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Friday, February 22, 2013

Ice Age Mammals in Clarington-Again!

Ice-Age Mammals in Clarington:

Is this their first visit or have they been here before?


This exciting exhibit from Ottawa’s Museum of Nature is one of the best we’ve brought to the Sarah Jane Williams Heritage Centre in Bowmanville.  Visitors are introduced to the world of 12,000 years ago when saber-toothed cats, miniature horses, mastodons and mammoths, giant beavers and enormous ground sloths and bears roamed the land.  This exhibit features many real fossils and even a piece of actual woolly mammoth hair!


The exhibit paints a picture of a world long ago that is both different and the same as today.  Many of the finds come from the Yukon.  20,000 years ago it was an open wind swept grassy plain with marshy treed areas interspersed.  Strange large mammals roamed the land with other animals that are still familiar to us today like caribou, bison, wolverines and badgers.  Almost everyone who has seen the exhibit loves it, but one early visitor felt it was not appropriate because it has “nothing to do with Clarington history.”  I disagree and I think the picture described above could easily be Clarington of 12,000-10,000 years ago too.  This article will prove the existence of mammoths, mastodons and early natives in Clarington, but first I have to give you a little background information.


12,000 years ago the world, including North America, was coming out of the last Ice Age (known as the Wisconsin).  Much of the continent had been covered by two huge ice sheets known as the Cordilleran in the west and the Laurentide in the east.  Between them was an ice free zone or corridor.  Sea levels were much lower than today because so much water was tied up in ice (it was as much as 125 meters lower).  This exposed more land and created an area, called Beringia by archaeologists, that connected Siberia to Alaska.  It is thought that Beringia lasted from about 23,000 to almost 8,000 years ago.  From Siberia and down the ice free corridor came the ice age beasts and man, eventually populating both North and South America.    


In Ontario, as the ice sheets melted, they swelled the basins that now form the Great Lakes.  But, as the ice sheets retreated so did the lake levels.  By 12,000 years ago Lake Ontario was only slightly larger than it is now and is known as Lake Iroquois by archaeologists.  When the first natives arrived sometime around 11,000 years ago they were presented with a landscape similar to today’s Arctic but, because of our lower elevation, with a more diverse selection of plants.  It is interesting to note that both the ice age mammals and man came out of the ice free corridor south of Ontario and could not head north to our area until the ice had sufficiently retreated.


The above is established scientific fact but what is the proof for Clarington?  Sad to say, there are no known finds of mastodon and mammoth bones in our area.  This isn’t surprising as these giants went extinct about 8,000 years ago and in Ontario soil, bones do not usually last past 6,000 years except under exceptional circumstances (note- the exhibit presents remains from the Yukon because this area was so dry it escaped glaciation which helped in preservation).  The proof though that mammoths and mastodons were in Clarington is that they have been found all around us- to the east, to the north and especially to the west.  Over 120 mammoths and mastodon finds are recorded for Ontario.  The number would swell greatly if you included the surrounding American States.  The ice first began to disappear in the south and Southwestern Ontario is where most large ice age mammal fossils are found today.


Some of these finds were made way back in the 1830’s and 1890’s.  There are two, the Amaranth and Highgate Mastodons that have quite a story to tell.  In 1887 John Jelly found some large bones on his cousin’s farm in Amaranth Township in Dufferin County.  Being an entrepreneur he saw a chance to make a buck.  He cleaned and assembled the bones and began to show them in various towns and fairs.  The Amaranth Mastodon was a partial skeleton and was known to have been displayed in Shelburne and Fergus.   Jelly later took the skeleton to Western Canada but while out there he got sick.  The bones were put into storage and lost.  Three years later, in 1890, another mastodon skeleton was found on a farm close to Highgate Ontario (near Ridgetown).   John Jelly, now recovered, was on the scene again.  He and his cousin, William Hillhouse, purchased, excavated and reassembled the bones.  What they found was an almost complete mastodon skeleton.  They showed it throughout Ontario and handbills claimed “A Monster Unearthed” and “The World’s Greatest Wonder”.   Mr. R.A. Essery was hired to take the exhibit out west.  Like Jelly before him he too took sick but unlike Jelly he didn’t recover- he died!  The bones went missing and Jelly and Hillhouse lost their prize.  A few years later they found that the skeleton had been stored at a broom factory in Minneapolis but was now missing.  Then it showed up being displayed in North Dakota.  The two men in Dakota disappeared when contacted by Jelly.  In fact, they had sold the bones to Harry Dickinson who sent them to his home in Minnesota for reassembly.  In 1899 James Grassick bought the bones but eventually gave them to the University Of North Dakota.  William Hillhouse tried legal means to get his bones back.  He was ultimately unsuccessful but during the controversy the bones were stored in an attic and forgotten.  In 1974 they were rediscovered and that is how the most complete mastodon skeleton ever found in Ontario is now the eye-catching centre piece of the new heritage centre in Bismarck, North Dakota. 


