A Farmer with a Mammoth Find

James Bristle can add prehistoric bones to the list of crops he’s harvested.

By Nancy Dorman-Hickson | Photos By Daryl Marshke

0216mammoth1“The piece of land where we found the woolly mammoth, that’s going into corn next year,” explains James Bristle. He refers to the unlikely find last fall that put the Michigan farmer’s name in the media and in the history books.

At his 585-acre farm near Chelsea, Bristle and neighbor Trent Satterthwaite were working on drainage tiles in a field Bristle had acquired only 60 days before. The mud-covered bones they unearthed resembled those of no familiar animal.

Bristle contacted Daniel Fisher, director of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan, who, after inspecting them, surmised the bones were from a prehistoric mammoth. In the last 150 years, only 30 have been discovered in Michigan.

Generally, landowners with scientific-worthy specimens are given time to consider their options: Sell? Keep? Donate? In this case, it was the farmer who wanted immediate action. “Even though it’s history, if you’re a farmer, you’ve got to harvest crops when they’re ready to go,” says Bristle, who raises cattle and grows corn, soybeans, wheat and hay.

James Bristle

James Bristle

When Bristle gave Fisher only one day, the paleontologist immediately organized a dig even without knowing Bristle’s intentions for the bones. Several bones were recovered, including a skull and two tusks. The carcass, most likely an adult male mammoth that lived 11,700 to 15,000 years ago, had probably been stored by early human inhabitants in what had been a pond.

Ultimately, Bristle and wife, Melody, decided to donate the find to the University of Michigan’s paleontology department. Now the “Bristle Mammoth” bones, as they’ve been named, are being studied and prepared for exhibit in 2016 at the university’s Museum of Natural History.

As for Bristle, “Next year, we’re going to be tiling the other side,” he says. “You never know what will happen.” Peggy Diuble, one of the owners of Diuble Equipment, Bristle’s AGCO dealer, says with a laugh, “Now every time they hit something, they’ll be saying ‘Oh, what’s that?’”