In early September 1920, a curious object of unknown origin turned up along the Sugar Creek bottoms six miles southwest of Bloomington.
The 4 ½-pound oddity was discovered on the tenant farm of Charles and Dora Arndt, just east of Covell in Dry Grove Township. The Arndts brought the object into Bloomington, where it was examined by Emanuel Rhodes of the McLean County Historical Society. Rhodes was apparently stymied as well, and so dispatched the mysterious find to A.R. Crook of the State Museum in Springfield. It was Crook who identified it as the front section of a tooth from a mastodon, a long-extinct distant cousin to the modern day elephant.
Charles and Dora Arndt then donated the tooth to the McLean County Historical Society, where, 98 years later, it still resides.
Mastodons, Mammut americanum, last roamed what’s today Central Illinois some 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene Epoch, popularly known as the Last Ice Age. Mastodons were lumbering herbivores (plant eaters) that stood between eight to 10 feet at the shoulder, and weighed from four to six tons.
Their presence overlapped with wooly mammoths, and the two species are often conflated in the popular mind. In fact, mastodons and mammoths are distinct species of the Proboscidean family with millions of years of evolution separating them. Even so, they look much alike to the untrained eye, sporting as they did long and agile trunks, outsized tusks and coats of thick and shaggy hair.
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Mastodons, though, had longer, flatter heads than their distant cousins. They were also more muscled, with their shorter legs giving them a low-slung appearance.
One telltale difference between the two survives in the fossil record. As forest dwellers, mastodons were browsers, feeding on the leaves, branches and shrubs of Pleistocene boreal forests. As such, their teeth sported prominent cone-shaped projections on the crowns, which allowed them to crush and grind woody roughage.
Other weird and wonderful Ice Age “megafauna” that once called present-day Illinois home include the giant ground sloth, a creature the size of a bison, and the giant beaver, which looked much like today’s toothsome dam builders, though their prehistoric brethren were eight times larger!
Mastodons, mammoths and other large Pleistocene mammals disappeared some 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, during what’s known as the Great Extinction. The current scientific consensus holds that this disappearance was largely due to climatic upheavals and the impact on vegetation as the Ice Age came to an end. The arrival of large numbers of humans to North America also led to overhunting and the likely spread of disease, further decimating stressed populations.
People have been tripping over and unearthing megafauna fossil remains for eons. Native Americans, for instance, used them for both totemic and utilitarian ends. Anthropologist Cheryl Claassen makes the case that for prehistoric peoples, “stories of the … mammoth, mastodon, and their fossil remains probably morphed into accounts of an earlier creation, of deities and spirits who talked, walked and acted in ways just like humans.”
Later Native Americans, including the Delaware, believed such fossils were the bones of giant animals driven to extinction in a war that pitted the megafauna against the still-living animals that indigenous peoples depended upon for their survival.
Polymath Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third U.S. president, had an intense interest in mastodon and mammoth remains and the speculations thereof. He famously told Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to keep their eyes peeled for elephant-like creatures in the far northwest during their 1804-1806 expedition.
The collections of the McLean County Museum of History (formerly the historical society) include not only the Dry Grove Township mastodon tooth recovered by the Arndts, but two additional teeth located elsewhere, as well as a 28 ½-inch tusk. One tooth was recovered in Allin Township, outside of Stanford. The tusk, unfortunately, lacks “provenance,” which in the museum field means the verifiable history of a donated object. It’s likely the tusk was found in McLean County, as the donor, Allen Brown, was a retired farmer living in Normal. Brown also owned land in Blue Mound Township, east of the Twin Cities.
The Frank Aldrich papers housed at the Museum of History include a handwritten essay on mastodons, mammoths and “early animal life.” Aldrich was a banker and avid amateur naturalist and archaeologist who was well ahead of his time when it came to popularizing science and advocating for the environment.
In this essay, Aldrich recalled how John Howes brought him an unidentified rib recovered from a gravel pit 1.5 miles northwest of Downs. This find was sent to the Field Museum in Chicago and identified as the sixth left rib of a mastodon (Some 20 years later, in the summer of 1954, crane operator Ed Crump recovered a three-foot long, 50-pound tusk while working in the same gravel pit.)
Aldrich also recounted once possessing an “enormous” mastodon tusk recovered “when the Alton Railroad was excavating the foundation for a bridge over Sugar Creek near Funks Grove Station.”
In the spring of 1938, 9-year-old Eldred Popejoy (see accompanying photograph) discovered a 3 ½-pound mastodon tooth while visiting his grandfather William P. Dean in West Township. “I found it in a gravel pit while I was fishing,” the young Popejoy told The Pantagraph at the time.
The Illinois State Museum in Springfield includes a mounted skeleton of a mastodon as part of its “Changes” exhibit. This skeleton is actually a composite of several different mastodon skeletons uncovered during excavations in the 1960s and 1970s at Boney Springs, Missouri.
One imagines an undetermined number of Pleistocene fossil remains, those either unidentified or misidentified, rest in a curio cabinets or fireplace mantels, or serve as paperweights or doorstops. Others are likely forgotten, packed away in attic chests and garages.
Remarkable — and sometimes jaw-dropping — finds are still turning up in Central Illinois. In the spring of 1995, Tara Whalen spotted a peculiar-looking object flush to the ground in the backyard of her rural Bloomington home. She and her husband, Rick, weren’t quite sure what they had until a University of Notre Dame anthropologist informed them it was a mastodon tooth.
In September 2005, Lincoln College freshman Judd McCullum, as part of an environmental biology class, stumbled upon an 11-foot-long mammoth tusk along a creek bed in Logan County. “Judd,” as the tusk was soon nicknamed, is now on display at Lincoln College’s McKinstry Library.
One wonders where the next big find will come from. What’s in your backyard?
Bill Kemp is the librarian at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington. He can be reached at BKemp@mchistory.org.