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Ancient mammoth tusk offers gateway to Seattle's history

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SEATTLE — A backhoe, an apprentice plumber and a 20,000-year-old piece of ivory (give or take a few millenniums) have brought out Puget Sound's inner paleontologist.

Last week a Columbian mammoth tusk was discovered in the foundation of an apartment building under construction in the South Lake Union neighborhood. On Friday, three days after the discovery, scientists carefully crated the 81/2 -foot-long fossil and sent it to a museum for study.

In between, a steady stream of curious onlookers made their way to the giant hole across the street from an Amazon.com office building in hopes of getting a peek at the largest and most intact piece of prehistoric dentition ever discovered in Jet City.

That, of course, is the allure: ice age meets computer age.

Ryan Eyre, an unemployed English teacher, peeked through the chain-link fence baring "No trespassing" signs, hoping that the ancient ivory wasn't entirely covered up by a tarp.

It was, for its own protection.

"I came out entirely to see it," Eyre said. "I'm fascinated with this kind of stuff, and they found it within a mile of where I live."

Where tech workers troll and apartment buildings rise, herds of giant prehistoric proboscideans once roamed, grazing on verdant grasslands studded with the occasional pine, pounding down hundreds of pounds of roughage daily to nourish their vast bulk.

Mammoths migrated to North America from Asia about 2 million years ago and became extinct about 10,000 years ago. There is little agreement about what killed off the ancient relatives of today's elephants, but scientists point to a combination of climate change and hunting by humans.

Until last week, only 25 mammoth fossils had been found in the Seattle area, mostly skeleton fragments. So the discovery of a long, curving, intact tusk set paleontologists around the country abuzz.

"I checked the records and there are very few previously reported finds in the Seattle area, or even in western Washington, and I didn't see any ones quite as nicely preserved as this one," said Patricia Holroyd, senior museum scientist at the UC Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley.

"I'm excited to see what's happened," Holroyd said. "Everyone was posting articles about it."

Christian Sidor, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, told reporters, "It's really very rare to be able to get the tusk in relationship to the lake — in relationship to all the different sediments going on. So we really can paint a much better picture than just a single tusk."

On Tuesday morning, Joe Wells was overseeing excavation for the underground plumbing of a five-story apartment building when a backhoe operator hit something hard in the soft dirt. Wells stopped the big machine and went to investigate.

"It was weird-shaped, and he knew it wasn't a rock," said Jeff Estep, owner of Transit Plumbing, a subcontractor on the project. "He started uncovering it by hand.... He didn't know what to think at first. The more he uncovered it, the more he figured it was a tusk."

Work stopped and speculation began.

Washington state has laws that protect archaeological relics found on private property during construction, but no laws protecting paleontological finds. AMLI Residential, the project's developer, could have simply continued digging, smashing the tusk into a pile of ancient dust.

As fossil lovers tramped by the site, scientists at the Burke waited to hear whether they could excavate the fossil and surrounding earth — and with them a trove of important information about Puget Sound and its ice age history.

Two days passed. Tracy Marcella brought her toddler, Henry, out to the deep hole in a compromise field trip. Marcella, 26, wanted to see the fossil; her 19-month-old wanted to see big machines digging.

"We have construction outside our house and he's obsessed," Marcella said of the child in her arms who gazed at the site, silent and transfixed. "His main words are 'truck' and 'hole.' That's why he's so well-behaved. It's not the mammoth."

The construction site where the tusk was found is bounded on one side by a Bright Horizons preschool. Tuesday, the contractor sent the school an email about the find. On Wednesday, the children were in the school sandbox, "digging for fossils," said teacher Danielle McDowell.

Thursday afternoon they were lined up on a ramp overlooking the deep hole, the hard-hatted workers and the piles of rebar.

"Dig it up!" they shouted. "Dig it up!"

By then, the museum and the developer had reached an agreement. AMLI would let the scientists into the site to excavate, truck the tusk to the Burke Museum and delve into Puget Sound's deep past.

maria.laganga@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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