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 Mastodons in Pittsfield Township, Michigan (MI)

From the end of the last Ice Age until their extinction, mastodons roamed Pittsfield Township. This section tells their story.

Mastodon tracks have been found in Saline -- heading northeast into Pittsfield Township; and mastodon bones have been found in southeast Pittsfield Township. Please see the link below for the Brennan Trackway; and/or visit the University of Michigan Exhibit Museum of Natural History to see these artifacts in person.

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The Mastodon: Michigan's State Fossil

by Tom George, Michigan State Senator

Large sheets of glacial ice have periodically covered the land that now makes up our state. When the last set of Ice Age glaciers started retreating 15,000 years ago, unusual animals and then pre-historic man began making Michigan home.

Numerous Ice Age animal remains have been found in Michigan. Southwest Michigan was the first part of our modern day state to be ice-free as the glaciers retreated. Kalamazoo and Van Buren Counties have yielded the oldest skeletons of Michigan mastodons and muskox in sites that are felt to be about 14,800 years old.

As the glaciers continued their retreat, more land became habitable. Fossilized mammoths, mastodons, caribou, giant beaver, ancient bison, dire wolves, and peccaries have been found scattered throughout the Lower Peninsula. Mastodons are prevalent in Michigan's fossil record. The remains of about 250 individual creatures have been found. In 1927, a Kalamazoo street crew working on Patterson Avenue found the vertebrae, tusks and ribs of a mastodon! Michigan's mastodons date from the nearly 15,000-year-old Van Buren County mastodon to fossils that are about 12,000 years old.

Mastodons bore tusks and were large elephant-like creatures. They were vegetarians that browsed on shrubs and trees. Counting the rings in their teeth or tusks, like tree rings, reveals how old they were when they died. Most mastodon skeletons have been found preserved in low-lying areas buried in muck and peat.

Mastodons, like modern day elephants, are thought to have been social creatures involved in the rearing of their young. This view was recently bolstered by a find of preserved mastodon tracks in Saline, Michigan. The trackway shows where a male, female and calf wadded together through a shallow pond.

The earliest humans in Michigan are referred to as Paleo-Indians. The oldest archeological evidence left by Michigan's Paleo-Indians is in the form of sharpened stone tool points known as fluted biface. The earliest of these have been found at the Gainey archeological site near Flint, and are felt to be 11-12,000 years old.

Caribou bones found at another early archeological site suggest that animal was an important component of the Paleo-Indian's diet. Perhaps the very existence of Michigan's Paleo-Indians, like some modern Icelandic peoples, depended on following herds of migrating caribou.

The arrival of man in Michigan corresponds with the departure of the large Ice Age mammals. There is no direct evidence that Michigan's earliest human settlers actually hunted mastodons. In a few midwestern sites however, marks on mastodon bones suggest that humans had used scrapping tools to remove the meat. Some archeologists have speculated that finding isolated mastodon bones in Michigan indicates that Paleo-Indians transported parts of the animal for storage and future consumption.

Most experts conclude that Michigan's Paleo-Indians certainly hunted caribou and would likely have been able to hunt mastodons as well. Did the Paleo-Indians cause the extinction of the mastodons? No one knows for sure. It is possible the mastodon's extinction was a result of a combination of climatic change and hunting.

Naming the mastodon as the state's fossil serves to remind us of Michigan's Ice Age history.

Source: Tom George, Michigan State Senator (Kalamazoo). Senator George is a past president of the Historical Society of Michigan. He also is a member of the Advisory Board for the Pittsfield Township Historical Society.

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See Also

Michigan Salt, Salt Seeps, and Mastodons on this website. Note the map that shows a high concentration of salt seeps and mastodon finds in Washtenaw County.

Related Links

See also information on the mastodon tracks found in Saline, Michigan: The Brennan Site (the site of the mastodon trackway). Information on this University of Michigan Exhibit Museum of Natural History website is provided by Daniel C. Fisher, a world authority on mastodons -- and advisor to the Pittsfield Township Historical Society.

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