DOUGLAS — Fine, dark brown soil quickly turns to a consistency you’d find while mixing cake batter. Korah Lombardi’s and Jolie Magelky’s eager hands shake the large screen filled with a bucket of earth. The dirt cascades through their fingertips as water, pumped just uphill from LaPrele Creek, freely flows unabated from a standard green garden hose at full blast.
It’s a task they’ve done for the better part of three weeks, but the possibility of finding something exceedingly rare from this particular patch of soil keeps spirits high as the thermometer needle hovers at an oppressive 95 degrees.
Up the hill, more than 20 others meticulously open up the earth bit by bit, careful not to damage what potentially lies beneath. They peel the soil back ever so gently, keeping precise measurements and various details of their every move recorded on clipboards. If they do come across something, it is critical that it be well documented.
The LaPrele Mammoth site is special. Mammoth finds aren’t uncommon in Wyoming, but there is something very unique about the roughly 25-year-old Columbian mammoth that was once sticking out of a high bank of LaPrele Creek.
The site, approximately 13,000 years old, dates back to the end of the Ice Age. Last Sunday, members of the Converse County Historical Society stepped foot on that very site for a tour from Todd Surovell, a professor and the department head of archaeology at the University of Wyoming, who was leading a team of approximately 25 students from the Wyoming Archaeological Fieldschool. The fieldschool is also the organization funding this year’s dig. Work this year began June 24 and wrapped up July 16.
Surovell’s specialty is studying the first humans to live in North America. These people, referred to as Paleo-indians, came from Asia via a land bridge 14,000 years ago.
“These numbers are a little debatable by archeologists, but if you were here 15,000 years ago, there would have been no humans at all,” Surovell said of the North American continent.
The landscape would look fairly similar 15,000 years ago compared to today, with LaPrele Creek and the North Platte River flowing just as they do now. The big difference, he noted, were the animals that inhabited the area.
Herds of mammoths, camels, giant ground sloths 8 feet tall, giant shortfaced bears that would make today’s grizzlies tremble and dire wolves among others, roamed these lands. It was a very different place compared to today’s Wyoming wildlife varieties, and all of this changed around the arrival of the first humans.
“What we know is that humans show up, and within a few centuries all those animals go extinct,” Surovell said. “What really excites me about this period of time is that we don’t really have a good understanding of how people would live. One of the major benefits of this site is the possibility of looking at the social organization in the Ice Age.”
The relationship between the arrival of humans and extinction of these animals is one of the unknowns Surovell hopes comes into focus from work in the area.
Considering the LaPrele site is one of the oldest of its kind in Wyoming and North America, it isn’t exactly a terrible place to take a gander.
Building on what state archeologist Dr. George Frison initially learned at the site back in 1987 has been Surovell’s goal for the better part of seven years.
Frison was able to locate a stone tool and flakes from a sharpening tool. This gave Surovell hope that this was a mammoth kill site, but he couldn’t prove that notion just yet. They had lots of flakes and a tool but no projectile points to solidify the listing. One thing to consider is that much of this site had been washed away over the years, flowing downstream toward the North Platte. All of those tools and clues could’ve been washed away well before Frison’s arrival in the ‘80s.
“Since 2014 we’ve been coming back here and investigating this site, trying to determine what went on here,” Surovell said. “Since that time, we’ve learned a lot more.”
The LaPrele site is the second confirmed mammoth kill site in Wyoming and one of approximately 15 found in the world.
With the mammoth weighing up to 20,000 pounds, it made sense the Paleo-indians very likely moved their camp to the kill and remained in the area for some time before moving on.
“We have now found the camp,” Surovell said. “We kind of found it by accident.”
In a narrow part of the pathway from the site to the screening area, they used a shovel to cut into the bank when they struck archeological gold, a big cobble. The cobble had been flaked into a chopping tool and was 12 meters away from the mammoth.
That find made the site a lot larger when they returned in 2015, where more than 200 flakes were found, in addition to hundreds of pieces of red ochre (iron oxide), several small pieces of yellow ochre, flake tools, a sizeable stain of red ochre and a rare bone needle two millimeters in diameter. The needle is believed to be the oldest found in the continental United States. The only one older than that was found in Alaska.
“This was largely unexpected,” Surovell said. “We had a mammoth kill and before we knew it, we’re finding all these domestic things.”
The Chopper Block, which is a hearth, featured activity in an area roughly 10 meters south of the mammoth. Hearth areas are symbolic of households or campsites, and this site contained stone tools, flakes and bone fragments from a bison within it.
Later archeological seasons included an additional area, named the Northwest Block, which featured stone tools, more than 600 pieces of chipped stone and bone fragments.
Stone from the two blocks come from completely different corners of Wyoming, meaning they came together to cooperate at least in the butchering or hunting of the mammoth.
On the final day of the dig that summer in 2017, they found just what they were looking for all along: a nearly complete Clovis point five meters south of the Chopper Block. The point had been broken off roughly half an inch at the bottom where it would have been attached to a spear. This identified the site as a Clovis Mammoth Kill Site, which is much rarer than simply finding a mammoth which died of natural causes.
“This is one of the rarest artifacts you will find in North America,” Surovell said, noting that humans made this particular point from around 13,200 to 12,800 years ago. “If you see a point like this, you know how old it is. It’s quite a find. Only about 50 of them have been found in the entire state of Wyoming.”
Returning to dig this year, they wanted see if they could find other interesting items surrounding where the Clovis point came from. As of midday last Sunday, the bottom half of the Clovis point had yet to be found, but considering unique finds can come in the final hours of the dig season, such as what happened in 2017, anything is possible and those at the site remain optimistic.
“We’re basically just chasing artifacts,” Surovell said. “Chasing areas where we think we’re going to find things.”
So, what’s in store for the LaPrele site? When is it appropriate to halt future excavations and move on?
For Surovell, that time will come when he feels like he has a grasp on how the site works. That’s not to say there isn’t more to discover along the banks of the LaPrele, but future groups can try their hand at adding to the bigger picture. Surovell is at peace with that decision.
In fact, his time at LaPrele could possibly be coming to an end in the next few years. He says two more seasons, but nothing has been set in stone. The unpredictable nature of what can be unearthed at a moment’s notice can change everything. That’s what keeps folks like Surovell coming back.
“These deposits we’re digging in are continuous,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there is archaeology in all of it, but there’s potential for archaeology in all of it. We have not found an edge to this site in any direction.”