Castroville Columbian Mammoth Excavation

Last week I got a call from an old college friend of mine. Dan Cearley and I worked together a lot when I was a photographer for the Associated Press in Guatemala. Dan was, at that time, a forensic anthropologist working on digging up mass graves for a human rights organization.

Fast forward 10 years and Dan and I are again in a muddy pit, surrounded by bones. Only this time, they are the giant bones of an extinct Columbian Mammoth, found by a curious farmer in an artichoke field in Castroville, CA. The farmer was grading a wall for irrigation when his grader uncovered what he thought was granite. Being a curious and intelligent fellow, and knowing that granite does not belong in the coastal farmlands, he got off his grader for a closer look. By pure coincidence, this farmer had always been interested in bones, even as a child. He once toyed with going into archeology, but the tug of the family farm kept him in the fields. In short order, he recognized the porous white substance as bone and called the local university.  Many farmers would have plowed this right under, recognizing the halt it would put in their work and planting while excavation work was under way. This fellow thought the experience of finally getting to live some of his childhood dreams was worth the potential hassle. Now he spends his days in the pit, carefully dusting off bones with sponge brushes, or straining buckets of dirt through a wet-screen searching for pieces of bone or tusk missed during the initial excavation and bringing his family through to share in the experience. His nieces were there taking pictures, cataloging bones and gathering material for what I’m sure, is going to be the best science project in the local 8th grade class. More details on Columbian Mammoths after the pictures.

The town of Castroville. Artichoke capital of California. Now home to Mammoths.

panoramic view of mammoth excavation

Panoramic view of the excavation site in an artichoke field.

This is a composite from about 100 separate images of the dig site.

castroville mammoth excavation

Dan helps volunteers clean some of the larger pieces.

detail of hands during excavation

Dan does some detailed clearing around a mammoth tooth.

overview of soil strata

Different layers in the soil where the farmer was clearing when he found the mammoth bones.

wet screening

Wet screening can be cold on a windy day. Volunteers search the clay soil for missed pieces of bone and tusk.

Boss-man Dan

Boss-man Dan.

A mammoth molar, one tooth, nearly 8 inches.

One of the mammoth tusks.

Interior view of the mammoth tusk.

Keep away from Jason's diggins.

The people involved are at risk of mammoth fever.


Columbian Mammoths (Mammuthus columbi) are effectively “North American Mammoths.”  M. columbi is thought to have evolved from an earlier Old World species: Mammuthus trogontherii (the Steppe Mammoth).  In Eurasia the same ancestor, M. trogontherii, evolved into M. primigenius (the Wooly Mammoth), which later also migrated into North America.
The range of M. primigenius (the Wooly Mammoth) and the range of M. columbi (the Columbian Mammoth) overlapped in some areas of North America; but M. columbi extended as far south as Mexico and Nicaragua, while M. primigenius remained in the more northerly latitudes.  For the most part, both of these species appear to have gone extinct some time around 12,500 – 9,000 years ago. However, researchers have become aware of several small remnant populations on Wrangell Island in the Bering Straits and also on the Santa Barbara Channel Islands; these populations appear to have continued for several thousand more years before they too became extinct.


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  • Frances ChartersMay 26, 2014 - 12:28 pm

    It is interesting about your find of the mammoth and so close by to where I live.
    I was wondering if you know of other dinosaur sites near by as someone said there is a place near Santa Nella that has dinosaur fossils to see. Do you know of it that we could go to see with out children.
    Thank you for your time. I was at La Brea a long time ago and it was fascinating a friend told us to go there. It was really wonderful. Maybe there will be something someday in Castroville us to view.
    If you have information please email me.
    Thank you and enjoy the dig!


Fine Art Landscape Photography

Lake Tahoe Landscape Photographer

Scott Sady is a freelance and fine art landscape photographer based in Lake Tahoe and Reno. Scott specializes in Lake Tahoe landscape photography, Sierra landscape photography, Reno and Lake Tahoe stock images and freelance and photojournalism. Scott is available for freelance photography assignments in the Reno and Lake Tahoe area.