It takes a long time to find a curved-tusk mammoth, especially if it's been obscured beneath tamarisk, oak brush and tenacious Russian olive bushes.
I'd heard stories about mammoths once roaming the land that's now San Juan County in southeastern Utah, but a beast from the Pleistocene is hard to locate on rock cliffs and even harder to prove. But now, thanks to the Bureau of Land Management, a 13,000 year-old petroglyph of a mammoth, one of the oldest examples of rock art in North America, can be visible under just the right lighting conditions.
Every year, river runners launch their rafts, duckies, kayaks and canoes at Sand Island for a long, leisurely float down the San Juan. Ancient Basketmaker Indians loved the river, too, and you can find long walls of Navajo sandstone covered with petroglyphs of all kinds -- human figures, animals, squiggly lines, geometric shapes, warriors and images of Kokopelli, the humpbacked flute player.
Rock art panels offer insight into the life and culture of thousands of years ago. But is there any way of knowing whether mammoths were part of that life? The great beasts lived not only during another time but also in a different climate. That's not all: Proving their existence through rock art would turn back the clock yet again on human habitation in the American Southwest.
Seven years ago, when I first heard about a possible mammoth image in San Juan County, I hiked to see it with Joe Pachak, a local artist and rock art specialist. I got whipped in the face by bushes and branches and wasn't able to make out the animal's image, though Joe said he could discern it. Then the Monticello office of Utah's BLM hydro-axed and weed-whacked the tamarisk that had invaded the area. For the first time in decades, visitors could finally see petroglyphs that had been carved on rock cliffs thousands of years ago.
By spring 2011, Arizona rock art specialists Ekkehart Malotki of Flagstaff and Henry Wallace from Tucson had photographed the alleged mammoth image, and the scientific community began to take notice. As Malotki and Wallace explain, "It had never been scientifically described or investigated, probably because of its difficult access more than 15 feet above ground level. Also impeding its recognition as a mammoth is its indistinctness."
Now, I've seen it, too, though it isn't easy. Not only does it take strong side light to view the 20-inch long carving, but another prehistoric hunter carved a bison over the older image. Equally confusing are other petroglyphs close by. Yet, thanks to the BLM's tamarisk removal program, the mammoth's unique tusks and elephant-like trunk can now be seen, although just barely.
French Paleolithic rock-art expert Jeane Clottes says that if the petroglyph had been discovered in a French or Spanish cave, "nobody would question its identification." For Bluff resident Pachak, however, acceptance of his find has been decades coming: "I recognized it about 1990, when I was trying to record Archaic rock art," he says. "I took photos and discussed it with friends. It seemed apparent, but rock art specialists rejected it because they said a wall like that could not sustain an image for 13,000 years."
The entire site has yet to be adequately recorded, Pachak says, adding that it "is a very difficult thing to do because you'd have to draw every rock surface." Just positioning ladders without potentially damaging the ancient panel is complicated. Pachak has urged the BLM to require special permits for any such effort.
Pachak, who has lived for 30 years in Bluff, says that discovering the mammoth petroglyph "was one of the most enriching things that ever happened to me. How special is it to find one of the oldest rock art sites in North America?" But he questions, "Why isn't the BLM acknowledging, protecting and investigating it?" An agency spokesman says that the panel is protected by law, and he thinks visitors respect the history that it represents.
Meanwhile, who knows what else we'll find as we rid the Southwest of thirsty invasive plants such as tamarisk and Russian olive? As for the mammoth petroglyph, I hope I can see it again -- more clearly this time -- on that long expanse of rock, perhaps with the help of slanted sunlight on a spring morning. But I agree with Joe. It's astonishing that the image has survived for some 13,000 years, and now that we know about it, we need to keep it safe.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.