BRIGGS, Texas (AP) - Ryan Murray was fishing in Rocky Creek last summer when he looked up and saw something strange. Something white was poking out of the side of the creek embankment on his parents’ ranch in northeastern Burnet County. It was about the size of a cigarette, but it didn’t look like a rock.
So Murray, a 36-year-old office administrator for Austin Gastroenterology, started digging that August afternoon. He dug for half an hour but couldn’t get it out, so he came back the next week.
“I had to tie a kayak seat to a rope around a tree to lower myself down to it,” he said.
Several hours later, after striking an ant colony and getting bitten a few dozen times, Murray extracted two leg bones.
“I didn’t know if they were human or animal,” he told the Austin American-Statesman (https://bit.ly/1lh1heP).
In September he took them to a paleontology open house at the University of Texas, where the experts told him what he had: bison bones. But he didn’t know whether his find was a few hundred years old or a relic from the prehistoric era.
Ancient bison roamed through North America as long as 2 million years ago, according to remains that were found in Florida, said Jerry McDonald, the author of “North American Bison: Their Classification and Evolution.”
Modern bison - the kind that were hunted to the brink of extinction the late 1800s - started evolving about 10,000 years ago, said McDonald, a research associate at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. Modern bison are about a third smaller than their predecessors and have smaller horns, he said.
Murray, who has had a lifelong interest in fossils and artifacts since he inherited his grandfather’s collection of them, kept digging for the rest of the skeleton.
“I recognized there might be some sort of scientific value to studying it,” he said. He and his cousin stood on a scaffold suspended from the bank of the creek and worked with garden tools to uncover more bones, he said.
“Every time I would try to dig one bone there would be several more bones all around it, and I thought there might be an entire animal in there, so I stopped,” he said. In November, he decided to seek help from archaeologists.
He said he didn’t touch the site for five months except to use a chain saw to cut 100-year-old barbed wire and clear brush.
By this spring he had found help from David Calame, an archaeological enthusiast from South Texas who has recorded hundreds of prehistoric archaeological sites. Murray’s father, Duane Murray, and his brother, Tony Murray, used an excavator to scrape off 7 feet of dirt piled above the bones before Calame arrived in late April.
Then came another discovery. Calame, Ryan Murray and another helper named Bruce Turner uncovered the head of the bison two weeks ago. It was filled with so much dirt that it weighed about 50 pounds when they carefully pulled it out of the earth. Many of the teeth and one horn were still intact.
During the first weekend of May, Calame and Turner used small tools to pick away at the dirt between the animal’s vertebrae and ribs. The bison’s back two legs are missing, which means it could have been killed by American Indians, said Calame.
“We won’t know until experts examine it and find out if there are butcher marks,” he said.
While Calame and Turner were carefully pulling out bones, Ryan Murray made another discovery. As he sifted dirt found between the bones, he found small pieces of flint. The flint could have been left there by Indians cutting into the buffalo, said Calame.
The flint could be a key to the bison’s age, said retired UT paleontology professor Ernie Lundelius, because prehistoric Indians hunted the bison about 12,000 years ago. Lundelius said it wasn’t common to find a skeleton as complete as the one Ryan Murray found. Lundelius also examined photos that Murray took of the bison skull.
“It has adult teeth, from what I can see of it,” Lundelius said. He also said that the left horn on the animal “looked odd.”
“It does seem like it’s kind of big for a modern bison,” the professor said.
Murray said he has spent about 70 hours digging and invested about $100 in equipment for his quest. Calame and Turner provided their services for free, he said. No one in his family, including his wife, has given him a hard time about his endeavor, he said. “They’ve all been very supportive,” he said.
He won’t know how old the bison really is until next year, when UT- San Antonio runs carbon-dating tests on it for free, said Murray. Until then, he’s working on clearing the dirt off the bison’s skull, which he’s keeping in a building at the ranch.
“This has been rewarding and fascinating and enjoyable,” he said. “It’s better than sitting at home and staring at an iPad.”
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, https://www.statesman.com
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