Mammoth bones offer a peek into Iowa's prehistoric past

David Benzel speaks to a crowd at Indian Hills about the mammoth bones found on a farm in Oskaloosa.

Your backyard could have been the stomping grounds of ice-aged sloths, mammoths and other creatures that stopped roaming the earth thousands of years ago.

Fossils and bones have been discovered across the state of Iowa, allowing for a peek into Iowa's prehistoric past. One of those discoveries was in Oskaloosa in June of 2010. An Oskaloosa farmer found what he thought was a ball in a creek on his property. Turns out, the ball was actually a mammoth femur, estimated to be 100,000 years old. The discovery kicked off an adventure of science, archeology and a whole lot of digging.

Tuesday night at Indian Hills, a packed house came out to see David Brenzel, one of the leaders of the mammoth excavation and part of the team that discovered three ice-aged sloths near Shenandoah, Iowa. Brenzel uses the experience of the sloth dig to show what is to come for Oskaloosa's mammoth.

"It's still so early in the mammoth project, we've only been digging since this past spring," Brenzel said. "Still a lot of mysteries about the site and the geology's a lot more complicated than we thought it was going to be, so by teaching them about the sloth today and our progress in the last ten years, I was hoping that I could give them the next best thing, really good model for predicting where we're probably going to be going with the mammoth in the next few years. It won't take that long, can't imagine it taking that long, but these things are full of surprises."

Brenzel estimates the bones were caught in a flood 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, which is why they're so spread out and diggers are still searching for the bones' original location. Naturalists and researchers have been speaking at presentations across the state, hoping to peak audiences' interest in science and answer questions that range from the historical background of the ice age to the specifics of the bones.

"I think an audience of, what, must be close to 90 or 100 people here, it brings out all kinds of people and not just geologists, either," Brenzel said. "I never know what kind of questions I'm going to get."

The audience at Indian Hills was diverse, from students to kids and teenagers to adults who just wanted their picture with the bones. For Brenzel, seeing kids get excited about science is the most rewarding part of his job.

"There's a crisis in science education in this country and the more kids we can get to the site the earlier, the better," he said. "We're just trying to catch them. This has been a dream come true, this is an adventure of a lifetime and the sooner we can share it with more people, the better." And with more work to do and more bones to find, the adventure continues."