This week’s artifact once belonged to a creature that has not walked the earth for at least 10,500 years.

10,000 years ago, Iowa was a very different place. The landscape closely resembled the steppe region of Russia, with pockets of woodlands scattered here and there. Mastodons, wooly mammoths and Columbian mammoths shared the landscape along with other, exotic Pleistocene mega-fauna. Camels, horses, giant beaver and giant ground sloths lived alongside deer, moose, elk, bison and other ruminants, while short faced bears, American cheetah, American cave hyena, and saber toothed cats, amongst others, hunted them. So did the Paleo-Indians who followed the herds from place to place as they migrated.

So what is this weird looking…thing, you ask? It’s a partial pelvis of a Mastodon (Mammut americanum), a now extinct cousin of today’s modern elephant. At first glance, it’s easy to confuse wooly mammoths with mastodons, because both resemble fuzzy elephants with small ears and big tusks, both lived at the same time, and both lived in the same areas. However, they were different. Mammoths were bigger than mastodons, and had a higher, more domed forehead than mastodons. Mammoth tusks tended to curve in a corkscrew pattern while mastodon tusks were straighter. Their teeth were also very different. Mammoth teeth were flatter, with wavy ridges that were more suited for a diet of grasses, while mastodons had bumpy teeth with deep cusps that were ideal for a mixed diet of shrubs, trees and grasses.

Mastodons were matriarchal, like most elephant species, with familial groups made up of females and their young who were led by a matriarch. Males left the herd around the age of 10 or so, once they started to mature sexually; sometimes-forming herds of their own, just as modern elephants do today. They were browsers, feeding on shrubs and trees, as well as grasses and other plants.

We know that mastodons lived in the area, as our artifact was found just south of here, along the Skunk River in the late 1800’s, however they, and their ice age companions left few clues behind to tell of their passing. Unfortunately, there is what is known as a preservation bias here. That means that conditions are not favorable for things like soft tissue, hair, etc to be preserved. The most commonly found fossils are usually teeth, as they tend to be the most durable.

The artifact is too fragile to exhibit at this time, but we hope to remedy that, and exhibit it at some point in the future.

“Out of the Attic” features artifacts from the collection of the Des Moines County Historical Society. For more information, to ask questions or to offer comments or suggestions, call (319) 752-7449 or email dmchs@dmchs.org.