Thursday, December 1, 2011

Mammoth Hunter

13,800 years ago giant mastodons ruled the Pacific Northwest, while other creatures cowered in fear. At this time someone figured out that humans, working together as a group, could bring down a mastodon. A mastodon's tusk could be sharpened and fashioned into a spear. At first he or she was ridiculed and told it was impossible. Eventually the human tribe faced the mastodon in a fierce battle. One brave human flung a spear into the beast's ribs and brought it down. Many centuries later the mastodon would be extinct and humans would rule the Earth.

In 1977 paleontologist Carl Gustafson came upon a giant tusk that had been found by a bowling-alley owner in Washington's Olympic Peninsula. After a few hours' digging Gustafson uncovered the mastodon's skeleton, buried for thousands of years. He also found a fragment of tusk jammed between the ribs, as if it had been fashioned into a spear and thrust there. After running some tests, Gustafson concluded that humans had brought the beast down with a spear nearly 14,000 years before.

For 35 years Gustafson's discovery was ignored or ridiculed by the scientific establishment. Anthropology was stuck in a Clovis-first model, which stated that "Clovis people" predated humans in North America. Challenges to the Clovis-first model were subject to great criticism. Unfortunately Gustafson's evidence was not completely convincing. Radiocarbon dating at the time left large margins of error. The spear fragment could be interpreted as just a bone. Gustafson reached retirement age before his ideas were accepted.

"I was pretty bitter about the whole thing for a long time," Gustafson said recently. "I don't like saying it. I never really admitted it except to my wife. It was so frustrating. But I'm very humbled and happy it turned out this way."

Gustafson produced very few papers about his discovery. In his defense, publishing a groundbreaking idea in peer-reviewed journals can be nearly impossible. Only recently other scientists put Gustafson's fragments through modern DNA, CT and dating tests. The samples were sent to other labs to check the results. In a new paper in the journal SCIENCE, researchers concluded that Gustafson was right all along.

One colleague has called Gustafson the J. Harlan Bretz of anthropology. Bretz was a geologist who in the 1920's theorized that Eastern Washington had once been covered in a giant flood. 50 years would pass before other scientists realized that Bretz was right. A more apt comparison might be to Alfred Wegener, who concluded that Earth's continents drifted and was also ridiculed for decades. New and groundbreaking ideas can take decades or longer to be accepted.

13,800 years ago humans learned to make a spear and conquer the mastodon. 35 years ago Carl Gustafson found the buried evidence. For decades Gustafson's discovery was ignored. He was frustrated well into his retirement. Finally other scientists with modern tools realised he was right all along. Like many new ideas, Gustafson's discovery took a long time to be accepted. Hooray for Carl Gustafson and all the brave Carls in the Northwest!