, to to natural forces tying knots at Monte Verde, to accidental tusk impalement. None of those are necessary if you are not wedded to a certain model. I mean, we don’t tell stories about wild mussel shell-whale altercations when we find mussel shell embedded in a whale skull. We correctly see it to be evidence of a known hunting practice. The only difference here is Manis is “too old”, and yet, is it actually “too old”? — I don’t think so. The area was open and available by 13,500 calBP ago: Manis times. Lake Washington, for example, was a lake by 15,500 cal BP.

      Anyway, I am not defending the incomplete reporting of Manis – we need to have the basis of evidence before us – and currently it is rightly labelled as equivocal.


      • I think qmackie’s earlier question about whether this point is stuck in the dorsal or ventral surface of the rib is very pertinent here. I would love to hear a faunal analyst’s opinion on that aspect of this problem. Here is a photo of part of the inside of a reconstructed Mastodon rib cage if that helps anyone that knows enough:
        Mastodon inside the rib cage

        If the ventral surface, then something penetrated through the rib cage from below and stuck in the rib near the spinal column via the inside of the body cavity. It would be hard to invent a scenario other than a hunter on the ground shooting upwards at an angle.

        If on the dorsal surface then it opens the door a little bit to these other explanations. But I agree with qmackie that alternate explanations to a human hunter are stretching credibility. In most ways being shot at from higher ground or up a tree is the simplest explanation for a wound that entered the back. Otherwise, the animal would have had to be down on the ground, including I suspect, for another Mastodon to gore it on the upper back. If it was on the ground for a hunter to shoot into its back the chances it would have lived to heal the wound are probably pretty slim.


      • I think it is coming in from the dorsal side of the critter. Look at this shot:


        I don’t know much about mastodon but that sure looks like it is on the outside/convex curve of the rib.

        Ignore the “Suzie” and it this is a decent high res side view of a mastodon skeleton

        Another view of one from the inside:

        massachusetts - 45

        Ambush from above seems like it would be a classic big, dangerous game strategy and would nicely explain the location of this weird thing. People’s idea of a mastodon hunt looks like this:

        But on what basis, I don’t know. If I could surprise one from a high, safe perch that would be more tolerant of error, that’s what I would do! (I can hear the calls of “naive empathy” already).

        Also, if it entered the rib from the inside, it is hard to imagine the mastodon surviving, since this was not a killing blow. But yes, bring on the mastodon bone people – or, in a pinch, twoeyes.


  5. Hmmm, pointy (OK, maybe not another tusk) things in mammoth’s backs (couldn’t find a pic with one on the other’s back, I was sure someone would have made that image by now!):

    ancient kill


    • Hmm. I don’t know if I buy that model of sabre-tooth cat predation. Taking on a full grown mastodon by biting it in the back? I don’t know much about these cats, but pretty sure they would be more of a quick slash to the jugular of a smaller mammal and then let it bleed out. But maybe in this case it was a natural selection learning moment for the cat in question. Anyway, a tooth is still a tooth and even macrosopically differs from bone or antler and I am pretty sure Grayson would have noticed that – he calls it a “bone”


  6. That was more of a last ditch hypothesis for the Devils Advocate than a serious suggestion, Smiley Don!


  7. I heard from the museum in Sequim that someone may be going back to the site for further work….Is this true?


    • Hi Comstock,

      I haven’t heard that. Gustafson did several more years of work at and around the site after the 1979 bone-point report, but so far as I know it hasn’t been published and I think if something remarkable had been found it would be known. This is understandable if this is a mastodon that died of natural causes sometime after being wounded by people: you wouldn’t expect any stone tools there. Indeed, you might expect there not to be, unless this unlucky mastodon got attacked twice in its life.

      So: short answer, I don’t know of any further work. Longer answer: I am not sure if more work is warranted at this locale (which is, by the way an archaeological reserve:
      http://www.americanarchaeology.com/western1.html ). What is warranted is to give the rib fragment and alleged point a much, much closer examination: it is either a smoking gun, or not, but right now we don’t know.


  8. There are petroglyphs in CA that show spears sticking straight up from “mammoths” backs. It caught my attention and made we wonder if the images were a clue that these animals were attacked from above, where the hunter was safe.


  9. Sam, do you mean California? Do you have photos or links to images of those petroglyphs?


  10. Mad Dog – this is not CA as far as I can tell, but it is an interesting examination of the possibility of paleo-fauna rock art in Utah:

    Click to access Malotki_Wallace_RAR_mammoths_paper.pdf


  11. APM: those are intriguing, thanks!


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