The remains of a Columbian mammoth — a less-hairy relative of the woolly mammoth — have been found at a central Gilbert construction site.
A team from the Mesa Southwest Museum began excavating the ice age skeleton this week after a construction worker found the mammoth’s first cervical vertebra — the spinal bone nearest the skull — early last week, said Robert McCord, the museum’s curator of natural history.
McCord said the museum is reasonably certain there are the remains of at least one Columbian mammoth six feet below ground surface at the site, but isn’t certain of the skeleton’s age and condition or the possibility of other skeletons. Evidence of ivory indicates that at least part of the mammoth’s tusks are present.
Such tusks could grow up to 16 feet long when the mammoths roamed what is now Arizona more than 10,000 years ago.
Slightly larger than the woolly mammoth and covered with a lighter coat of hair, the 10-ton mammals ate several hundred pounds of vegetation a day in an East Valley that wasn’t yet a desert. When they died out shortly after humans settled in the area, the mammoths left a fossil legacy.
The Gilbert dig is one of a handful of mammoth excavations at East Valley construction sites during the last 30 years. McCord said his team hoped to finish the task by the end of the month after many early mornings of careful digging at the construction site of a future retail center.
The Tribune is not publishing the find’s location because past media coverage of such finds has led to vandalism. A Chandler site where parts of two mammoths were found in 1997 was looted following reports of its location.
"There was a tremendous amount of damage done the last time," said Jerry Howard, the museum’s curator of anthropology. "Pieces of the skeleton were taken as souvenirs."
Howard said mammoth excavations can provide important insight into the lives of prehistoric mammals and native people who coexisted briefly with them.
"It’s kind of a unique look back into the recent past," Howard said.
To preserve such perspectives, the Gilbert Town Council implemented the state’s first mammoth stipulations in some of its development agreements in 1997. Former Councilman Mike Evans insisted on the policies, which dictate that construction be stopped in an area where prehistoric fossils are found to allow for excavation.
Evans, a board member of the Mesa Southwest Museum Foundation, said he thought it likely more mammoth remains would be found along the prehistoric drainage of the Queen Creek Wash, which has since changed course.
"It belongs to history, and only through greater understanding of the environmental forces that have helped shape our area do we have the opportunity to live in harmony with nature," Evans said.
It is unclear if Gilbert’s "mammoth stipulations" were included in the development agreement for the specific area where the mammoth remains were found, town officials said. But the construction site’s developer is allowing excavation and providing security for it.
It’s something more East Valley developers may have to deal with. Brad Archer, curator of Arizona State University’s Museum of Geology and lead excavator of the recent Chandler mammoths, said even more fossils lie under the expanding south East Valley.
"It’s just a matter of someone noticing them in the right place at the right time," Archer said. "They probably have been found many times and just not recognized. There’s way too much construction going on for there not to have been more."