Skip to main content

In Images: A Mastodon Skull and Tool from Chesapeake Bay

Scallop trawler

cinmar scallop trawler

(Image credit: Dennis Stanford, Capt. Thurston Shawn)

In 1974, a scallop trawler named the Cinmar dredged up a mastodon skull and a flaked blade from the ocean floor about 60 miles off the coast of the Chesapeake Bay. Together, the two finds hint that the Atlantic Coast may have been occupied by early settlers more than 14,000 years ago.

Mastodon teeth

mammoth teeth

(Image credit: Dennis Stanford)

The fisherman hacked out the teeth and tusks and gave some out as souvenirs. The finds eventually made their way to the Gwynn's Island Museum in Virginia. The molars suggest the mastodon was about 30 years old when it died.

Flaked tool

flaked blade from the chesapeake

(Image credit: Dennis Stanford)

The tool was made of volcanic rock and had workmanship similar to that found in Solutrean tools, which were made in Europe between 17,000 and 22,000 years ago.

Dry land

sea level reconstruction

(Image credit: Dennis Stanford )

Before glaciers rose around 14,000 years ago, the area where the tool and skull were dredged was dry land. But rising sea levels turned the area into a bog, then a saltwater marsh, before the waters may have completely submerged the items.

Mammoth tusk

mammoth tusk weathered in salt water

(Image credit: Dennis Stanford)

Characteristic red staining on the tusk comes from oxidation, which may have occurred when the tusk was submerged in a saltwater marsh.

Used knife

knife tool found in chesapeake bay

(Image credit: Dennis Stanford)

The tool may have been used to butcher an animal -- possibly the mastodon found. Microstriations and wear shown are typical of tool use.The sharp crisp edges suggest it wasn't tumbled in the surf or carried by water. Either way, the wear on the tool suggests it was on dry land at some point and then buried by sea water, which means the tool was older than 14,000 years old. That would mean people (and possibly migrants from Europe) lived on the Atlantic Coast prior to the Clovis culture.

Projectile dissolved

saltwater marsh

(Image credit: Dennis Stanford)

The weathering on the tool and the teeth and tusk suggests both spent time in a saltwater marsh. Here, a similar rhyolite knife is shown after a saltwater marsh has broken down its chemical structure.

Tumbled surf edge

projectile point

(Image credit: Dennis Stanford)

Here, a similar tool is shown with edges that were blunted by the surf.