Ancient Traces--Waco Mammoth National Monument

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bones image used as a header for Waco Mammoth National Monument.


On July 10, 2015, President Obama created three new National Monuments. One of these sites protect some of the most important paleontological finds in American History, Waco Mammoth National Monument.

I visited the site a few months ago and was amazed at the number and condition of the preserved fossils. Our guide, John, was able to tell us so much about the mammoths whose fossils we found here.  John gave us a good over view of how the fossils came to be found and identified. He explained, "They were not Woolly Mammoths. They were Colombian Mammoths which are about 14 foot tall at the shoulder and would weigh in at about 20,000 pounds. "For those of us in Texas, that is about four pickup trucks."

guid at Waco Mammoth National Monument.
John explains what we will see inside

He went on to tell of the site's discovery by two young men, Paul Barron and Eddie Bufkin, who were arrow hunting in the area back in 1976. They weren't having much luck with the arrowheads but did find a bone they realized was far too large to be a cow bone that would have been natural here as this was cattle grazing land. They took it to a geologist, David Lintz, at Strecker Museum at Baylor University, now Mayborn Museum (More about the Mayborn here). Lintz was able to identify the bone as being the femur, or upper leg bone, of a Colombian mammoth.

leg bone of Colombian mammoth at Waco Mammoth National Monument. catwalk over fossils at Waco Mammoth National Monument.
What a leg bone! A catwalk lets you get good views.

Farther excavations proved that the earliest fossils were from a nursery herd of about 19 mammoths that were trapped and died in a flash flood about 65,000 years ago. A prehistoric camel remains were also caught in the flood. Two later floods trapped a saber tooth cat, a  bull mammoth, two juvenile mammoths and an adult female.

excavations at Waco Mammoth National Monument.
The level of a find tells its time frame

The original finds were taken to the museum to protect them. Later John explained the current building was constructed. "It's called an in situ fossil bed, meaning the fossils are just as they were found. The building was built around them and the walls go down below the water table and are anchored to the bedrock below."

visitors look at colombian mammothe bones at Waco Mammoth National Monument.
It's like looking into the past

The first thing we saw inside was a mural on the wall that shows what the animals looked like in life. Looking down into the actual fossil bed, we could see the actual bones. Imagine looking at something buried 65,000 years ago.

Mural of a Columbian mammoth at Waco Mammoth National Monument.
The wall mural

Since the bones are so well preserved and have not been disturbed, John was able to interpret what the animals might have been doing when the flood trapped them. One female seems to have a young calf on her tusks. Perhaps she was trying to lift her calf to safety. Since the soil was clay and the sides steep, it was a futile effort thus the calf's bones rest here today.

The bones are all labeled for simple interpretation. John pointed out the levels showing the difference in the flood dates. He points out one male with his back legs splayed out behind forcing the mammoth down in a belly flop showing a flash or rather sudden flooding.  He could show where one male had a injury, a broken rib with a knot on it showing that it had occurred about a year before his death possibly in a n injury caused in a matting season injury. Possibly another male had rammed him in the side with his tusk causing the injury. He even pointed out the difference in the male and female pelvic bone structure.  The detail you can see is amazing.

tusks of mammoth at Waco Mammoth National Monument.
Just the tusks give you a feeling of the size and power of these huge mammals

The park offers guided tours every half hour. This is a great place for adults and older children interested in prehistoric fossil remains. There are tours for school groups from pre-k through high school. For the youngest groups, the Waco Mammoth National Monument's Mighty Molars program is geared around animal teeth and help younger children understand the specialized diets of Ice Age animals. For older groups, there is a simulated fossil dig called the Big Dig where the kids get to sift through fossil rich gravel and excavate replica mammoth fossils. Anyone who wishes can dig for free in their mock dig pit. There is a shady picnic area where you can enjoy an outdoor lunch break.

What a unique experience for any age.


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