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Published September 25, 2019
Pat Neill believes in coincidences and, recently, that belief was rewarded.
Last fall, the University of Wyoming’s Todd Surovell asked for the public’s help with a mammoth mystery. The Department of Anthropology chair and his field school had been searching for a Mammuthus columbi (commonly known as a Columbian mammoth) kill site in Converse County for four years. The researchers had slowly narrowed the search radius to a small section of land. They believed they were close, but they asked for assistance with information.
UW Institutional Communications published a media release with details of the quest, which interested numerous people on social media. Several media entities picked up the story, including the Douglas Budget, the local newspaper, which followed with an article of its own in print and online.
That’s where Neill comes in.
Currently a resident of Albany, Ore., Neill spent part of his childhood living in Douglas with his parents, Bill and Barbara. Neill said he has the Douglas Budget’s website bookmarked on his computer’s internet browser and checks the website two or three times a year. Last fall happened to be one of those times, and the mammoth story caught his eye.
“I got down to the article and read it and thought, ‘I think he’s talking about what I did,’” Neill says. “It was so surprising. What are the odds of me getting online and finding that? In reading it, the whole experience flooded back into my brain. I can barely tell you how excited I was.”
An email to Surovell was followed by a phone conversation, before Neill scanned and emailed more than 30 photos that had been sitting in a tote in his garage for years. In those discussions and pictures was the confirmation that Surovell needed. In 1958 at the age of 12, Neill, his parents and some family friends had dug the mammoth Surovell was searching for.
‘This is Incredible’
For 61 years later, Neill’s memories of the event are impressively vivid. His mother fancied herself as an amateur geologist, often taking her family on excursions into the Wyoming landscape, and was known as such by family friends the Hildebrands. So when the Hildebrands, who lived two blocks down, asked if the Neills wanted to join a dig, they jumped at the chance. The Hildebrands had been invited by Loren Clark (L.C.) Bishop, the Converse County land surveyor, who had originally discovered the bones on his property in 1938.
At that time, he dug out several bones, but caved the bank over the rest of the find and donated the items to Douglas’ Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum. Then, in June 1958, Bishop mailed a letter to Wyoming State Geologist Horace Thomas asking for assistance with the rest of the excavation. Presumably, he never heard back or did not get an answer he liked, because he enlisted the local families.
For several weekends in July 1958, the group trekked to the site. Excavation started with a bulldozer but continued by hand with shovels and pickaxes when bones were exposed. The group eventually found nearly all of the animal’s bones, some of which were taken and donated to the museum. According to Neill, though, some of the bones were left in place and covered again.
“It was one of my first intellectual grasps of things being there that could show a different time and place,” Neill says. “I still remember that insight was like, ‘This is incredible.’ That animal was here, and now it’s a whole other environment.”
Old Photos Make a Match
But how does Surovell know this was the site he is looking for? Several clues helped him realize Neill’s story lined up with information he already had.
First was timing. He knew that any adult who dug up the bones was likely not alive anymore, so he correctly assumed information would come from a child who was part of the group. A 12-year-old Neill fit the bill and also confirmed that Bishop and the Hildebrands were involved.
The clincher was the photos, though. Several showed the geography of the area around the site, including distinctive features that Surovell used to map out six possible locations. His next trip to the area revealed one of his guesses was the correct site -- just 1.4 miles from his last search site.
“I think it was pretty good to get that close, but we never would have found it without Pat’s photographs,” Surovell says. “When I saw the spot where the mammoth was recovered, it was not a place I would have even looked. These types of bones are usually found around what were reliable water sources, but this one is up a steep tributary.”
Surovell knew they were close based on all the previous information they gathered, including the bones on display at the museum. Neill’s photos gave them a hill and a stream with a group of trees to work with, as Surovell used Google Earth to identify the possible locations. From the photos, he could tell the mammoth was in a tributary draw of a fairly well-watered stream. When looking down the stream, the hill was in the background. Google Earth allowed him to investigate locations where all of those details lined up. He has yet to put shovel to dirt, but the matching photos and geographical features are unmistakable.
More Work to Do
Surovell’s plan from here includes gaining permission from the landowner for a full excavation; site testing to further confirm Neill’s story; and searching for signs of human interaction with the death of the animal to make it an archaeological site.
“The importance of this mammoth still remains to be determined,” Surovell says. “We don’t know if it just died or if it was killed, but we look forward to figuring that out. It is important as a fossil specimen, because we do not have a lot of well-preserved mammoths in the state. But if it turns out to be an archaeological site, it becomes an incredibly important site.”
Surovell says he has found artifacts in the general vicinity, so he is cautiously optimistic the site is archaeological. If the mammoth was killed by humans and he can prove that, it would be the 16th such site found in the history of North American archaeology.
For now, though, Surovell is just happy to have the location of his mystery mammoth solved.
“We couldn’t have done this without Pat,” he says. “This speaks to the value of public participation in the scientific process. I wish we could have more stories like this. I cannot emphasize enough how remarkable it is the way this worked out. Pat was probably the only person who could have helped me find this site. It required those photos. It’s a really remarkable story.”
Neill says he feels grateful he was able to help.
“Why did I open that website at that time and get that? It was such a fortuitous incident,” he says. “I believe in coincidences, and I think that’s just one of them that proves it to me.”