Men, Mastodons and Maybe Sled Burials

Perhaps the best-kept secret in the world of late-Pleistocene archaeology today is the work of independent researcher Dr. Richard Michael Gramly of North Andover, a 75-year-old Harvard Ph.D. hopelessly mired in old ways learned from masters of their field during the late Sixties and Seventies.

What “Mike” Gramly does best is excavate and interpret sites. More importantly, he then promptly publishes his findings in the public domain. He identifies all of the above as lost arts in the field to which he has dedicated his life’s work.

With Gramly, there are no secrets, no dark-shadow whispers. He believes he was placed on this planet and educated by some of the best to make and share discoveries. That’s what separates him from the cultural-resource managers he criticizes for their secretive postures. Gramly does not share their fear that published work will pinpoint important sites and promote “looting” by collectors who hawk their goods in an active marketplace dominated by three-day-weekend shows and eBay.

Take a look someday at the Native American artifacts for sale in cyberspace. Many of Gramly’s scholarly friends routinely peruse these offerings and are upset to find well-known stone tools and weapons culled from important, deaccessioned museum collections for sale to the highest bidder.

But that’s a discussion for another day, one that has absolutely nothing to do with Gramly’s current passion. These days, he’s focused on North American human interactions with ancient proboscideans (mastodons and mammoths), a topic that’s captured worldwide attention from scholars probing the peopling of our planet.

What Gramly has uncovered right here in the Northeast and Great Lakes country is astounding, yet hidden in plain sight and unrecognized. He has put the hands of Clovis hunters all over curated remains of extinct mastodons believed to have died of “natural” causes. Experts have for decades believed that these early elephants died by getting trapped in mucky graves while seeking water during the Ice Age melt some 13,000 calendar years ago.

 

A Familiar Crew

Gramly’s current fascination began in 2014, when he caught wind of an auction that stirred his inquisitive juices. After a Middletown, New York farmer had exposed skeletal mastodon remains while digging a bog with a backhoe on his property, the in situ excavation rights were placed on the auction block. The resourceful Gramly decided to go for it, reaching out to a couple of friends who ponied up just under $25,000 for the winning bid. With it, they secured for Gramly exclusive rights to a site now known in archaeological circles as Bowser Road.

A few months later, in the fall of 2014, Gramly and a familiar crew, comprised mostly of members from the American Society for Amateur Archaeology he founded some 30 years ago, were on-site recovering the remarkably preserved bones of a 13,000-year-old beast.

It takes not only field experience but an open and creative mind as well to manage and accurately interpret what is unearthed at such a site. Gramly meets all the standards with aplomb. Plus, when he forms a new hypothesis that he knows traditional, knee-jerk professionals will challenge, he only grows more determined to prove his point.

The reason Paleolithic researchers have found it difficult to associate ancient proboscidean graveyards with human predation is that stone artifacts are rarely found at the sites. and even when a random stone tool or weapon does come to light, they cannot rule out the possibility that it’s an unrelated, coincidental drop. Thus, human hunting has been routinely doubted.

Gramly was never sure about such conclusions. Was it not a fool’s errand to attribute bone fields containing the remains of many mastodons to the stupidity of ancient beasts that needed water getting stuck in the mud while seeking it? For real? An intelligent animal that needed great volumes of water to survive, dying in the mud? Huh? It made little sense to Gramly.

Furthermore, Gramly couldn’t comprehend the narrow-minded view that absence of stone artifacts precluded human involvement. Did not ancient man also create bone, antler, and ivory tools, which appear in the archaeological record, and also wooden tools that do not? To Gramly, the mired-in-the-mud verdict bordered on preposterous. Old World hunters for millennia killed proboscideans with primitive tools. So, why would New World hunters be any different. After all, did they not come from the same bolt of cloth?

 

Reopening Cabinets

During the Bowser Road dig, Gramly’s curiosity was stirred by clustered broken rib bones to which he at first paid little attention. Bones lying in a marsh for 13,000 years do, after all, decompose and break over time. But then it occurred to him that there seemed to be too many, and none were intact. Upon closer inspection, he could see evidence that the rib bones had been worked, indicating to him that they were artifacts crafted by human hands. He then put on his thinking cap and came up with a theory related to hunter-gatherers paying ceremonial homage to their fallen prey.

Gramly was soon convinced that what he was dealing with were spear-throwers (atlatls) fashioned by Clovis hunters and ritually broken into many pieces during the butchering process. Old weapons were being had sacrificed in respect to the fallen beast whose fresh ribs could be fashioned into new replacements.

Then Gramly started finding evidence of larger bones that had been used for tool handles and shafts, and who knew what else? He was convinced that these bone artifacts explained the absence of stone tools in mastodon bone fields. How so? Because Clovis hunters were using other suitable or even superior materials from which to craft important tools, weapons, and other useful objects.

To support his argument, Gramly knew he must examine existing evidence in mastodon collections long ago recovered, unrecognized and curated in North American museums. He knew of more than 20 repositories nationwide, and suspected he’d discover other previously unidentified rib-bone atlatl relics among the collections.

