POLK COUNTY, Iowa — It was 2020 at the new Jester Park Nature Center. Those outside found locked doors, but those inside found something more welcome: time.
“All of a sudden we were like ‘Hey, let’s look at that someday list,'” says Lewis Major, a naturalist with the Polk County Conservation Board. “You know we had all these projects that we were gonna do some day.”
Among them, was the center’s collection of stone-age tools; they hadn’t been put to use in 10,000 years and Major figured, now’s the time.
“We need to get these artifacts on display,” he says. “Those families donated to Polk County Conservation with the caveat of ‘please put these on public display sometime.’”
These were the tools of the first central Iowas. Crude to you and me, but as effective as they needed to be.
“These people thrived,” Major explains. “They lived in harmony with this land, they didn’t impose their will upon it.”
As Major was putting the collection of some 400 items together, the phone rang.
“I got a call from a gentleman who said ‘I got a bone that my grandpa found in a creek, and we always thought it was kind of an odd bone but never had it checked out. Would you be willing to take a look at it?’” Major remembers. “I said ‘sure,’ 99% of the time it’s a deer bone or cow bone.”
Not this time. This was a mammoth bone. The ulna of a wooly mammoth, to be specific. And the man thought it should be seen by all.
It was exactly what Major was hoping to hear. “He said ‘is this something you’d like to put on display?’” Major smiles. “You could of knocked me over with a feather!”
Major was happy to have it, but not surprised this invaluable bone had been found here. And you shouldn’t be, either.
Dr. Matt Hill at Iowa State is one of America’s leading experts on ice age mammals. He was one of the first to look at Major’s photos of the bone.
“(Mammoth bones are) actually fairly common,” he says.
There’s a reason an expert like Hill is located at Iowa State. “Iowa’s ice age record is phenomenal,” he says.
Hill says bones like this are all over Iowa — in museums, and still in the ground. Each with a story to tell.
“We could actually radiocarbon date that (bone),” Hill says. “That bone has collagen in it and we could determine how old it is. We could also tell what that animal ate and where it lived as well.”
During the last ice age, Iowa was anything but a “flyover state.” For paleontologists, it’s now a Gold Coast.
“About 16,000 years ago you had glacial ice coming down into the middle of the state,” says Dr. Chris Widga, of East Tennessee State University, who specializes in mammoths and mastodons. “That creates a whole bunch of different environments.”
The Laurentide ice sheet that once cover all of Canada and much of the northern United States had a long finger of ice that extended south across Minnesota, into Iowa. That finger is actually called the “Des Moines lobe” and paleontologists will tell you all about it. Its ice created a frigid environment through much of the state and more temperate ones along its edges. The lobe actually ended right at the Raccoon River southwest of what is now downtown Des Moines. All around it was gigantic ice age mammals — megafauna.
“We would have had helmeted muskox,” says Hill, “we would have had extinct moose…”
“There were saber-toothed cats and huge caribou,” adds Widga.
“We had giant land sloths and short-faced bears,” Major chimes in, “and of course, mastodons and mammoths.”
“Iowa actually occupies a really interesting place in terms of mammoth populations 12-20,000 years ago,” Widga elaborates. “We had woolly-mammoth-like mammoths up in the Great Lakes and in Canada, and farther out in the Great Plains, we had Columbian mammoths. And Iowa’s in between!”
In 2015, a dig outside Oskaloosa yielded at least five mammoths. Each bone is a minor miracle to scientists.
“Somehow it was locked into a place,” Hill explains, “and then buried — probably pretty rapidly — and pulled out of a system that could destroy it — like ultraviolet radiation and scavenging carnivores.”
“(Bones like this) are common,” Widga says. “That said, they are also really important. It archives the story of a single animal somewhere between about 12,000 years ago and 100,000 years ago.”
This animal’s story will be told in a new display set in this hallway of the nature center at the Jester Park Nature Center starting this summer.
Major sees it as a sort of gateway piece. “If you put it on public display where you have 1.4 million people coming through this park, that bone then becomes impactful — to a lot of people,” he says.
You’ll hear no argument from the paleontologists — both of whom claim they were attracted as children to prehistoric displays at small museums.
“It’s a great learning opportunity,” says Hill, “and it sparks curiosity in the public.”
“Iowa really does kind of occupy a unique place in time — if you look under the surface,” Widga says with a twinkle in his eye.
Leave it to the paleontologist to score the low-hanging pun.
But point taken: there are special things about Iowa — and we have the evidence, and now the place to prove it.