Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 7, 2012

Mammoths Die in Mortal Combat!

After I wrote in a recent blog about a visit to see the dinosaurs at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, I got an email from the guy who took me to see my first dinosaur exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution: Dad. As I’ve said previously, dinosaurs and fossils had the same fascination that they do for many kids, although, admittedly, I was a bit obsessed. I’ve always been a reader, and although I read a wide variety of things, I consumed every possible page I could find on ancient beasts, like this example, still in my possession (click on images for larger view):

Strange Beasts cover Brad Nixon (496x640)

Yes, good ol’ RCA: Roy Chapman Andrews; whale hunter, explorer of Asia, leader of the first fossil-hunting expedition to the Gobi Desert. Man, that guy was my hero (well, second to Dad).

Since I had referred in that blog to my lifelong fascination with Strange Beasts of the Past, and since he and my mother were instrumental in supporting and enabling that fascination, Dad reminded me of the time our family was on the scene not longer after a spectacular fossil discovery.

In August of 1962, a surveying crew discovered a very large bone outside of Crawford, Nebraska. They reported this find to the local museum, and an investigation turned into an excavation. As the site was excavated, it yielded first a Columbian Mammoth, and then a second mammoth. In addition to that almost impossibly rare occurrence, the tusks of the two beasts were intertwined, and the almost inescapable conclusion is that 11,000 years ago or so they were fighting each other, and died, locked together.

Even in sophisticated, urbane Crawford, the discovery of two massive creatures fossilized together in a battle to the death was front-page news:

Mammoth headline Brad Nixon (640x480)

Now, WHEN was that editor EVER going to write another headline like that in the remainder of his or her lifetime?

A week or so later, the Nixon family (five of us: the twins were too young to make the trip and stayed home with the grandparents) came through Crawford on the homeward leg of a driving trip that had taken us across South Dakota, to Rapid City, the Badlands, the Black Hills. At least as far as budding paleontologist, Brad, was concerned, our timing couldn’t have been better!

By the time we arrived on the scene, the plaster-encased fossils had been moved to the Fort Robinson Trailside Museum. Our visit coincided with one by a photographer from the local newspaper. So, there we are, right next to the Mighty Mammoths:

Crawford mammoth photo Brad Nixon (640x616)

These mammoth skeletons have had quite a history after their discovery. They were moved to Lincoln, where they have a university, a state capitol, an airport, a football team: all the comforts of a metropolis. Assumedly, mammoths got accustomed to the bright lights and nonstop celebrity attention. Now they are, reportedly, being returned to the Crawford area for display, retiring to their native home after decades  of being studied there in Lincoln.

Mom and Dad went far out of their way to accommodate my interests, and those of my brothers and sister. I’m older and louder, and certainly got my share of that attention, and my gratitude for their forbearance never ceases.

To learn more about the Crawford mammoths, and see a video from the PBS Nova series, visit http://trailside.unl.edu/mammothmystery.html. They also have some of those new-fangled color photos of how the skeletons look unpacked from their plaster casts.

Postscript:

I opened the cover of that worn and weathered copy of All About Strange Beasts of the Past while I was scanning the image. Here’s a look at the inside cover:

Strange Beasts inside Brad Nixon (640x495)

In the upper left, that’s my mother’s unmistakable (excellent) handwriting (nurses have excellent handwriting, because they have to compensate for the illegible scrawls of the doctors they work with). It’s my name and our phone number, 2-1172, a number that is engraved on my memory, because, like children across the years, I was trained to KNOW THAT NUMBER in case of an emergency. Five digits. I’ve always remembered it. Yes, in that long-ago time, you could call us by dialing five digits (on your rotary phone). My mother knew I’d take that book to school and made certain that someone would be able to return it to me if I left it somewhere. I didn’t realize she’d done that until this day, fifty years later.

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2017. Book design is the property of Random House.

