Heir seeks answers to mastodon jawbone mystery

Wednesday, November 6, 2019
Article Image Alt Text

John Erickson/Submitted Photo

Denise Erickson with mastodon jawbone

Article Image Alt Text

Paul Van Cleave of Miles recalls mammoth discovery

Oh give me a home, where the


buffalo -- and mammoth-- roamed...

well-preserved fossilized mammoth jawbone

with rows of teeth, found near Terry in the 1950s, has a new home after decades in a shed in eastern Montana.

It was found in Coal Creek, about four miles downriver from Terry, during a father-and-sons agate hunt.

Former Terry resident Paul Van Cleave, who was present at the discovery, gave the prehistoric find to his daughter, Denise Erickson, this past summer.

Erickson, who lives in Blaine, Minn., said her siblings were cleaning out a back-yard shed at her father’s home in Miles City when they found the relic wrapped in an old blanket. Her father filled in Erickson and the Terry Tribune on the discovery.

Her grandfather, Phillip Van Cleave, worked for the Soil Conservation Service in Terry during the 1950s and early 60s. He loved agate hunting. On the day of the discovery, Phillip and his sons Paul and David, were on the north side of the Yellowstone River near the Knuth ranch.

“(Dad)  knew all the good places,” said Paul. “I can still visualize the creek bed. Perpendicular sides 10 feet high. One of those flash flood creeks that flowed whenever there was a gullywasher.

“We were just walking along and came across this partially exposed bone that didn’t look like a modern animal,” he said.

“We dug it out of the gravel and it had (rows of)  ivory-like teeth,” he said. His daughter described the rows as “ridges.”

Research indicates mammoths had ridges of grinder-like molars while mastodons had cone-shaped teeth. Both had long, curved tusks.

The massive jawbone and tooth measure a couple feet long and weighs about 75 pounds.

I sent photos to John Scannella, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University. He wrote: “It certainly looks to be part of the jaw of a mammoth.”

 Distant relatives of the elephant, mammoths and mastodons weighed up to six tons as adults and needed about 300-400 pounds of forage a day. Mastodons died out about 10,000 years; mammoths about 4,000 years ago.

“My brother and I carried it back to our vehicle, stopping several times to rest,” said Paul.

A short time later, the find was featured on the front page of the Terry Tribune, he said. Van Cleave and his daughter are hoping this article will help them locate the original article for more information. (My contact information is at the bottom of the article).

From there the story took a jaw-dropping twist. “I do remember that Dad talked to Ralph Norris about it,” said Paul, “and Ralph went out to the same place and found other side of the jaw.”  

Norris was a prominent Terry resident. Born in Boston, he was attending what is now the University of Illinois when he surpassed the world pole vault for eight minutes in 1906 with a leap of 11 feet, 4 ½ inches But the marks didn’t count because the Chicago meet was not recognized by the Amateur Athletic Union.  

If you or anyone has any information regarding Norris’ discovery it will assist in pin-pointing the year and date. Van Cleave believed the twin discoveries to be in 1956 or 1957.

Prairie County Librarian Rolane Christofferson agreed to help but her expanded search yielded no results.

However, a November 1953 Tribune featured an early 1900’s tintype of Prairie County resident Ed Bright holding a giant leg bone “supposedly” from a mastodon. The article said it was discovered near O’Fallon Creek.

The Tribune story included this intriguing detail. “Those who knew Ed will recall there were always strange things happening on his ranch on the lower end of Broadview Bench — like the time a hunk of 30 acres or so dropped about 50 feet for no explainable reason.”  

Further research indicated Bright earlier found a jawbone similar to the Van Cleave discovery, also on Coal Creek.

 It was reported in this item in the Great Falls Tribune, datelined Miles City, on Feb. 25, 1905:

“A petrified tooth from some prehistoric animal, presumably a Mastodon, which was found at Terry by Ed Bright was brought to town last night and has been placed in a curio cabinet of First National Bank. The tooth is about a foot in length and three inches broad, and shows distinctly the irregular concentric ridges on the masticating surface which is noted in teeth of horses, cows and like animals.”

(To contact Norm: www.normclarke@me.com )