His first stop was the Museum of Science in Buffalo, New York, which housed an extensive mastodon collection from the iconic Hiscock Site located along the shores of Lake Ontario in upstate New York. Having been a curator there in the 1980s, he knew both the collection and the site, where he had hands-on digging experience in a drained pond basin.

It didn’t take long for Gramly to strike gold in Buffalo, where he spent nearly a month examining a the vast, out-of-sight, out-of-mind collection stored in protective metal Lane cabinets. He was not surprised to find identical broken rib-bone atlatls, not to mention other interesting discoveries, including antler Y-sticks with effigy carvings, bone tools and objects, tooth ornaments and even a tooth tool, along with tusk ivory and, yes, human remains of two individuals that have to this day not been radiocarbon-dated.

Also in the mix, all within spitting distance of human remains, were the skeletal remains of a dog. Wow! Could it have been the grave of a Clovis hunter – maybe even a shaman killed on the hunt?

Gramly first thought the Y-sticks were the remains of a shaman’s headdress. Now he’s leaning more toward the top and bottom ends of a ceremonial staff. Yes, perhaps that of a shaman, but not necessarily so, and very difficult to positively decipher.

Another key discovery involved the ivory components of the Hiscock collection: some large, some medium, some small; some intact, others fragmentary. After examining several examples in the same couple of drawers, Gramly concluded that they had been collected from the same adjacent features. Then, on top of the cabinet, he discovered the largest example of them all, an ivory tusk too long to fit in a drawer.

This long object immediately captured his attention. He could see it had been worked, somehow cut in half lengthwise, a challenging task indeed with primitive Clovis cutting tools. Although another researcher had already loosely identified the object as some sort of digging tool, the more Gramly studied it, the more it screamed “sled runner” to him. Could he be dealing with a previously undetected Clovis sled burial, complete with a sacrificed sled dog to transport the corpse’s soul on a complicated journey through the Underworld to the Milky Way?

If so, it would be the world’s earliest sled burial on record, and perhaps the earliest evidence ever found of domesticated dogs being used as beast of burden. Not even in the Old World has such a burial dating back to Paleoindians been uncovered.

Then, among the bone assemblage Gramly found what he suspected to be crossbeams and other components of an ancient sled, again a cutting-edge discovery, one that he is now even more certain is accurate.

 

Around the World

The story gets better. This past autumn a friend of Gramly’s from Kentucky was visiting the Blue Licks Battlefield Museum only to find a mastodon tusk collected from the Ohio River-side site in 1897. Upon closer inspection he could see that, like the Hiscock ivory he had seen in photos, it had been cut in half lengthwise to create a flat surface – very likely another tusk sled runner, maybe associated with a Clovis burial.

Given the extreme difficulty and danger involved in bringing down large, powerful mastodons with primitive weapons, human mortality would have been no stranger to such Clovis kill sites.

Gramly traveled to the Kentucky museum and confirmed that, indeed, the Blue Licks specimen is another ivory sled runner crafted from mastodon tusk. Now that researchers know what to look for, future sled runners will almost certainly be discovered, perhaps even by Gramly reviewing additional curated mastodon remains.

Plus, there’s another important hat in the ring. Gramly long ago pulled in respected world-religion guru James B. Harrod, who jumped into the project when Gramly was examining the Hiscock collection. Never can there be enough trained eyes examining such collections, and the venerable Harrod did indeed identify portable stone rock art and make other valuable observations about materials in the Hiscock collection.

In the meantime, Harrod has also documented seven Old World sled burials from Siberia and East Asia and three others from the New World, all from the (current) Holocene epoch. The North American examples come from indigenous Inuit and Algonquian cultures in Newfoundland and Labrador as well as the upper Great Lakes.

Ancient customs and spiritual practices die hard. So, if people were burying hunters with their sleds and sled dogs 3,000 to 7,000 years ago, isn’t there reason to believe that the mortuary practice may have been carried down from a much earlier day? Anthropologists agree that a worldwide population of the world’s earliest hunter-gatherers shared remarkably similar cosmos that differ little from those of rare, indigenous jungle cultures that survive today in the threatened Amazonian rain forest and places like it.

Gramly put the world on notice about his exciting new paradigm last year by publishing Late Pleistocene proboscidean ivory artifacts from the Hiscock Site, N.Y., in the prestigious French journal L’Anthropologie. Wait until his new book expanding upon his hypothesis hits the street in the coming months. Yes, Gramly and Harrod are now finishing a work about North American human interaction with proboscideans that promises to rock to anthropological world. As the climate warms and the Arctic permafrost melts, this new book will open the gates for exciting new research.

Dr. Richard Michael Gramly should be proud of what has transpired since the Bowser Road auction, because this is now his baby. A confident archaeologist and unapologetic iconoclast, he has never feared swimming against the current and never will. In fact, he welcomes the challenge.

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