MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga., Aug. 22, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — Imagine a Georgia—60,000 years ago—where the coastal city of Brunswick was 70 miles from the ocean and most of the state was a great, grassy plain where the bison and mammoths roamed.
In an era when most people think paleo is a diet, a small public liberal arts school in Central Georgia is leading the way to unearthing this past.
In doing so, it reminds the world just how hip and modern real paleontology can be.
“Some people say paleontology is a dying profession and, at big research universities, that’s probably true. Many have eliminated their paleontology departments,” said Dr. Al Mead, a biology professor at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, Georgia.
“But in this environment,” he said, “it can thrive. Paleontology is a true liberal arts science because of all the passion of discovery that goes along with the liberal arts.”
Mead is a paleomammalogist who studies ecosystems of the past.
In the last 20 years, he and about 40 Georgia College students have dug and backfilled muddy trenches in the swampy marshes of Southeast Georgia. Since excavating a near-complete bison skull in 2002, they’ve uncovered thousands of prehistoric bones, bone fragments, shells and teeth.
In recent years, scientists from other universities have joined the Georgia College team. They come together for a collaboration of minds, each sharing their expertise to help paint a better picture of what happened long ago at the Pleistocene-aged site.
Their discovery points to a past that teaches us about the future, about climate change and about survival of the human race.
“One of the primary lessons here is we’re looking at the effects of climate change,” Mead said. “There is a use for paleontology. If we understand history, then we can make a valid prediction about what happens next.”
The dig site—the only excavation of its kind in Georgia—was discovered by twin brothers in 2001, Joshua and Kelly Clark. Sloshing through the creek on their family property, looking for salamanders to feed their pet turtle, they came across an enormous black bone sticking out of the muck.
Mead later identified it as the jawbone of a prehistoric bison—an enormous creature weighing about 3,000 pounds with a horn span of 7 feet.
Finding mammoth bones only miles from the Atlantic “was just unheard of,” Mead said. The giant, long-tusked elephant, like bison, prefer grazing areas like the American Great Plains.
“Georgia would’ve been similar to the great prairies, not this jungle of trees we’re standing in now,” Mead said. “Paleontology gives us an indication of what the climate was like back then, what the vegetation was like and what kind of organisms lived here.”
The dig site is a boggy acre named Clark Quarry after the twins. For years, only Mead and Georgia College students dug there. Some summers, they waded chest deep through tick-infested, cypress wetlands to get to the site—hidden off a residential road in Brunswick.
Teams sweat in the heat, swatting at swarms of mosquitoes, as they pickaxe and shovel through dirt and hardened clay to get to the sandy layer, 6 feet down, where fossils are found.
The team thinks five bison found at the site died in this one location but at separate times. The climate was in flux, very much like today, forcing mammals to gather around shrinking water holes where vegetation still existed. That made them easy prey. Bones have puncture marks and parallel scratches, suggesting they were gnawed and trampled by predators.
Over the years, they’ve discovered teeth, jaws, elbows, shoulder blades, ribs, feet and horns of bison; bones of giant rodents the size of dogs; and shells of now-extinct large turtles.
Tiny fossils include raptor claws, hip bones of frogs, mice teeth, lizard jaws and shells. The biggest fossil they’ve found is the enormous shin bone of a mammoth.
This summer, for the first time, they found the partial skull of a juvenile mammoth.
Finding bison and mammoths in Georgia always seemed a bit preposterous, which makes solving this puzzle even more satisfying. It took all the right elements in place for Mead to find what has become the greatest discovery of his career.
He now lives to see the thrill of discovery in his students.
“What I look forward to seeing most,” Mead said, “is the students’ eyes lighting up when they find that jaw or that tooth and realize they’re the first human to ever see it. It sparks the passion of discovery.”