16,000-Year-Old Mammoth Tusk Found In Seattle Is ‘Rare Opportunity’ To Study Ice Age Conditions In Northwest

  on
mammoth-tusk
After scientists safely exhumed the 8-foot, 6-inch mammoth tusk on Friday, they noted that the tusk is most likely from a Columbian mammoth, which roamed North America during the late Pleistocene period.

The ice-age mammoth tusk discovered at a construction site in Seattle, Wash., is at least 16,000 years old and could be as old as 60,000 years, according to paleontologists studying the fossilized tusk. CNN reports that after scientists safely exhumed the 8-foot, 6-inch mammoth tusk on Friday, they noted that the tusk is most likely from a Columbian mammoth.

Mammuthus columbi, whose tusks can reach nearly 14 feet in length, occupied North America during the late Pleistocene period, up until about 12,500 years ago.

In 1998, Washington designated the Columbian mammoth the state fossil. The fossilized mammoth tusk discovered last week is likely the largest and most intact mammoth tusk ever found in Seattle.

"The tusk presents a rare opportunity for paleontologists and other researchers to understand the paleoenvironmental conditions present in Seattle during the ice age," the Burke Museum, whose scientists are working to preserve and examine the mammoth tusk, noted in a statement.

According to the museum, the tusk was unearthed from below a layer of blue-black earth whose age is well known. Based on the location of the tusk relative to this layer, scientists estimate the tusk’s age to between 16,000 and 60,000 years, but radiocarbon dating will provide a more accurate account of the fossil’s age.

The mammoth tusk was discovered at the construction site of a new apartment complex in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood on Tuesday. The tusk was located about 30 feet below street level. According to Komo News, crew members first thought the mammoth tusk might have been a large root or a pipe.

Because the fossil was discovered on private property, it was up to the landowner’s discretion what would happen to the tusk. Luckily for the Burke Museum, the developer decided to turn the fossil over to paleontologists.

"Since the tusk is on private property, it could have ended up in a private collection," Christian Sidor, the museum's curator of vertebrate paleontology, said in a statement. "We are very fortunate that AMLI contacted us to remove and care for the tusk."

He added: “The accessibility of natural history objects provided by the museum greatly benefits the community and researchers alike.”

Scientists were also able to recover plant and insect fragments from the site. They believe the evidence will help them reconstruct what the environment looked like when the woolly mammoth was alive.

Once discovered, paleontologists quickly got to work preserving the tusk for transportation and study. The tusk was water-logged when it was recovered and had to be wrapped in plaster-soaked burlap bandages. Scientists will have to allow the tusk to dry out for at least 12 months.

“The excavation will cause us some construction delay but the scientific and educational benefits of this discovery clearly outweigh the costs and delay,” Scott Koppelman Senior Vice President of AMLI Residential, said in a statement. “This is an exciting discovery for our local Northwest history.” 

In Feb. 2010, construction workers digging holes for an interstate highway in Ridgefield, Wash., came across a fractured mammoth tusk. The tusk measured about 4 feet long. Like the mammoth tusk discovered in Seattle, the Ridgefield tusk also belonged to a prehistoric Columbian mammoth.

Columbian mammoth’s roamed the northwest alongside giant ground sloths, American lions and saber-toothed cats. The environment was much swampier than it is today. 

Join the Discussion