Utah Adventure in the Pleistocene: Hunting Mammoths in San Juan County


San Juan County

It takes a long time to find a mammoth, especially if it’s been buried beneath tamarisk, oakbrush, and Russian olive bushes. I’d heard rumors about a mammoth in San Juan County, but a beast from the Pleistocene is hard to locate and even harder to prove. Now thanks to the BLM, a 13,000 year-old petroglyph, possibly one of the oldest in North America, can be visible under just the right lighting conditions.

Every year river runners launch their rafts, duckies, kayaks and canoes at Sand Island for a long, leisurely float down the San Juan River to Mexican Hat or even further to Clay Hills. Ancient Basketmaker Indians loved the river, too, and elongated walls of Navajo sandstone are covered with petroglyphs of all kinds—anthropomorphs or human figures, animals, squiggly lines, geometric shape, warriors, and Kokopelli images. From Sand Island down to Butler Wash and deep into Grand Gulch, rock art panels offer insight into life and culture from thousands of years ago. Some panels represent the tall, insect-like figures named Glen Canyon linear, which could be 5,000 years old.

But a mammoth? A furry elephant carved on rock in the desert of southeast Utah? Mammoths are not only from another time but also another climate. Proving such a find would continue to turn back the clock on human habitation in the American Southwest. The ancient hunter-gatherers moved constantly following huge megafauna, and then expertly dispatched them with long, sharp spear points while fearing saber tooth tigers, huge bears, and even 15 foot high ground sloths.

So eight years ago when I’d heard about a possible mammoth image in San Juan County, I hiked in with local artist and rock art specialist Joe Pachak to see the petroglyph. I remember getting whipped in the face by bushes and branches and being unable to make out the animal’s image, discernible to Joe but not to me. Then three years ago mammoths started popping up everywhere.

In May, 2009 National Geographic published an essay titled “Ice Baby: Secrets of a frozen mammoth” about an intact 40,000 year old baby mammoth discovered in Siberia. The next month the Associated Press ran a Florida story about a carved bone fragment that depicts a mammoth or mastodon and may be more than 13,000 years old. Coincidentally, the Monticello office of Utah’s Bureau of Land Management hydro-axed and weed-whacked tamarisk on BLM lands. For the first time in decades visitors could easily see petroglyphs carved thousands of years ago.

So in fall 2010 I returned for Pachak’s mammoth figure but the pachyderm was playing hide and seek. I couldn’t find it. My dog, however, found all sorts of things recently revealed by the changed landscape—bewildered skunks and porcupines that had just lost their homes and were wandering in the wood slash.

By spring 2011 Arizona rock art specialists Ekkehart Malotki of Flagstaff and Henry Wallace from Tucson photographed the mammoth and the scientific community began to take notice. As Malotki and Wallace explain, “It had never been scientifically described or investigated, probably because of its difficult access more than 15 feet above ground level. Also impeding its recognition as a mammoth is its indistinctness.”

Now I’ve seen it, too. Not only does it take strong side light to view the 20-inch long carving, but another prehistoric hunter superimposed a bison over the older image. Equally confusing are other petroglyphs close by. Thanks to the BLM’s tamarisk removal program, the mammoth’s unique tusks and trunk can now be seen, but just barely. On top of it is a rock art image of a bison which also dates to the paleo-Indian period of hunter-gatherers. The real question for geologists is how old is the sandstone cliff the artists utilized?

The petroglpyhs were carved into Navajo Sandstone, a formation that is fractured and easily eroded.  According to geologist Mary Gillam, angular sandstone slabs at the base of the cliff clearly broke away from its face.  The question is whether this sloughing occurred more or less than 13,000 years ago, roughly when mammoths became extinct in this region.  In the future, geologic dating may tell us when the cliff face at the mammoth panel became stabilized. French Paleolithic rock art expert Jeane Clottes believes that if the petroglyph “had been discovered in a French or Spanish cave, nobody would question its identification.”

Meanwhile, Bluff resident Pachak appears to have been vindicated.  Initially rock art specialists disavowed his finding, yet now a Mammuthus columbi or Columbian mammoth seems likely in San Juan County. A story and photos of the image became a hot topic in Pleistocene Coalition News.

“I recognized it about 1990 when I was trying to record Archaic rock art,” Pachak explains. “I took photos and discussed it with friends. It seemed apparent but rock art specialists rejected it because they said a wall like that could not sustain an image for 13,000 years.” But Pachak knew that the soft sandstone had an overhang. He’d been there in a driving rain and not gotten wet. “I believe there are 15 badly eroded Paleolithic images near there.”  He adds that the entire site, which may be 20 meters long, has not been adequately recorded “which is a very difficult thing to do because you’d have to draw every rock surface.” How to position ladders without potentially damaging an ancient panel is complicated. Pachak urges the BLM to require special permits for such an investigation.

BLM Acting Field manager for the Monticello District, Brent Northrup, said, “We’re not going to change the management of the site. There’s a lot of rock art there and we hope people protect it.”  But at another mammoth petroglyph along the Colorado River near Moab, a vandal with a gun compromised the site’s scientific integrity.

The mammoth image along the San Juan River remains intact, undamaged, and a unique opportunity to assess Pleistocene life, when the deserts of southeast Utah had deciduous forests of alder, ash and oak similar to the Ozark Mountains today.  Glaciers melted and carried down river cobbles on volumes of water perhaps several times our current snowmelt. Cobble terraces occur in the area.

Joe Pachak has lived 30 years in Bluff. Discovering the mammoth petroglyph “was one of the most enriching things that ever happened to me. How special is it to find one of the oldest rock art sites in North America?” But he questions, “Why isn’t the BLM acknowledging, protecting, and investigating it?”

Over ten thousand years ago Utah adventurers pursued and hunted Columbian mammoths. Though we cannot join them in their hunt for really big game, we can keep looking for mammoth petroglyphs. I’ve heard stories of other mammoth rock art near Moab, and large, fossilized mammoth poop has been found in Utah caves like Cowboy Cave on the San Rafael Swell and in Bowns Canyon. Huntington Canyon, Utah was home to the best-preserved mammoth skeleton in the world. Casts of the skeleton can be seen at the College of Eastern Utah Museum in Price and at the Fairview Museum.

So the search is on. Sure, it’s been over 13,000 years since mammoths disappeared, but we can have our own adventures as we seek these ancient symbols from another climate and another time. Why not? And if Utah can have a state bird and even a state handgun, why not a state Pleistocene pachyderm?

Who knows what else we’ll find as we rid the Southwest of thirsty invasive plants like tamarisk and Russian olive? As for the mammoth, I believe Joe. I think I can find it again on that long, bright expanse of ancient rock art especially with the slanted sunlight of spring mornings. The image may have been there for 13,000 years or more. Now that we know about it, we need to keep it safe.


Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu

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