Utah’s canyon country keeps mastodon alive

Friday, Oct. 14, 2011 9:03 PM
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
Artist and sculptor Joe Pachak also has done extensive prehistoric rock art documentation in San Juan County, Utah. He discovered the 13,000-year-old mastodon petroglyph a decade ago, but only now is his find generating scientific interest. The discovery remains controversial because sandstone weathers over time and there is doubt that a Pleistocene petroglyph could last into the present.
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
During the Pleistocene era, the horse species eohippus vanished. It was not until the Spanish came to the Southwest in 1540 that horses returned to the same ecological niche they had before the last Ice Age. Along the San Juan River, native peoples carved dozens of horses beginning in the late 18th century.
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford
Note the petroglyph of a human foot; animal figures, or zoomorphs; and a carved cupula for leaving special offerings, probably of corn pollen, along a sandstone cliff face.

SAN JUAN COUNTY, Utah — It takes a long time to find a mastodon, especially if it’s been buried beneath tamarisk, oak brush and Russian olive bushes.

I’d heard rumors about a mastodon along the San Juan River in San Juan County, but a beast from the Pleistocene is hard to locate and even harder to prove. Now, thanks to the Bureau of Land Management, a 13,000-year-old petroglyph, one of the oldest in North America, is visible under just the right lighting conditions.

Every year, river runners launch their rafts, duckies, kayaks and canoes at Sand Island for a long, leisurely float down the San Juan River to Mexican Hat or even farther to Clay Hills.

Ancient Basket Maker Indians loved the river, too, and elongated walls of Navajo sandstone are covered with petroglyphs of all kinds — human figures (called anthropomorphs), animals, squiggly lines, geometric shapes, warriors and Kokopelli images. From Sand Island down to Butler Wash and deep into Grand Gulch, rock art panels offer insight into life and culture from thousands of years ago. Some panels represent the tall, insect-like figures named Glen Canyon linear, which could be 5,000 years old.

But a mastodon? A furry elephant carved on rock in the desert of southeast Utah? Mastodons are not only from another time but also another climate. Proving such a find would continue to turn back the clock on human habitation in the American Southwest. The ancient hunter-gatherers moved constantly, following huge megafauna, then expertly dispatched them with long, sharp spear points while fearing saber-toothed tigers, huge bears and even 15-foot-high ground sloths.

So seven years ago, when I’d heard about a possible mastodon image in San Juan County, I hiked in with local artist and rock art specialist Joe Pachak to see the petroglyph. I remember getting whipped in the face by bushes and branches and being unable to make out the animal’s image — discernible to Joe but not to me. Then two years ago mastodons started popping up everywhere.

In May 2009, National Geographic published an essay titled “Ice Baby: Secrets of a frozen mammoth” about an intact 40,000-year-old baby mammoth discovered in Siberia. The next month the Associated Press ran a Florida story about a carved bone fragment from 13,000 years ago that depicted a mammoth or mastodon. Coincidentally, the BLM office in Monticello, Utah, hydro-axed and weed-whacked tamarisk on BLM lands. For the first time in decades visitors could see petroglyphs carved thousands of years ago.

So in fall 2010, I returned for Pachak’s mastodon figure, but the pachyderm was playing hide-and-seek. I couldn’t find it. My dog, however, found all sorts of things recently revealed by the changed landscape — bewildered skunks and porcupines that had just lost their homes and were wandering in the wood slash.

By spring 2011, Arizona rock art specialists Ekkehart Malotki of Flagstaff, Ariz., and Henry Wallace of Tucson photographed the mastodon, and the scientific community began to take notice.

As Malotki and Wallace explain, “It had never been scientifically described or investigated, probably because of its difficult access more than 15 feet above ground level. Also impeding its recognition as a mammoth is its indistinctness.”

Now I’ve seen it, too. Not only does it take strong side light to view the 20-inch-long carving, but it’s even more difficult because another prehistoric hunter superimposed a bison over the older image.

Equally confusing are other petroglyphs close by. Thanks to the BLM’s tamarisk-removal program, the mastodon’s unique tusks and trunk can now be seen, but just barely.

Bluff resident Pachak has been vindicated. Initially, Colorado and New Mexico rock art specialists disavowed his finding, yet now a “Mammuthus columbi,” or “Columbian mammoth,” seems to be proven in San Juan County. A story and photos of the image became a hot topic in Pleistocene Coalition News.

“I recognized it about 1990 when I was trying to record archaic rock art,” Pachak says. “I took photos and discussed it with friends. It seemed apparent, but rock art specialists rejected it because they said a wall like that could not sustain an image for 13,000 years.”

But Pachak knew that the soft sandstone had an overhang. He’d been there in a driving rain and not gotten wet.

“I believe there are 15 badly eroded Paleolithic images near there,” he says.

He adds that the entire site, which may be 20 meters long, has not been adequately recorded, “which is a very difficult thing to do because you’d have to draw every rock surface.”

How to position ladders without potentially damaging an ancient panel is complicated. Pachak urges the BLM to require special permits for such an investigation.

BLM acting field manager for the Monticello District, Brent Northrup, says, “We’re not going to change the management of the site. There’s a lot of rock art there and we hope people protect it.”

But at another mammoth petroglyph along the Colorado River near Moab, Utah, a vandal with a gun compromised the site’s scientific integrity.

The mammoth image along the San Juan River remains intact, undamaged, and a unique opportunity to assess Pleistocene life, when the deserts of southeast Utah had deciduous forests of alder, ash and oak similar to the Ozark Mountains today. Glaciers melted and carried downriver cobbles on volumes of water perhaps four times our current snowmelt. The mammoth image is above one of those cobble terraces.

Pachak has lived 30 years in Bluff. Discovering the mammoth petroglyph “was one of the most enriching things that ever happened to me. How special is it to find one of the oldest rock art sites in North America?”

But he questions, “Why isn’t the BLM acknowledging, protecting and investigating it?”

Who knows what else we’ll find as we rid the Southwest of thirsty invasive plants like tamarisk and Russian olive? As for the mammoth, I believe Joe. I think I can find it again on that long, bright expanse of ancient rock art, especially with the slanted sunlight of fall and spring mornings. The image has been there for 13,000 years. Now that we know about it, we need to keep it safe. Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history at Fort Lewis College.