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A New Jersey Mastodon
Originally Published By
New Jersey State Museum

By Glenn L. Jepsen

Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003

Why is the mastodon now as extinct as the dodo and the Passenger pigeon? No one really knows why, but professional as well as amateur paleontologists have made many guesses about the cause of its disappearance. Until recently some people imagined that a few mastodons might even now be tramping and trumpeting through the woods in unexplored areas of North and South America. In the 1780's President Jefferson was firm in his belief that no race of animals was ever lost from "nature's chain," and he cited as evidence the stories of some Indians about living mastodons in the northern and western parts of North America. These Indians told tales about ancient battles, which their ancestors had witnessed, between giant beasts, and also reported that parts of the trunks and other fleshy hits of big animals could be found buried near the surface under leaves and thin layers of dirt.

Most of these claims were inspired by wishful thinking or by efforts to please an audience through the invention of interesting myths about creatures that had obviously excited the imaginations of white men who were eager to explore the wilderness and to see and collect its animal treasures.

The truth is as remarkable as the lies. It is true that Indians and mastodons and giant beavers and ground sloths and mammoths and sabre-toothed "tigers" and camels and extinct kinds of horses and bison all lived at the same time in America some thousands of years ago. Indian artifacts have been found with the bones of these animals as well as others which have also vanished from the face of the earth. In Texas, California, Tennessee, Florida, and New Mexico there are evidences that man and mastodon knew and slew each other, and this was probably true in many parts of the forests of North America. Mastodon meat, either roasted or raw, may have been a delicious treat that was well worth the effort and the difficulties of the kill.

How long ago? Chemical tests of the age of American mastodon tusks or of wood found close to mastodon bones in Ohio, Indiana, and Mich- igan indicate that the animals were living as recently as 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. Archeologists have debated for many years about the age, nature, and meaning of ancient rock carvings in Asia and America that seem to represent mastodons and mammoths. In Europe the cave artist of about 25,000 to 12,000 years ago depicted the mammoth with a curiously "bombed" or elevated skull and with long hair on its belly. When the caves were discovered and explored by modern man these features were believed to be mere exag- gerations, the result of artistic license. Frozen carcasses of mammoths, found in Siberia, proved that the murals were true to life, natural and accurate.

Most everyone now agrees that the mastodons are all gone, but the cause of their demise isn't clear and it may have been the result of many factors combined. Disease and epidemics have been suggested as a cause, but there is no clear evidence for this, nor are there any indications that giant bears (the supergrizzlies) or other kinds of natural enemies could have destroyed the mastodon. Other suggested causes which can't be proved include catastrophes or cataclysms such as a sudden shift of the poles, quick or extreme changes of climate, insufficient food, intense cold, poison plants, lack of adaptation to changing conditions, slow locomotion, overgrowth of tusks, thinning skin, various deforming genetic effects, fire drives by Indians, blood sucking or stinging or poison insects, great floods (including the mythical submergence in the Biblical story), warfare among themselves, and so on. No one really knows, and perhaps we will never know.

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