Native Insight: Mike Gramly — Born to dig, not to retire

  • Artist depiction of a hunter distracting an elephant while the other sneaks up behind it to deliver the striking blow, which seems to be aimed for the mammal’s Achilles tendons. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO


Recorder Staff
Published: 11/3/2017 10:58:57 AM

Youthful enthusiasm is not the norm among retirees. Then again, it would be a stretch to call Dr. Richard Michael Gramly retired.

Yes, he’s passed the age threshold and is collecting Social Security. But retired? Guess again. Mike Gramly, born to dig, probe, query, analyze and debate, will never retire. Not in his lifetime. That status will be reserved for his grave.

Gramly, a Harvard paleontologist, often checks in, be it from his car, motel room or North Andover home. Typically, his voice is bubbling with excitement, sometimes anger, about this or that. He’s likely made a new discovery or formed a new hypothesis and can’t resist bouncing it off others; the more the merrier. Who knows how many folks he’s called before my phone rings? Who cares? It’s irrelevant. The subject at hand is all that matters. He needs a sounding board, wants to talk.

Not surprisingly, his focus on this day was the 13,000-year-old butchered remains of the Bowser Road mastodon dubbed “John Charles.” He and his archaeological crew excavated the long-extinct beast’s bones from a Middletown, N.Y., bog some 75 miles north and west of New York City. He led the inaugural dig there in 2014. That was followed up by a recovery mission the next year overseen by friends and colleagues Dennis Vesper of Kentucky and Steven Vaughn of Florida. Then, the important work began — tedious analytical investigation, comparison and hypotheses based on the collected evidence and similar material previously gathered from other sites. Gramly lives for this stuff; it floats his boat, so to speak.

The first cutting-edge discovery (no pun intended) made by Gramly involved peculiar bone artifacts uncovered with John Charles’ skeleton. Careful inspection in his basement suggested that these artifacts had been crafted by human hands. They were atlatl blades, fashioned from split rib bones of a previously killed mastodon, and used to kill John Charles. Then, he took a step into the spiritual realm, hypothesizing that the bone atlatl fragments were pieces of weapons used to kill the Bowser Road beast, then ritualistically broken and left behind with the butchered remains during a rite of manhood celebrating young hunters’ first kill. It was a fascinating concept. Then, he loosely confirmed his theory through cursory inspection of stored mastodon remains from three or four other digs from the eastern half of North America. More remains will be studied in this ongoing discovery mission.

Enough about the atlatls, though. It’s “old news” by now, but merited review. Now, onto something new and exciting: that is, more fresh, cutting-edge hypothesis brought to light by John Charles’ skeletal remains … and Gramly’s rich imagination. His new multi-faceted topic of curiosity will be unveiled at this weekend’s 84th annual meeting of the Eastern States Archaeological Federation, where Montana State University graduate student Lerick Allen will present a PowerPoint lecture titled, “Did Clovis Hunters Hamstring the Bowser Road Mastodon?”

The answer is almost assuredly “yes.” Gramly is convinced of it, having found evidence of chop marks on John Charles’ right rear ankle bone. And why not? Ancient Greek and Roman historians wrote of warriors disabling military elephants’ by chopping through their Achilles tendons, and primitive African hunters were still taking down elephants by the same method well into the 20th century

“It’s important to understand that elephants, and thus probably mastodons and woolly mammoths, cannot walk on three legs,” said Gramly. “They’re too heavy. So, severing their Achilles tendon was enough to bring them down for the coup de grace.”

How did ancient man learn about this vulnerable spot on the body of the largest animal on earth? Well, Allen speculates that they would have watched packs of dire wolves taking down these huge beasts by the same method. Then, early man hafted a sharpened stone biface lengthwise into a split wooded handle to accomplish the dirty deed. If such tactics were used by early humans of the Old World, why not those of the ancient New World? There is no reason. In fact, examples of these artifacts have indeed been recovered from Clovis grave sites across North America, and from a non-grave context in our own backyard, at the Sugarloaf or DEDIC site. Were they placed among grave goods to be employed against mastodons patrolling the happy hunting ground? Very likely.

“Who knows whether that large biface brought to light several years ago by the Tozloski family across the river in Sunderland (now owned by a collector) was such a tool?” Gramly speculated. “You never know, and we may never know if government and academic cultural-resource managers continue to make sites unavailable to science.”

So, if there were mastodons in the lower Hudson Valley and the Berkshires, and woolly mammoths on the other side of Vermont’s Okemo Mountain, then why not ancient North American proboscideans here in the Connecticut Valley? Why have no farmers draining swamps to extend croplands made a discovery like the one in Middletown, N.Y.? Could there be ancient bones awaiting discovery in some of our most foreboding swamps avoided by people for the duration of the historic period? Cold-weather animals who needed incredible amounts of water to survive, mastodons would have been found near lakes and ponds as the Ice Age melted down to the Holocene epoch.

Which brings us to the impetus for Gramly’s telephone call last weekend. He had just found what he believed to be deep-history references to mastodon hunting in “Seneca Myths and Folktales,” published in 1923 by Arthur C. Parker, a fluent Iroquoian Seneca speaker. Having morphed into a magic monster or mammoth bear by Parker’s day, the “Niagwaihegowa” had on its foot a vulnerable spot, which, if pierced, led to the beast’s death.

“It’s right there in Seneca myth,” Gramly gasped. “It takes you all the way back to the beginning, to mastodon hunting and ritualistic mastodon kill sites like the one we dug at Bowser Road.

“Let me tell you something, my friend. I’m going to scour other collections of mastodon bones, paying close attention to the ankle area. I fully expect to discover other chop marks like those on John Charles. And when I do, we’ll have it pegged, Buddy.”

It seems within reach. Another piece of an ancient puzzle ready to be dropped snugly into place.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: Email:

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