Ancient mammoth bones inspire Monterey County farmers
Sept./Oct. 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Paolo Vescia
Cousins Martin and Ryan Jefferson were astonished to find wooly mammoth bones in a Castroville field where their family farms. The discovery touched off a flurry of scientific research and excavation, and inspired a new marketing idea.
Long before Martin Jefferson began farming in Monterey County in 1863, wooly mammoths roamed California, including the fertile coastal plain around Watsonville where his descendants farm today. One day thousands of years ago, a wooly mammoth died in the once-marshy area now used to grow artichokes and other vegetables. Its bones lay undiscovered until just recently.
"We were using a tractor to move some earth and my cousin Ryan noticed something out of place," said Martin Jefferson, grandson of the farming operation's namesake. "It looked like a medium-sized rock, but had an odd pattern.
The unusual markings on a wooly mammoth molar tipped off workers that what they'd uncovered was no ordinary rock.
"He brought the chunk into the office the next morning and I immediately recognized it as a molar, but it was humongous," Jefferson recalled. "I said, 'This is a mammoth tooth.' I was met with funny looks from my cousins, who were preparing for the workday on our farms.
"I spun to the left and typed in 'mammoth molar' on the computer. The second picture from the Internet search could've been what I was holding in my hand."
When the astonishment subsided, Jefferson said the men recalled there was another "white spot" in the scraped area and went out to look. They immediately exposed a tusk.
Through the family's contacts, a team of archaeologists and college student volunteers was quickly assembled. They're now meticulously uncovering the fragmented skeleton to learn as much as possible about this long-extinct species.
Discovery of wooly mammoth bones led to scientific advances through the use of DNA and the launch of a new California produce brand.
Wooly mammoths ranged across North America during the late Pleistocene era—2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. The elephant-like animals weighed up to 10 tons, with tusks that could measure up to 16 feet in length.
The mammoth bones discovered by the Jefferson family near Castroville aren't the only ones found in California, but they are the first found in Monterey County. And one of the most exciting things about this discovery, Jefferson said, is the recovery of mammoth hairs, which may allow scientists to extract DNA. If successful, it would be the first recovery ever of DNA from a Columbian mammoth, which is the name of the species most commonly found in North America. DNA samples could help experts learn how they're related to other mammoth species and modern elephants.
Benny Jefferson shows off the family's new Mammoth brand artichokes.
Mark Hylkema, a California State Parks archaeologist and researcher at Foothill College and the University of California, took over the discovery site as project manager and principal investigator several months ago.
Jefferson said finding the mammoth bones was an exciting event that inspired everyone working for the family farming business: the bulldozer operator who struck the first molar, the fieldworkers who've volunteered to help with the excavation and the many experts and researchers who've since come to the site.
And it was the archaeologist who suggested a way to share excitement of the discovery with an even larger audience.
"We'd been considering developing our own label for our artichokes for some time, but hadn't come up with a name that everyone in the family liked," Jefferson recalled. "Mark said, 'You should call artichokes from this area Mammoth chokes.'
"A light bulb went off when he said it. In our family, it takes a while to get everyone to agree, but that label name took hold the moment it was said."
Although consumers won't see Mammoth brand artichokes out front in their supermarket produce section, artichoke boxes with the wooly mammoth label from Martin Jefferson and Sons farms will be stacked in the markets' storage areas, waiting to be discovered.
Kate Campbell is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.