Waco Mammoth Site31.607661 -97.170189
WACO, Texas (AP) — The Waco Mammoth Site opened Saturday, showcasing the remains of a prehistoric mammoth herd believed to have died in a mudslide and flooding some 68,000 years ago.
Visitors strolled through a climate-controlled pavilion built over the site and stood on walkways high above the dirt where curling, fossilized tusks and other bones protrude from the ground.
Congressional legislation is pending to make the site a national monument and part of the National Park Service.
"This treasure of nature is now becoming a national treasure," said U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco. "Who knows how many other untold stories and secrets are shrouded here beneath Mother Nature's protective veil."
Opening the site to the public was more than three decades in the making.
In 1978, two men walking in the thick woods along the Brazos and Bosque rivers found unusual rocks. They took one to Baylor University where a museum official identified it as a mammoth fossil. Over the next several years museum employees, students and volunteers carefully dug with their hands to reveal more of the remains.
City and Baylor officials wanted to protect the site, so they erected a tent over it and never publicized its exact location.
Eventually, the remains of 24 Columbian mammoths — warm-weather cousins of woolly mammoths — were discovered at the site, along with a fossilized camel and a couple of unknown animals. The mammoths lived in the Ice Age, were more than 14 feet tall at the shoulder and weighed up to 10 tons.
Museum officials initially thought the mammoths all died together in a mudslide after being trapped in a ravine, but they now believe a herd of females and their young — 19 of those found at the site — died in the mudslide, with one adult trying to protect a young mammoth by lifting it out of the mud. They believe the other mammoths died in flooding years later.
Museum officials removed 16 of the mammoths in the early 1990s, and they are now in storage. No excavation has been done since 1999.
"We couldn't protect them, because once they're exposed, they can deteriorate," said Anita Benedict, the collections manager for the Mayborn Museum at Baylor. "We plan to leave these in the ground, but at some point we may do more excavation."
Another mammoth's remains were discovered during the pavilion's construction, and there is evidence at the site of another animal, she said. More fossils may be buried outside the pavilion on the mostly wooded 100-acre site, she said.
Building the pavilion, sidewalks and a small welcome center were the first phase of the project, which cost nearly $4 million, most raised by the nonprofit Waco Mammoth Foundation.
"Looking at these magnificent creatures and knowing they used to walk here, and knowing that we played some role in the site being open to the public, makes me feel really good inside," said Michael Deyo, 12, who as a fifth-grader helped in his school's fundraiser that raised $300 for the project. That amount was matched by the foundation.
Paul Barron, 52, one of the men who discovered the fossils in 1978, said he knew he had found something significant but never could have imagined what the site would become.
"I'm just as proud as I can be, like a new papa," Barron said Saturday.