Scientists are still not sure what happened to the fossils of a group of ancient elephants in the Oxford Science Museum
Posted On July 9, 2021
DALLAS, Texas – As a few hundred people packed into the museum here on Friday, one thing was clear: They were in for a treat.
The fossils of two ancient elephants were found by a student at the University of Texas at Austin, in a mass grave in a limestone quarry that has been excavated for more than a century.
The university says it has not found any evidence of an animal alive in the past 10,000 years.
The fossils were found in the limestone quarry in a site called the Stone Mountain Formation, which is now part of a large ancient lake bed called the Oxford Complex.
The bones of the two elephants, which were estimated to be between 4-6 feet long and between 2-3 feet wide, were preserved in the mass grave and their position on the face of the lake bed was consistent with the location of a small herd of elephants in Africa around 5,000 to 5,500 years ago.
“We’re not sure whether they’re human, but they were probably very tall,” said Richard Davenport, an archaeologist at the university and co-author of the study, which will be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
“We think they’re an African elephant or a European elephant.”
The find is not the first time the university has unearthed the bones of an ancient elephant in the area, as in 2013 it discovered an intact trunk and a skeleton of a 4-foot-long female.
The museum also has a collection of elephants that date to the Neolithic period and they are considered to be an ancient species.
University of Texas paleontologist David Goss, a co-lead author of the paper, said the discovery is significant because it is the first example of a mass burial of an extinct species in a fossil assemblage.
Goss said the fossils were not in a particularly stable condition, but that they had been preserved well enough to allow scientists to study the bones and determine the exact time of death for them.
The bones were found near a mass of limestone, which may have been used to create a dam or for other purposes.
“It’s an extraordinary find,” he said.
“There are many examples in the fossil record of mass burials in places where the climate and time of day have been different, so it’s hard to say what was happening here.”
Goss, Davenampore, and other members of the team examined the fossils in the late summer and fall of 2015, when they were found.
They were carefully transported to the museum and have been kept in a museum storage unit for a couple of months.
Guss, the paleontology professor, said that when the bones were first discovered they were in such good condition that they were a surprise to the scientists.
“They’re probably the only elephant bones that were discovered in such a mass in the same area,” he explained.
“That was quite a shock to us.”
Davenport said that even if the fossils are human, they were likely a species that lived at the same time as other elephants in other parts of Africa.
The Oxford Complex is one of the world’s largest prehistoric lakes and, unlike some other large lakes in Africa, it was not completely drained by humans.
The fossil record from the Oxford complex is one that is generally ignored because it was never properly studied and is often thought of as an anomaly.
But Goss said it’s important to know what went on in the world before humans arrived.
“One of the things we know is that the dinosaurs came and went, the megafauna went and they all disappeared,” he told The Associated Press.
“So there’s a huge amount of evidence that we don’t know anything about what went in this area before the dinosaurs and how they came and disappeared.
So what we need to know is how did this stuff survive?”
Goss and his colleagues believe the two fossils, which are about 5.5 inches long, are about 2,300 years old.
“I think it’s probably a very, very old specimen, but we need more research to know,” he added.
“It’s still in good condition, and the next step is to go to the site and take a look.”
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