- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

SELAH, Wash. (AP) - He was a civil engineer. She taught job skills to community college students. They called their small wheat and cattle farm in the Wenas Valley “a labor of love,” their gentle way of saying it was never going to make them rich.

Doug and Bronwyn Mayo had a simple life.

Right until something long dead popped up in the middle of it, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported (https://bit.ly/1TerYk7).

It was February of 2005. They were having a long driveway built to the site of their daughter’s future home, well up the slope above the Wenas Valley on which the Mayos owned about 600 acres of cheatgrass and bunch grasses as springtime grazing fodder for their cows.

Then came this rather cryptic phone call from the contractor:

“I think I found a dinosaur. What do you want me to do?”

The Mayos’ response: Stop everything. We’ll be right there.

The large bone poking out of the bank created by the contractor’s bulldozer wasn’t from a dinosaur. But neither Doug nor Bronwyn Mayo had any way of knowing that yet.

“In college, I never took any life sciences,” says Doug Mayo. “The only things I took were dead: physics, chemistry, geology, things like that.”

But paleontology, the study of fossils to understand life throughout geologic time, was about to become a huge part of the Mayos’ life.

The bone jutting from that slope-side driveway bank was the left humerus - the front leg/arm - of a Columbian mammoth that had lived nearly 17,000 years before.

Standing 13 to 14 feet high, the Columbian mammoths were ancestors to modern Asian and African elephants, but significantly larger and heavier than either.

“If we’d built the road maybe 6 inches over to the right, we might never have found it,” Doug Mayo says.

He pauses and amends his thought.

“We didn’t find it. It found us.”

The bone wasn’t alone. There were others. The Mayos had the contractor work around the area in which they seemed to be concentrated and, as word spread about the find, they even covered some of the bones back up.

“So people wouldn’t steal them,” Doug Mayo explains. “There was at least one occurrence where there were some parents that were dropping their kids off along the road and saying, ‘Run up there and see if you can find any bones.’ We didn’t have any fence up, didn’t have a gate up; basically, you could just drive up there.”

The Mayos weren’t covering the bones to keep them for themselves, though. Quite the opposite: They intended to share their find with the world.

“They weren’t obligated to do anything,” says Patrick Lubinski, a professor of archaeology and anthropology at Central Washington University. “They could have dug all those bones up with a backhoe and sold them on eBay.”

Instead, the Mayos brought the large bone and the various fragments to CWU, where Lubinski’s initial interest was muted. So many bone fossils in central Washington were carried here from elsewhere during the Ice Age Floods that their value in understanding what lived where, eons ago, is sketchy at best.

But, Lubinski recalls, “I had a student in a lab who said, ‘Can I put these together? It’s kind of like a jigsaw puzzle.’ And he did.

“And, oh, it’s this gigantic arm bone.”

That numerous bones and bone fragments were clustered at the site - which turned out to be at an elevation significantly higher than could have been reached by any of the Ice Age Floods - told the scientists something else:

The mammoth had lived and died right there.

A CWU team of three professors and nine students spent that summer of 2005 carefully surveying, digging and studying. They were back the next summer, and then for another four more summers of meticulous excavation that unearthed not only nearly half of the mammoth’s skeleton, but also a quarter of what turned out to be a bison.

Like the mammoth, the bison was carbon-dated at roughly 17,000 years, making it perhaps an even more significant find. “It turns out we just don’t have many bison that age in all of western North America,” Lubinski says. “The only place there are really bison that far back are the La Brea Tar Pits” in southern California.

In its second summer, the dig uncovered the first of two cryptocrystalline flakes, consistent with the chips created by early humans knapping on a rock while making a tool or a weapon, in the soil about 6 inches above one of the mammoth bones.

“Then it certainly became more interesting,” Lubinski says. “Right now, most of the scientific evidence of people in North America, or South America, doesn’t start until 13,000 or 14,000 years ago. There’s maybe a dozen sites in North and South America where there’s strong evidence that people were hunting mammoths, and any site with evidence older than 13,000 or 14,000 years is very controversial.”

Carbon-dating works only on artifacts that were once alive - and it’s quite expensive, about $700 per sample, limiting the CWU researchers. So what the scientists are able to glean from what they’ve found at the site creates more intriguing questions than concrete answers.

“If we had definitive evidence that this place was hunted by people at the same time (as the Columbian mammoth and bison, 17,000 years ago),” Lubinski says, “we would have international press here right now.”

To say the Mayos were open to the scientists’ presence - and to the tours of fascinated onlookers during the six summers of the dig - would be an understatement.

Though many such scientific finds bear the name of either the finder or the property owner, the Mayos had no interest in a Mayo Mammoth. This was to be the Wenas Mammoth.

“This is not our mammoth. This is community. This is history,” Bronwyn Mayo says. “This is going to be here long after we’re gone.”

Fueled by the teaching ethic within Bronwyn, the Mayos were adamant that whatever unfolded during the meticulous excavation had to be not just shared with and open to the community, but have educational value - particularly for kids struggling to stay engaged in the classroom.

“We need something for our community to be proud of,” Bronwyn Mayo said, “but we also need a way to engage kids - to where they’re using science and technology, engineering and math skills in a real environment that is so unique and so cool that they want to grow with that. So we’re trying to plant that seed in these kids, to get that interest going (so they can) realize this stuff, it’s pretty cool.”

She began developing a curriculum around the mammoth bones and everything they were learning during the excavation. The education was also going on at home, where the Mayos’ television fare began to revolve around programming like the History Channel, Discovery and the Science Channel.

The Wenas Mammoth site, since last summer marked by a life-size, welded-metal mammoth silhouette, is now quite literally on the map. The Mayos made multiple trips to Olympia in their relentless, and ultimately successful, campaign to have the slope renamed Wenas Mammoth Mountain.

Now retired from their day jobs, the Mayos have become de facto full-time citizen scientists and educators. They formed the nonprofit Wenas Mammoth Foundation in 2012 primarily to be able to generate working capital from somewhere besides their own pockets.

“A neighbor says, well, you getting any kickbacks? There ain’t anything back to kick,” Doug Mayo says with a laugh. “We’re putting money into it - I figure it’s been $30,000 or $40,000 out of our pocket over the years.”

The Mayos haul their Mobile Educational Exhibit - a traveling museum of sorts, festooned with prehistoric info, charts, timelines and unbreakable duplicates of the bones found at the excavation site - to schools, community events and educational conferences. They hope to work with local schools to generate curricula around future excavation.

For the moment, at least, the dig is done.

“Most archeologists say, yes, if a site isn’t immediately threatened,” says CWU’s Lubinski, “you really ethically should preserve some of it because you know methods will be better in the future.”

As far as the Mayos are concerned, the future is now. If they can get power to the dig site and find the funding, they hope to construct an interpretive center that could serve as the headquarters for continuing excavation.

“In 20, 30 years, there could be advances in science and you could actually learn more then,” Doug Mayo says. “Well, in 20 or 30 years, we’re going to be dead.

“And we want to know now what’s up there.”

You could call it the Mayos’ labor of love.


Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, https://www.yakimaherald.com



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