On August 8, 1977, Emanuel "Manny" Manis (1926-2000) unearths mastodon tusks while excavating a dry peat bog on his property on the southern outskirts of Sequim, Clallam County. The typically marshy area is dry due to a drought that summer, and conditions are ideal for Manis's intentions of digging out a smaller area within the bog to create a permanent pond. His backhoe begins bringing up what at first appear to be old logs. He and his wife Clare soon realize they are looking not at logs, but at tusks nearly eight feet long. They contact archaeology and paleontology experts who begin excavation of the site, confirming that the tusks and other bones are those of a mastodon preserved in the wet peat for 13,000 to 14,000 years. An unrelated bone they soon find embedded in a rib, if indeed a spear tip, provides the first evidence that humans interacted with these prehistoric proboscidian mammals that resemble our elephant (but with molar teeth of a different structure).
Finding Old Bones
Emanuel and Clare Manis moved from California to Sequim in 1975 seeking a simpler rural life. They intended to support themselves with a huge garden and a few cattle. A permanent pond built in a marshy part of the small farm would provide water for cows and crops.
Manny Manis’s discovery of the tusks permanently altered their priorities. After the find, the couple contacted Dr. Richard D. Daugherty (1922-2014), Dr. Carl Eugene Gustafson (b. 1936), and Delbert Wesley Gilbow (b. 1934), all of Washington State University, and Jean Welch of the Washington State Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.
Dr. Gustafson recalled:
“Marshes and bogs are often excellent sites for preservation of fossils, because the water is still, the bones seldom are moved about, and they may be buried quickly. It seemed that the Manis discovery could give us an excellent opportunity to learn more about the elephants that once roamed the Olympic Peninsula” (Gustafson, 3).
The Spear Point
Almost immediately, he made an exciting discovery with potentially major scientific implications -- a rib fragment with a denser type of bone protruding from it. The team’s hunch was that the protruding bone could be a spear point. If so, it would indicate that humans had hunted the mastodons of the Olympic long before human contact of any kind with prehistoric prey had been speculated and would certainly “represent the oldest evidence of human activity in the Pacific Northwest” (Gustafson, 4). They soon had the fragments X-rayed at the Wallace Harms Radiology Group Laboratory near Seattle, where Dr. Marvin Wallace concluded that the wound produced by this foreign piece of bone was a “penetration fracture” that had healed for three to four months.
Gustafson, Gilbow, graduate students and volunteers continued excavating throughout the fall and winter, at first unsure whether their finds belonged to huge mammoths or the somewhat smaller mastodons, both of which had been extinct for roughly 11,000 years. Soon a molar tooth revealed conclusively that the animal was a mastodon. The wear on the molar and the arthritic condition of some of the bones indicated a very old animal, probably of about 45 years. It had survived the assumed human attack that left the spear tip, only to die of disease, old age, or drowning.
The World of the Mastodon
With funding from the National Science Foundation, the Washington State Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation and other sources, the team was able to set up an on ongoing archaeological site on which work would continue until 1985, generating much scholarly research as well as local interest. In 1978 the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Manny and Clare Manis cooperated in every way, even opening the site to the public. During the years of excavation, 50,000 people from the United States and 30 foreign countries visited the site.
As more bones were found, the cuts and scratches on them indicated that the dead mastodon had been partially butchered for food. Over the next few years, experts from other fields took advantage of the dig to research the conditions in which the mastodon had lived. Pollens and seeds collected at the site showed the type of vegetation surrounding the ancient pond, which provided clues as to the climate at the time. The dry Sequim Valley was even drier then, as evidenced by the cactus found. The scientists concluded that the evergreen forests of the present had not yet developed in the area. Additional fragmentary animal remains included bison and caribou as well as snakes, frogs, and ducks.
On higher ground near the pond, charcoal and animal bones indicated that humans had camped there repeatedly between 14,000 and 8,000 years ago. The team discovered that the early hunters had carried bones from the more exposed right side of the mastodon to a slightly higher elevation for butchering. The presence of these bones less than an inch above the glacial gravel indicated that the mastodon had died soon after the last glacier had retreated. Subsequent excavations nearby yielded a few remains of another apparently butchered mastodon, as well as evidence of repeated human habitation.
The Mastodon-Human Connection
In Dr. Gustafson’s view, the accumulated evidence from the Manis site suggests that “people lived on the Olympic Peninsula at least 4,000 years earlier than previously anticipated” (Gustafson, 15). Not all scientists agree, however, for as Dr. Gustafson explained in 2002, “Before the Sequim find, the conventional wisdom within the scientific community had been that humans didn’t hunt, eat or even cross paths with mastodons” (Paulson). For this reason, plus the primitive appearance of the supposed spear tip and the extremely early dating, Gustafson’s conclusions are still somewhat controversial. Yet in his and many others’ view, there is no other way to account for the foreign bone that fractured the mastodon’s rib. Scientists have fewer doubts about more recent human involvement with mammoths.
Emanual Manis died in 2000. In 2002 Clare Manis donated the two-acre site to the non-profit Archaeological Conservancy in his memory. The tusks and major bones of the mastodon are preserved in an exhibit at the Museum and Arts Center in Sequim. The life-size mural on which actual bones are superimposed convincingly depicts the mastodon and its environment. The tusks repose in a tank of water in front of the mural. An excellent video shown there, narrated by Dr. Gustafson, recounts the history of excavation of the site.
In the fall of 2011, Professor Gustafson, at age 75, finally saw the vindication of his theory that the object penetrating the rib of the mastodon was a projectile point. The prevailing scientific wisdom has long been that the Clovis people were the earliest hunters in North America, the evidence being a discovery during the 1930s of stone projectiles 13,000 years old at Clovis, New Mexico. Gustafson’s claim that humans had hunted mastodons even earlier evoked the skepticism and even scorn of the “Clovis first” advocates. In their view, the object found in the mastodon’s rib was from the tusk of another mastodon or the antler of a charging elk.
Now DNA sequencing, CT scanning, and other advanced methods of analysis at the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University have shown that the object was a piece of mastodon bone intentionally shaped into a spear point more than 10 inches long. Further scientific analysis confirmed the creature’s death to have occurred around 13,800 years ago, predating the Clovis people by some 800 years. The reassessment of Gustafson’s discovery adds significantly to a growing body of evidence for pre-Clovis human presence in North America.