Farmland is the vault of the unseen, and Bristle and Satterthwaite made one of the most unlikely scientific discoveries of the 21st century—a woolly mammoth skeleton alongside three telltale boulders.
“A mammoth in my soybeans is the find of our lifetimes,” Bristle says, “but even now, when I’m driving or walking across the field, I can’t help but wonder: What else is down there?”
“We have a story about finding it,” Satterthwaite adds, “and the mammoth has a story all its own.”
On rolling ground outside Chelsea in southeast Michigan’s Washtenaw County, Satterthwaite, 64, grows corn and soybeans. Likewise, Bristle, 75, grows grain on a nearby 565-acre operation. In 2015, the long-time friends purchased equipment for a joint side-business and began installing and repairing field tile on area farms. Significantly, in 2015, Bristle bought an additional 40 acres—farmland he’d previously rented that fit his overall operation but needed a touch of drainage work.
At noon on Sept. 29, 2015, just prior to soybean harvest, on a clear, sunny day with temps ideally hovering in the mid-60s, Bristle and Satterthwaite set to work on the new ground, intent on installing a needed lift station and sub-pump. Roughly 1,000’ off Highway M-52, surrounded by 3’-high soybeans in heavy dirt, Bristle steered a mini-excavator and Satterthwaite operated a backhoe on opposite sides of a 5’-by-5’ hole.
Buckets in and dirt out, their digging was clockwork—until the steel reached blue clay at an 8’ depth.
“I came outta the hole with the backhoe and I was confused by what looked like a bent fence post in the bucket. It was 4’ or 5’ long and several inches wide,” Satterthwaite recalls.
He shut off the backhoe and pulled the odd object—a rib—from extracted dirt. “Jim, did you bury any fencing around here? Did you bury any cows around here? Jim?”
Staring in wonder, Bristle paused before answering: “We both know that’s no cow bone.”
Back onto their equipment, Bristle and Satterthwaite again dropped buckets into a pit ready to reveal its secrets.
"Jim, I see more bones on your side.” “Trent, I see more bones on your side.”
Within minutes, Satterthwaite’s bucket momentarily lodged and he felt the backhoe shift. “I didn’t know it at the time,” he says, “but I hit the skull and that pulled the entire backhoe. That’s when we were certain something giant was down there.”
The next object out was a pelvic bone. “Up came what looked like a piece of tree stump,” Satterthwaite says, “but when we looked closer, there was clear honeycomb texture. No doubt, we knew we were on a prehistoric animal or dinosaur.”
“The second piece out was the big reveal,” Bristle echoes. “It was obviously old—seriously old. A few years back, mastodon bones were found about 2 miles from the exact spot where we were digging, so we understood the potential.”
In a sense, Bristle and Satterthwaite had a tiger by the tail. They were uncertain of the legal ramifications surrounding the bones and the remainder of the hole’s content.
“Harvest was almost here, but we didn’t know what we’d just got ourselves into,” Bristle says. “Do we tell anyone? Also, if we didn’t fill in right away, the hole would fill with water because we already had a bottom attached to a pipe we were putting in. We decided to cover it up and deal with the rest later.”
The pair of Michigan farmers googled state land rights and law: Bottom line, private land ownership gave Bristle full discretion. That evening, he carried the rib home and Satterthwaite watched over the pelvic piece. The following morning, they called the University of Michigan (UM) Museum of Paleontology and left a message detailing their find. “I’m a farmer,” Bristle says. “I just wanted to get the tiling done and cut beans. But I also didn’t want to ignore something so important to science.”
Bristle’s mammoth was scavenged—not killed—by Native Americans, Fisher explains, somewhere around 15,500 years ago. “The best evidence is he died during mating season, either in late spring or early summer. It’s possible he got into a fight with another male because there’s evidence of damage to his skull that looks to have been inflicted by the tusk of another animal in a slamming action. People on the landscape would have heard the fighting. They came along afterwards, got supper, and then stored the meat.”
The mammoth remains were preserved in the shallow waters in pond sediment now below Bristle’s soybeans. “They stashed what they couldn’t eat or carry in the pond. This kicked in a natural method of preservation of the meat by lactic acid-producing bacteria. Organisms in the pond water generate lactic acid in the meat and pickle it, temporarily preserving it,” Fisher notes. “The people could come back months later, or even several seasons later and the meat would largely be protected from scavengers.”
The three stones found around the mammoth skull were roughly the size of basketballs—with one specimen significantly larger. Their purpose? Hammer stones or weights to hold down the mammoth? Fisher suggests otherwise: “The people returned in winter to get the meat, but the water was frozen over, often solid to 1’ or more. Chopping ice that thick would have been quite a task. I’ve tested this with success, and I believe they placed the small boulders on the ice a day or two in advance, right above the mammoth remains. The rocks warmed in the sun, which happens with temps just a little over freezing, and the rocks’ weight did the rest. Then they widened the holes and accessed the meat.”
Approximately 20% of the skeleton was found—skull and tusks, numerous vertebrae and ribs, pelvis and both shoulder blades.
The research on Bristle’s mammoth is ongoing and continues to provide invaluable insights. “It’s truly a key find and shows how far back human presence goes in our area,” Fisher says. “It’s also really important to celebrate the partnership between farmers, landowners, and paleontology. We can’t get the answers to our past without each other and finds like what came out of Jim’s soybean field highlight human history on this continent.”