How to find a 13,000 year-old mammoth

  • Andrew Gulliford

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNITY OUTREACH MANAGER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Outreach Manager to reach and forge new relationships with individuals and groups who represent communities historically...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Wild Rockies Field Institute is seeking a visionary Executive Director to lead the organization in Missoula, Montana. Individuals with a proven track record in...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.