Native Insight: Exploring mastodon populations of 13,000 years ago

  • A map representing the geographical region utilized by the "mega-band" of fluted point-using Paleo-American hunters roughly 13,000 years ago. The location of the Sugarloaf encampment is marked by an "X." Contributed photo/Richard Michael Gramly

  • A mastadon is engraved on this Early Woodland gorget, the larger fragment of which was discovered in Bucks County, Pa. in 1872, and the smaller fragment in 1881. Contributed image/Richard Michael Gramly


Recorder Staff
Published: 3/30/2018 2:45:31 PM

Leave it to one Dr. Richard Michael Gramly, that sage, septuagenarian, North Andover paleontologist who’s never finicky about shaking things up a bit, to do just that with his groundbreaking presentation at an upcoming Burlington, Vt., conference.

Not to overhype what Mike Gramly will unveil, which will not likely blow the lid off the April 13 to 15 Northeast Natural History Conference at Doubletree by Hilton. Really, his claims aren’t earthshattering. In fact, one has been hypothesized by other scholars. Still, he will no doubt raise some eyebrows and heat the conference-room teapot to a soft, simmering whistle with his cutting-edge symposium titled “The Bowser Road Mastodon (N.Y.): Implications About the Demise of a Species.”

Based on analysis of three archaeological excavations he led at the 12,350-year-old, caribou-hunting, Sugarloaf Site along the Deerfield/Whately line and later at a 13,000-year-old, Middletown, N.Y., mastodon-hunting site, he’ll opine something that’s likely new to the audience. Both interpretations and conclusions will provide tasty fodder for evening cocktail-hour discussion and debate.

We’re talking about elephants. Proboscideans. Right here in the Connecticut Valley! Remains and artifacts connecting these ancient, extinct, mammoth beats to humankind could exist in some bog down the road. No kidding, difficult as it may be to comprehend.

What Gramly will unveil to this group of natural-history experts is not only his hypothesis that two herds of New England mastodons with a total population of some 350 roamed vegetated river valleys on an otherwise barren landscape during the Bull Brook/Sugarloaf Phase of the Paleo-American era. No, he’ll also opine that primitive Paleoindian people hunted these eight- to 10-ton, tusked beasts to extinction 150 years later. That’s a mere century-and-a-half after ancient Clovis hunters left their radiocarbon-dated footprint from annual gatherings at the Sugarloaf or DEDIC Site located on Mount Sugarloaf’s southern skirt.

Gramly is the pre-eminent Sugarloaf Site scholar, having led archaeological excavations there in 1995 and 2013. Out of these two digs came three published reports detailing his findings and conclusions. He is sold on the fact that this place right in our neighborhood represents the site of the “largest aggregation of fluted-point-using Paleo-American hunters during the Terminal Pleistocene in eastern North America.”

At the time of the ancient Sugarloaf and Bull Brook (Ipswich) hunting encampments 12,350 years ago, Gramly estimates there were a total of six hunter-gatherer bands moving through fertile New England river valleys to exploit mineral, plant and animal resources. He says each band was composed of six families of 5 to 8 people. Elementary math tells you that’s a maximum estimated population of 288 and a minimum of 180. So, let’s split it down the middle and settle on a population of 234. Compared to the previous low-ball estimate of 350 mastodons roaming the same range, the proboscideans then outnumbered humans by 116.

Based on new evidence and new interpretation of old mastodon collections — plus his own mathematical formula comparing human/proboscidean gestation and mortality, and the rate at which Paleo hunters killed and ritually butchered mastodons as a rite of manhood — Gramly concludes that by the time mastodons went extinct 12,200 years ago at their last Great Lakes refuge, they would have been greatly outnumbered by humans.

In a nutshell, Gramly sees the extinction as a simple numbers game. That is, once human/mastodon population parity was achieved and numbers were headed in the wrong direction for probiscideans, a dire outcome (extinction) was inevitable and did indeed play out. Though the theory that humans hunted mastodons to extinction has been suggested by others, no one has ever broken it down mathematically or hypothesized, as Gramly has, that human predation of these large, dangerous beasts was a ritual performed every seven to nine years by paired bands. As the bands multiplied, more beasts died, including females tending young, which would only increase the mortality rate.

Remember, although the total New England land mass Gramly focuses on encompasses 23,375 square miles, mastodons would have lived only in the large river corridors, where wet, vegetated habitats provided enough plant food and water to sustain the foraging browsers. Those hilly, vegetated corridors along the early, post-glacial Connecticut, Merrimack, Taunton, Housatonic and upper Androscoggin river margins comprised only 15 percent of the whole, or 3,650 square miles. So, mastodons would not have been difficult to find, then trap and kill in advantageous terrain that gave Paleo hunters an edge against a dangerous, powerful beast disabled by a severing blow from a stone axe across the rear Achilles tendon.

Ancient mastodon bones are typically found in bog sites similar to the one Gramly recently excavated at Bowser Road, and they have, over time, mostly been discovered by farmers draining swamps to expand their property’s tillage. Thomas Jefferson wrote about random discoveries of proboscidean remains in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and such remains have been uncovered across North America, including New England. Gramly firmly believes there are many more proboscidean remains to be discovered, and that includes right here in the Connecticut Valley. The problem is that finding them is a daunting task at swampy, difficult-to-navigate sites.

Locally, the types of terrain where such remains could exist are foreboding indeed, unless searches can be executed by ground-penetrating radar or, better still, with some new technology that could scan marshes from the air. We’re talking about places like Fullers Swamp in Deerfield, Great Swamp in Deerfield and Whately, Hopewell Swamp at the eastern base of the Sugarloaf Site, Hatfield Pond and even upland aquifers like Guinea Gulch in Conway. Such places are just not friendly to researchers and excavators, who have, until now, studied mastodon remains discovered by accident during construction projects.

The beasts were definitely here, and Gramly says they are memorialized in the ancient oral history and rock art of the Eastern Woodlands, including the Northeast. Iroquois and other Northeastern deep-history legends speak of monster bears and monster bears with tusks. Also, an engraved mastodon with tusks appears on a precious Early Woodland gorget uncovered in Lenni-Lanape (Delaware) country of Bucks County, Pa.

Gramly will cover it all in a couple of weeks at the Burlington, Vt., conference sponsored by the Eagle Hill Institute of Steuben, Maine. As he’s done many times before over a long, rich archaeological career, he’ll just throw it out there hoping to ignite a new round of discussion and discovery. Yes, that’s something this Harvard-trained paleontologist is good at. That and stirring up haughty, office-bound academics with their noses buried in books and their wheels locked into old rails.

Gramly’s a digger, one with proud Mohawk genes, to boot.

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