On a hot summer day in 2010, an Oskaloosa, Iowa father and his two sons were picking berries on their land when they noticed something odd protruding from a nearby creek.
Just a couple weeks earlier, the area had received an unusually heavy amount of rain in a short time, causing some erosion.
“While we were walking across the ditch, my son says, ‘There’s a ball down there in that ditch,’” said the father, “Farmer John” (last name withheld), according to the Oskaloosa Herald. But John didn’t think it was a ball.
The family began digging out around the object, and as they dug, they found a discovery of mammoth proportions, literally.
It was a mammoth leg.
The family did not know it at the time, but the object that had surfaced in their own backyard was the leg bone of an adult mammoth from 12,000 years ago!
After two years of digging, the family had unearthed about twenty of what they had come to learn were very large bones of some kind, and they finally decided to get in touch with some experts at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History (UIMNH) to lend a hand.
In came the professionals.
The family had already been reluctantly “outed” by the media and other attention that had leaked out.
“My house was not supposed to be on TV. My face was not supposed to be on TV,” John told The Des Moines Register. “I sort of kept it a secret because there’s people who believe it’s worth millions of dollars.”
The family was not prepared for the attention.
Farmer John was not quite prepared for the attention and activity he had invited with reservation. Early on, volunteer paleontologists and college students, hundreds of them, appeared on a Saturday morning at his property, only to find signs posted on the windows of his house that read: “BONES ARE GONE.”
But the discovery was of such major significance, there was no stopping what would provide some of the greatest insight ever to mammoths and the ice age. John has since come around and played a crucial role in allowing the research to move forward.
The story comes from the bones.
Those initial bones discovered were confirmed by UIMNH to be parts of vertebrae, ribs, phalanges, and ribs, in possibly the only site with multiple mammoths ever discovered in the Midwest.
Geoscience Professor Frank Weirich was one of many who worked on the site. “Once you find the bones, the rest of the story forms around them,” said Weirich, in an interview with The Des Moines Register.
Iowa was not always farmland.
Mammoths were huge, elephant-like mammals with tusks and trunks that lived during the Ice Age, a time period in which temperatures on earth were continually reducing.
Mammoths roamed the earth for thousands of years when Iowa was a land of alpine glaciers, not farms and crops.
It turned out to be a triple discovery.
The modest Iowa family farm suddenly became an archeological dig site that, over the years, has uncovered bones from three different mammoths.
The mammoth discovered by the Iowa family was first thought to be a Columbian mammoth, which existed in that region at one time. But upon further investigation using carbon dating and DNA testing, they were reclassified as woolly mammoths, a much more rare find for that area, and a revelation to scientists who learned that both types of mammoths interacted more than they had previously thought.
What if it was your backyard?
Perhaps you might want to take a stroll through your backyard today. You just never know what you might find!