Have you ever wondered about the ground beneath your feet? Who walked it before you? Where were they going? What happened when they got there, or did they even get there? What if they’re buried beneath your feet?

Okay, perhaps that last question is a little too existential for the majority of the land here in our Tri-Cities community. Still, there is one particular place in the area where history is unearthed, having been buried for thousands of years. Known as the Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site, the ongoing excavations of these ancient lands reveal a rare glimpse into the past and the life of the now-extinct creatures who called the region home long before us.  

Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site Tri Cities
A Caudal vertebrae was found at the dig site after a cleaning that would have been part of a tail. Photo courtesy: Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site

Digging Deep into the History of the Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site

The year was 1999, and a local landowner was about to make the discovery of a lifetime. Sadly, being a man of construction and not paleontology, the gentleman was only interested in digging up the land with his heavy equipment. So when he stumbled upon large bones along the western edge of the property, instead of digging deeper to uncover the mystery of the bones, he stopped digging at the location altogether once it was recognized that the bones were from that of a long departed mammoth.

“I’m not sure he really knew what he had, but he did leave the portion of the site with most of the bones pretty much intact,” explained Gary Kleinknecht, Education Director at the Mid-Columbia Basin Old Natural Education Sciences, otherwise known as MCBONES, Research Center.

Kleinknecht has been on the ground floor since the establishment of the MCBONES Research Center Foundation in 2008, nearly ten years after the initial discovery of the bones. Around this time, word of the original 1999 discovery got to Bax Barton, the mammoth expert at the Burke Museum in Seattle. Soon after, the archeology department at Central Washington State University was contacted to investigate the find, which was initially believed to be in wind-blown loess deposits, similar to the Wenas Creek mammoth.

“In April of 2008, a CWU grad student contacted Kamiakin High School looking for help in rediscovering the mammoth that he had heard of through Bax Barton,” began Kleinknecht. Having been a high school teacher before retirement and at Kamiakin for 35 years, Kleinknecht suddenly found himself at the forefront of the rediscovery of the bones.

“I was and still am an Ice Age Floods enthusiast, and it seemed like mammoths and Ice Ages go together, so I was given the grad student’s contact info.”

Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site Tri Cities
Excavations at the dig site have produced over 700 specimens by 2016, digging having just resumed in 2010. Photo courtesy: Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site

Discovery of Mammoth Bones Prompts Volunteers to Establish the Mid-Columbia Basin Old Natural Education Sciences Research Center Foundation

In May of that year, Kleinknecht and students from CWU and Kamiakin rediscovered the mammoth remains. Furthermore, a pedestrian survey conducted by the students quickly found trace evidence that led the investigators to a suspected location of additional remains. History was being unearthed right before their eyes, leaving more questions than answers, with one particularly daunting one hanging overhead: what would become of this land?

By this point, the quarry and encompassing land in which the bones had been discovered had long since come under the ownership of the bank, and the land had just gone up for sale. With newfound evidence indicating the potential discovery of additional remains, the prospect of a complete mammoth skeleton in Ice Age flood deposits was all too great, and thus inspired community volunteers to seek a land owner to protect the site and allow it to be studied.

Through the Herculean effort of a local real estate agent, a perfect buyer who became just as equally passionate about the project was found. The local farming family who wished to see the site preserved bought the land and helped develop it into a research center for K-12 teachers, students, and community volunteers in the Tri-Cities. Finally, in September of 2008, these same volunteers, with Kleinknecht included, established the Mid-Columbia Basin Old Natural Education Sciences Research Center Foundation.

Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site Tri Cities
The dig site exhibit shares a lot of valuable information with visitors about the Ice Age Floods and Columbian Mammoths. Photo courtesy: Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site

Ongoing Excavations at Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site at the MCBONES Research Center Offer Insight into Prehistoric Times

Formal excavation of the Coyote Canyon Mammoth site began two years later, in September 2010. These ongoing excavations have provided ample opportunity for students, teachers, scientists, and community volunteers to collaborate among several scientific disciplines, not to mention the vast amount of specimens they’ve discovered, providing researchers a greater understanding of an Ice-Aged Columbia Basin. As more puzzle pieces are unearthed, the research center assembles a more complete picture of how the Columbia Mammoth once lived.

“We hope to produce a profile of our regional environment over time based on which species were living and being buried,” said Kleinknecht.

There’s already a strong vote of confidence in the research center’s findings due to the nature of the dig site, as it is already unlike any other mammoth excavations in the Northwest. With the establishment of the MCBONES non-profit educational organization, the dig site project was undertaken as a community volunteer effort and as part of a citizen science project that goes beyond just unearthing the bones of ancient giants.

Instead, the volunteers are conducting what is known as a paleoecological study, meaning they’re digging deeper to study the interaction between these magnificent beasts and their environment across the geologic timescale. This means they’re not just digging up dirt but cleaning it.

“We are washing 100% of the dirt that comes out of our dig units over one-millimeter screens. Small animal bones, insect parts, and plant parts larger than one millimeter across are held back in the screen,” Kleinknecht explained. “As we dig deeper, the age of the specimens gets older.”

By the end of 2016, the volunteer team had collected nearly 700 specimens, including 97 mammoth bones and fragments. They even found the bone of a camel in 2011 on the Coyote Canyon South Hill-Mauldin Site. The carbon-14 age of the bone was about 25,000 years before the present.

Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site Tri Cities
No prior experience is needed! Anyone is welcome to volunteer at the Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site, and they’ll even train you on the excavation process. Photo courtesy: Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site

Tours at Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site Offer Tri-Cities Residents a Chance to Step into the Past

Today’s inquisitive minds are welcome to visit the MCBONES Research Center for tours, with the non-profit offering several options, including public, school, and private group tours. Public tours are held several times a year. Those looking to participate can sign up online, with tickets costing just $10 per person and all admissions and donations going towards the center’s supplies and lab work.

Each tour begins with a slide presentation from a designated volunteer guide on mammoths, the Ice Age Floods, and MCBONES paleo-environmental study. Visitors are then shown some of the bones on display before being introduced to the bone lab. Afterward, they are guided down into Coyote Canyon to visit the dig site. Visitors are reminded to dress accordingly when visiting the dig site, and sturdy shoes and hats are recommended to help prevent sun exposure.

Volunteers are always much appreciated and welcomed at the research center, with ample volunteer opportunities to pick from. These opportunities are open to adults and high school youths that an adult accompanies.

“We can use sediment washers, dig support help, sediment pickers, micro-photographers, bone processors, tour guides and guide shop help,” said Kleinknecht, “We train too, no experience needed.”

If you can’t physically volunteer at Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site but still want to help the local Tri-Cities non-profit organization in their excavations, you can always make a difference with charitable donations. More information can be found on their website or Facebook page.

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