The Cooperton mammoth site near the Wichita Mountains has been controversial since its 1961 excavation. At the heart of the debate, concerning whether humans were involved or not, is the site's age. The bones are several millennia older than the generally accepted dates for North American mammoth kill sites.
A Columbian mammoth skeleton was discovered in a shallow soil deposit near a tributary of the North Fork of the Red River. Possible stone tools and unusual patterns of bone fracture and distribution provided provocative evidence for human involvement. Archaeologists found no well-made tools such as spear points, but four granite cobbles were interpreted as hammerstones and an anvil used to break bones. Because all other stones in this soil deposit were tiny pebbles, the cobbles were out of place and had been possibly imported by humans. Leg bone fragments showed distinctive fractures of the types made when fresh or "green" bone is broken, and therefore, natural causes were ruled out. Some bones were found in positions not typical of skeletons strewn about by animals. The skull had been moved, and scapula fragments lay on top of it. Part of the pelvis leaned against a tusk, and a lower jaw bone was found several feet east of the skull. Archaeologists suggested that people had not killed or butchered the mammoth. Rather, they had scavenged a carcass or skeleton, with selected bones smashed for marrow or grease extraction and/or for making bone tools.
Some scientists doubt that humans were present at the animal's death, given the unusual age of the bones. Three radiocarbon dates ranged from 17,000 to 21,000 years ago (15,050 to 19,050 B.C.), more than 5000 years earlier than bone dates from the nearby Domebo site, where Clovis points were found with mammoth bones. As with many archaeological controversies, future research at other sites may clarify the Cooperton mammoth's interpretation.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Adrian D. Anderson, ed., "The Cooperton Mammoth: An Early Man Bone Quarry" Great Plains Journal 14 (Spring 1975). Marshall Gettys, "Early Specialized Hunters," in The Prehistory of Oklahoma, ed., Robert E. Bell (New York: Academic Press, 1984).
© Oklahoma Historical Society