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Responses

  1. I will add my bit by saying in 1993, 31 years after our visit to Crawford, my wife and I were again in that vicinity, and because we had not received a copy of the photo taken we decided to visit their library and perhaps find a copy of the local paper with a photo of the five of us. Entering the library and telling the librarian of our quest she directed us upstairs and to help ourselves and goodluck. Upstairs we found stacks of dust-covered newspapers neatly stacked year by year. Knowing the year, thanks to Mrs Nixon, we went to August, our usual vacation month,1962 and going day by day were sucessful. We asked the lady if she could make a copy of the photo and the other pages telling of the finding of the mammoths. She gladly copied the items and we left feeling quite satisfied.

    Friendly folk in Crawford, Nebraska, pay them a visit if you get near by.

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  2. Unlike The Blogger, I have not always been an avid reader. When I was a kid, my parents had to bribe me to read books. They set up a chart with books listed on it. When I finished a book, I would check it off the list, and they would pay me. Then I used the money to buy the books I really wanted: comic books. Because they had colorful PICTURES in them. I’ve always been a more visual than literary person.

    This leads to the question of why I ever became an English major in college. I can’t remember. Anyway, this is how I met The Counselor and The Blogger at Miami University. They were Shakespearean scholars in Dr. Johnson’s English lit class. I, on the other hand, was lucky to scrape through with a “B.” This was a gift, as I had not the faintest clue what was going on in that class. We had a thick, heavy text on Shakespeare. It had a lot of footnotes translating English into English. It had NO colorful pictures to spark the imagination. How dreary!

    Which brings me to the present day. Even now, I will rarely pick up a depressing newspaper, unless it has an art review worthy of my time. I’d rather be spending my time either making a painting, or looking at one. 🙂

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  3. I am glad you incuded the pic of “All About Strange Beasts of the Past”. The cover, with that saber-tooth leaping onto the sloth, plays in my mind as a lingering visual from our younger years – that book was always around. Gotta figure the saber-tooth was making a bad move jumping into that tar pit.

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  4. I feel a little bit more normal knowing that there is someone else out there smitten by the imagined romance of discovery of long dead fearsome critters. I had an advantage here on the outskirts of Big Bone Lick Ky. home of many a mammoth. The Behringer Crawford Museum in Devou Park overlooking Cincinnati, sported a massive set of tusks too large to display vertically and many other oddities.
    I thought that I had escaped all of those trumpeting herds when I moved to Anchorage Ak. only to find they had developed permanent winter coats and were called Wooly Mammoths up here.
    Siberia, our neighbor, is a wonderful place to find frozen mammoth remains. Alaska seems to have just missed the boat geographically when it comes to mammoth remains even though as a species they were still wandering around about 10-15,000 years ago.
    I was thrilled to find out about Alaska’s Blue Babe, a bison that was uncovered by a gold miner that was hydraulicing away a hillside and stumbled on the violent scene. Blue Babe had been covered with a white mineral over the last 36,000 years which when exposed to the air turned an almost brilliant blue. He also displayed portions of his flank which appeared to have only been partially eaten.
    The miner promptly called U of A at Fairbanks and reported his find. I am sure that he was aware that his mining might be over for the season. But he was another one of us at heart.
    There were two surprising discoveries yet to be found on Blue Babe. The first was that the bite marks that had perhaps brought him down were still filled with coagulated blood and his physical condition was remarkable even after 36,000 years.
    It was also discovered that a piece of broken tooth was found in his flank probably after his killer returned to feast later and found a frozen TV dinner and winter underway.
    All sorts of speculation ensued as to what might have killed Babe. I think everyone wanted it to be a Sabre Toothed Tiger so that the museum display would outdo anyone else’s.
    Forensic science had their way, however, and the culprits were unmasked as Steppe lions not sabre toothed tigers. I was able to make a pretty good story out of Blue Babe for Anchorage Magazine, my rag. But my appeals for searching for similar mammoth remains fell on deaf ears. The Alaska Dispatch has recently revived interest with a story of a new scientific search for preserved mammoth remains. I follow up every day even though I am now as long in the tooth as my critters.
    Brad, I know California had tigers. But how about lions and tigers and bears?

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