SERGIO DE LA ROSA MARTINEZ
INDIANAPOLIS – From the shadows of the partially lit gallery, a monster emerged.
Massive, curving tusks jut out like steel girders from the cyclopian skull. Ribs as long as a person’s leg protrude down from hulking shoulders and spine. Legs like small trees support the hulking form.More than 10,000 years ago, the mastodon plodded the land just outside Fort Wayne. The fossils have been resurrected to star as the centerpiece at the Indiana State Museum.
Indiana’s own prehistoric beasts are the focus of the museum’s new exhibition. “Ice Age Giants” re-creates the process of uncovering the fossilized bones of mammoths and mastodons, identifying them, studying them and finally reassembling the skeletons to tower once again.
But while children and adults alike picture a woolly behemoth with super-sized tusks plodding through the Arctic, museum organizers are painting a picture of the ancient elephants and their time in the Hoosier state.
“In this region, they were very abundant. Indiana has the same, if not more, as the states around us,” Ron Richards, senior research curator of paleobiology at the museum, told the Daily Journal. “We have one of the better organized collections, one of the bigger collections and more sites from where animals had been found.”
Around 20,000 years ago, a glacier covered Indiana from Michigan to Martinsville. The margins between ice sheet and conifer forest were the ideal habitat for mastodons and mammoths.
According to research done by Katherine Yansa, a professor of geography at Michigan State University, Indiana was populated by the Jefferson mammoths, a species of the animal native to the Midwest, and American mastodons.
As the climate changed and ice melted, many of those animals either fled north to find more food or perished, Yansa said.
Retreating ice left bogs and shallow lakes, which became the final resting places for hundreds of mammoths and mastodons. As those wetlands have been drained, filled in or unearthed, the bones have been recovered.
Indiana has hundreds of sites where mastodon and mammoth bones have been found. Two recoveries have been done in Johnson County: one in the Center Grove area, and another near Edinburgh. Many of those bones have found their way to the Indiana State Museum.
‘A lot of people think that to become a fossil, you have to be stone. But that’s not the case.’
– Ron Richards, senior research curator of paleobiology
“Ice Age Giants” is built almost entirely from the museum’s own collection. The Indiana State Museum is one of the foremost experts in mastodons and mammoths in the Great Lakes region and has taken the lead on excavating the animals.
The museum has done 16 of its own skeleton recoveries in the past 30 years, a wealth of specimens to be added to its collection. Full skeletons from the state were or currently are mounted in museums in Chicago, Denver and Washington.
“We identified this as one of our areas of excellence, paleontology. We do a lot of digs, too, so it’s a natural for us to do an exhibit of these animals,” Richards said.
The exhibit takes visitors through the process of unearthing mammoth and mastodon bones as they’ve been found around Indiana. Through video, they hear from a farmer who found a leg bone in his cornfield.
“A farmer is digging in his field, draining a pond, putting in field tiles, and they find something,” Richards said.
People can walk through the re-creation of an archaeological dig done in 1996, complete with surveying tools, grid work on the ground and a soundtrack from an actual dig that plays over the speakers.
“It’s just like a crime-scene investigation, putting together what happened in a crime,” Richards said.
An entire room then breaks the animals down, demonstrating the unique aspects of teeth, tusks, leg bones and skulls.
Though the two animals look similar, mammoths and mastodons have significant differences. The tusks of a mammoth point downward, but they shoot out straight out from the jaw of a mastodon. Mastodon teeth are used for chewing, while those of mammoths are more designed for grinding plant material.
A video shows how scientists calculate the age of a particular mastodon or mammoth. Using the tusks, they can count the number of cones that form as the protrusions grow larger. Much like paper drinking cups, the cones fit into each other year after year.
The rare aspects of the collection are tiny bones that typically are difficult to find during a dig. The Indiana State Museum has seven inner ear bones from mastodons and mammoths. The kernel-sized artifacts come from inside the skulls of the animals and give scientists an idea on how the beasts hear, Richards said.
Bones also show the brutal nature of the Ice Age. Ribs show signs of breaking and rehealing. Tusks have gouges taken out of them. One animal found in Indiana seemed to have died suddenly, collapsing in a pile with its limbs spread out from the body, Richards said.
“Most of the Ice Age stuff in Indiana is still bone. They’re fossils because they’re older than 10,000 years. But they’re not fossilized or turned to stone,” he said. “A lot of people think that to become a fossil, you have to be stone. But that’s not the case.”
With the background on the science complete, people are ready to see the monsters themselves. Wall-sized display cases hold skeletons in varying states of completion, laid out so that visitors can envision the head, the ribs and the rest of the body.
Placards describe the different dig sites.
One sets the scene of a recovery in LaPorte County. Farmhands uncovered the bones while digging a ditch. The skull, tusks, shoulders, ribs and torso bones were almost all intact, but strangely, all 12 major limb bones were gone.
Another display revealed bones from seven different skeletons found while someone was digging a recreational pond. The mass grave contained five lower jaws, parts of 13 tusks and one pelvis.
“Was it all at once? Was it over time? We’re trying to determine if they all died together, if they were all from the same herd. But all we know is they are all females,” Richards said.
Finally, visitors come to the final gallery. Two nearly complete skeletons have been assembled and cast, so that that beasts tower over those who walk through.
The first, a mammoth skeleton, was found in Wisconsin. But the second is Fred, unearthed in Fort Wayne, the museum’s first full skeleton.
Indiana State Museum organizers planned the setup to showcase the finished product, tying together all aspects of the exhibit to see what mammoths and mastodons truly looked like, Richards said.
But they also wanted to leave them with a message. The final display, in between the two reconstructed skeletons of the extinct elephant ancestors, shows a tusk from a modern African elephant.
“We wanted to leave people with the thought that elephants are still in trouble today and that we need to protect them, so they don’t end up like mammoths and mastodons did,” Richards said.