These two examples from the west of Clarington point out the fact that finds of great scientific merit, especially in the 1800’s, sometimes did not get the academic attention they deserved.  In 1875 J.T. Coleman wrote a booklet on the history of Bowmanville and the surrounding area.  In a section describing native burial places he writes about a particular one in Scugog Township, “For a long time after its discovery, it bore the reputation of containing the remains of a gigantic race.”  He relates subsequent study revealed the bones to be not only human but of normal size.  So, how did the rumour of the giant bones get started?  We’ll probably never know for sure, but a reference to a piece of mammoth tusk found on the shore of Lake Scugog could hold the answer.  The reference is from a 1930 book, but the tusk fragment was probably found in the 1800’s.  Maybe other large bones were found with it and spirited away by a local entrepreneur?  The fragment, once known to science, no longer exists but it was found in the same area as Coleman’s “Indian burying ground” near Ball Point.


To the east of Clarington only one mammoth or mastodon find has been recorded.  In the 1970’s on Pinnacle Street in Belleville the bones of a mammoth or mastodon were uncovered while excavating a house foundation.  After being identified they were reburied in the backyard of the residence.  No other finds come from eastern Ontario or Quebec.  Likely the ice did not retreat there until after the extinction of the large ice age mammals.


We can say, through inference, that mammoths and mastodons inhabited Clarington, but what about the Paleo-Indians?  In this we have direct proof.  Many years ago a lady called me while I was up at the Clarke Museum.  She told me that an early Paleo-Indian point had been found on her farm.  I don’t think she left her name but she said she’d bring it in to show me.  I never did meet her, but imagine my surprise while researching this article to come across a reference to such a point being found near Newcastle, Ontario.  I have no doubt that this is the same point I got the call about.  This proves that Paleo-Indians were in Clarington.  To add interest to this rare find archaeologists also noticed traces of hematite or red ochre on the point which could possibly give us a hint to their religious practices.  Paleo-Indians were known to hunt mammoths and mastodons in western Canada, but not so in Ontario.  What little evidence we have shows the most popular hunted animal was caribou. 


I think we can safely imagine a Clarington of 12,000 years ago with an arctic-like environment with few trees, thinly populated by Paleo-Indians favouring caribou, but also living alongside mammoths and mastodon.  I’m sure if a good opportunity presented itself to hunt or scavenge one of these ancient elephant like creatures that they would do so.  Is the Ice Age Mammals exhibit relevant to Clarington?  My research would say “yes”.  In fact, Clarington is almost unique in Ontario because we have the closest living relative of the woolly mammoth living here today.  Limba, a 49 year old female Asian elephant resides at the Bowmanville Zoo.   A few years ago researchers at the University of Manitoba began a study to see how the ancient mammoths, originally a tropical species, adapted to the cold climate of Siberia.  They needed a sample of elephant blood to begin their study but found it impossible to get a permit for a specimen from a wild elephant.  The Bowmanville Zoo saved the day by providing the sample.  In 2010 they successful recreated mammoth hemoglobin.  Maybe one day science will bring this extinct species back to life?


If you’ve ever wondered why the giant ice-age mammals became extinct?  Or asked yourself what’s the difference between a mastodon and a mammoth?  Then this exhibit is for you.  It runs from January 4th to April 30th 2013.  Check the museum’s website for more information and associated special events.  If you enjoyed this story please check out my blog at  Just click on the blog icon to the right on the screen.