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National Park Service
U.S. Department of the Interior

Mammoth Partner Highlight

Both mammoth and mastodon fossils have been discovered at Big Bone Lick State Park (Kentucky). The site contains exceptional fossils and contributed significantly to the growth of paleontology in the United States. Kentucky Department of Parks photo.

Big Bone Lick State Park (Kentucky)

Kentucky's Big Bone Lick State Park is a site of superlatives. It represents the site of the first organized paleontology expedition in the United States and the first fossil site found and extensively explored in North America. Big Bone Lick is also recognized for the preservation of exemplary and well-known Pleistocene megafauna, including Bison antiquus (the ancestor of today's bison), Mammut americanum (mastodon), and Mammuthus primigenius (woolly mammoth), the species depicted on the National Fossil Day 2012 artwork. These, and other species, were drawn to the Big Bone Lick region during the most recent glacial advance (ice age) and retreat, because natural springs carried salt and sulfur to the surface. These same springs and streams, which made the surrounding land soft and boggy, helped create a excellent habitat for trapping the large Pleistocene mammals and preserving their bones. As was the custom during the early days of paleontology, many of the first explorers to the region were interested in collecting and shipping off the fossils. Therefore bones from Big Bone Lick have been largely scattered across the globe.

Even though the site had been known to American Indians long before Europeans noticed them, many of the soldiers, scientists, and surveyors who came through the wilds of North America were fascinated by the site's extensive bone deposits. The first organized paleontological dig was conducted in 1765 by Colonel George Croghan, under the direction of the American Philosophical Society, but it was not until excavations in 1766 and a report in 1767 that the imagination of the American public became captivated by the idea of a history as deep as that of Europe. Scientists collected more than eight metric tons of bones from Big Bone Lick over the course of the next century and a half, on behalf of statesmen like paleontologist (and President) Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Modern paleontologists occasionally have a bone to pick with the collectors of yesteryear. The bones collected from the site were not handled with the rigor of today's collections management and data recording practices. Shipments sank in the Ohio River, Mississippi River and off the coast of Cuba, and one collection was stolen and sold to the Liverpool Museum.

Despite 250 years of excavations, Big Bone Lick continues to provide new information. This 2008 photo shows an excavation that confirmed an American Indian bison kill and butchering site. Photo courtesy Todd Young.

Active exploration of Big Bone Lick had tapered off by the 20th century, but the discovery of archeological artifacts at the site, coupled with the advent of radiocarbon dating in the mid 20th century, brought renewed interest in the site. Current research suggests the site stratigraphy extends to 17,200±600 years before present. The projectile points, now known as Clovis points (named after their discovery in Clovis, NM in 1929), were first found at Big Bone Lick in 1807 during the William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) dig commissioned by Thomas Jefferson. Due to circumstances of the time these went into a private collection for a long time, but are now in the collection of the Cincinnati Museum Center. Excavations in the 1960s and 1980s further established the presence of humans at Big Bone Lick, and in 2008 a small scale paleontological dig (photo at right), in conjunction with the Cincinnati Museum Center and Kentucky Department of Parks, confirmed a bison kill and butchering site by American Indians.

Big Bone Lick was designated a state park in 1960 to help protect the paleontological and archeological remains still on the site. The residents of the local community wanted to preserve what remained, so they purchased land and gave it to the state for safe keeping. Paleontological remains in collection from the park are limited, but it is assumed that great stores of unearthed bones and fossils still remain, since so little of the valley has been properly excavated. The legacy of the once mighty mammoths consists of a few bone and teeth fragments left in the visitor center, but scientists from many disciplines hope that one day the continuing legacy of the mammoth will be uncovered, so that it can fill us with the same wonder and excitement as it surely did those early explorers, scientists, and statesmen. To that effect a collaborative research project concerning the late Pleistocene chronostratigraphy and paleoenvironment of Big Bone Lick focusing on the implications of megafaunal extinction has been proposed. Several individuals and organizations have come together with the proposal including prominent local scientists and professors. The senior investigators include scientists and professors from the University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, Cincinnati Museum Center, and the Kentucky Geological Survey. Preliminary sediment core sampling is scheduled for later in 2012; further excavations are dependent upon grant proposal acceptance. For more information, visit the Big Bone Lick State Park and the Friends of Big Bone websites.

Mammoth partner feature articles:

Big Bone Lick State Park | Channel Islands NP, Pygmy Mammoth | Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose | Denver Museum of Nature & Science Snowmastodon Project | Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County | Kenosha Public Museums | The Mammoth Site at Hot Springs | Paleontological Research Institution, Museum of the Earth | The Tate Geological Museum at Casper College | Tule Springs Ice Age Park | Waco Mammoth Site

Last updated: June 15, 2012