Union County man uncovers prehistoric elephant bone

By LaReeca Rucker

It's hard to believe that the area we live in was once inhabited by animals larger than elephants, but Dave Hill and his son Travis, 16, can prove it. They discovered a 21 pound bone fragment several months ago in the bank of a local creek.

The Hills had previously uncovered fossils and arrowheads while walking "here, there and yonder," but the small finds didn't compare to the large one they uncovered one Sunday afternoon while strolling through a dry ditch.

"We hunt and fish and loaf and peddle," said Dave, "and we were just looking around, seeing what we could find. We walked up about a mile and there it was."

What they found was a piece of bone 35 inches long and 12 and 1/4 inches wide.

"I thought it was either an oddly shaped rock or a piece of drift wood," said Travis, who set the bone up to examine it. "But when I flipped it over, Daddy said it was probably the hip bone of something."

Dave, who learned about the anatomy of animals while growing up on a farm, quickly realized it was not from any animal he had seen before.

"You could set a bowling ball in the socket part," he said. "I knew it had to be a dinosaur bone. It couldn't be anything else."

Charles T. Swann, a staff geologist with the University of Mississippi Mineral Resources Institute, told the Hills it was not a dinosaur bone, but rather part of a prehistoric elephant called the mastodon that resembled the woolly mammoth and roamed the United States approximately 16,000 years ago.

To be certain, professor Swann took the bone to Eleanor Daly, a vertebrae paleontologist with the Mississippi Museum of Natural History in Jackson. She could not conclusively decide whether or not the bone was from a mammoth or mastodon, but said it was likely a mastodon because mammoths were more closely associated with colder climates and tundra conditions further north.

While mammoths have been discovered in New York and Texas, mastodons have been found in many states. Most found in Mississippi were discovered in the Mississippi River, but Swann said it would not be unusual to find one further east in Union County.

The age of Hill's specimen was also inconclusive, but Swann estimated that the animal was probably the same age as the 16,000-year-old specimens found in the Mississippi River.

"Since this specimen appears to have come from beneath recent flood plain deposits, I would assume it is approximately the same age," Swann said in a letter to Hill. The age of the mastodon is considerably less than that of dinosaurs, the last of which became extinct around 65 million years ago.

As adults, mastodons' backs reached ceiling height - between 8 to 10 feet - and they weighed 4-6 tons. Their teeth had blunt cones, and scientists believe they ate herbs, shrubs and trees.

The mammals became extinct approximately 10,000 years ago along with the saber-toothed tiger, mammoths, the short-faced skunk and the giant beaver. Before their extinction, the diversity of large mammals in North America was similar to modern Africa.

Today, paleontologists are trying to figure out why only a few large mammals survived extinction in North America, but they believe hunting and environmental causes are two major factors in their disappearance.

Hill hopes to sell the bone if possible, but if he doesn't have a buyer, he will donate it to the Union County Heritage Museum.

"I thought that was pretty neat that we found a bone like that here in Union County," he said. "It kind of caught me off guard. I've been in a lot of creeks, but I never thought we would find this."