An Incredible Journey

By Susan Bean Aycock

New book recounts the journey of the Waco Mammoth Site from local dig to national monument

It’s a story within a story: a tale that began 45 years ago with the discovery of one ancient mammoth bone that led to excavating 23 skeletons, piecing together the narrative of a cataclysmic event that occurred at least 28,000 years ago and chronicling the site’s incredible journey to a worldwide paleontological celebrity and designation as a National Monument. The site is the only recorded evidence of a “nursery herd” of extinct proboscideans; it includes female Columbian mammoths and their young — as well as a bull — who were trapped and encapsulated by a mud flow caused by a flood event.

“In Pursuit of a National Monument: A History of the Waco Mammoth Site” by Calvin B. Smith and David O. Lintz tells their story — as director and assistant director of Baylor University’s Strecker Museum (now the Mayborn Museum Complex) — of the years they spent excavating and unraveling the paleontological mysteries of the site. Their drive to gain recognition of its significance culminated in its designation as a National Monument by the National Park Service in July of 2015. The book’s first run in April this year sold out within a month and is now in its second printing.

The authors are clear that while it’s their narrative, it was never a two-man show, but a mammoth-sized collaborative effort that included Baylor University, the City of Waco Parks and Recreation Department, the Waco Mammoth Foundation and ultimately, the National Park Service. Scores of scientists, researchers, students, professors, fundraisers and volunteers logged in untold hours battling Texas heat, insects, volatile weather and bureaucratic red tape to uncover and protect the treasures that lay beneath the soil, fund its continued work and secure its place in history.

The site now features 23 excavated skeletons of Columbian mammoths, with a 24th identified, from approximately 28,000 to 60,000 years old, depending on the dating technique used.

photo courtesy of Baylor University Mayborn Museum Complex

“Initial radiocarbon dating put the mammoth site at about 28,000 years old, but it was pushed back to the 60,000-year range by OSL [optically stimulated luminescence] dating [a newer technology],” said Lintz. “OSL shows the last time that the grains of sand next to the bone were exposed to light,” explained Smith. The actual age is still up for debate.

Said Lintz, “I don’t know what the answer is except more research.”

David Lintz was the technical staff assistant at the Strecker Museum when two local teenagers, Paul Barron and Eddie Bufkin, brought in a large bone for him to check out in April of 1978. He quickly identified it as a mammoth bone and excavation at the site near the Waco Regional Airport began later that month. It was named the Waco Mammoth Site in 1979 by George Naryshkin, a Baylor geology student who wrote his senior thesis on it. But when his research ended, work at the site shut down in 1981.

Calvin Smith arrived in Waco in 1982 to consult on the restoration of the Dr Pepper plant as a museum. When that project didn’t immediately go forward, he was chosen by retiring Strecker Museum director Dr. Bryce C. Brown to replace himself.

“I almost immediately made David [Lintz] assistant director, because I could see how much he contributed to the museum,” said Smith. “I knew [the site] was important right away, but not the extent of how important. I don’t know if anyone could have predicted that.”

The two reopened the Mammoth Site in 1984 and the rest, as they say, is history. In 1985, with five mammoth skeletons excavated, a flood exposed several more, including a female with a juvenile on her tusks, presumably trying to lift it to safety — an incredibly unique find. A major turning point was a visit by pre-eminent proboscidean scientist Dr. Gary Haynes, who declared it “the most important paleontological site in the world.” Haynes’ involvement validated the site’s scientific importance and provided three critical assessments: that it was a “nursery herd” of females and their young; the mammoth died in their body sacs, some found in the “sudden death syndrome” position with heads still upright; and that the herd was under environmental stress, with the oldest female being only about 50, instead of the typical matriarchal age of 60 to 65 years.

Still, the search was on to discover a bull among the nursery herd. With the help of Ralph Vinson, a volunteer who logged in thousands of hours and to whom the book is dedicated, Smith found it.

“We found later that it had a juvenile on his tusk, which is extremely important; that behavior had never been shown before, a male trying to lift a juvenile to safety,” said Smith.

photo courtesy of Baylor University Mayborn Museum Complex

Haynes returned to Waco to study the bull and participate in the museum’s distinguished lecture series. In 1996, Smith presented a paper at the 30th International Geological Congress in Beijing, China, on a casting of the bull and juvenile, cementing the site’s international scope.

“In the beginning, we had talked about several avenues of recognition: should it be a state park? A city park?” said Lintz. “But we said, ‘No, let’s dream bigger and see if we can get national status because of the site’s importance.’ Paleontologists at the work site knew its importance, but to get recognized nationally was tough. [Then Texas Congressman] Chet Edwards played a vital part in getting Calvin to Washington to testify for it.”

Smith retired from Baylor in 2003 after 20 years as director of the Strecker Museum and founder, professor and chair of Baylor’s Department of Museum Studies, and moved to Colorado, establishing Legacy Museum Consulting. Lintz retired after 29 years at Baylor and became director of Waco’s Red Men Museum and Library in 2002. So why the book now?

“We wanted the story told in sequential order, and how complex it was to get the site to national monument status,” said Lintz. When asked what he would say on a postcard summarizing their work to someone who had never heard of it, Lintz wrote: “Began the excavations in 1978 thinking we could unearth one good mammoth skeleton for display, and it turns out that this is a one-of-a-kind nursery herd of Columbian mammoths.”

“In Pursuit of a National Monument: A History of the Waco Mammoth Site,” published by Baylor University Press, is available at the Monument site, the Mayborn Museum Complex bookstore, the Waco Tourist Information Center and Fabled Bookstore. It can also be purchased on Amazon.

A Unique Book on a Unique Site

Key players in the mammoth site story weigh in on the monument and book

“Waco Mammoth National Monument was proclaimed in 2015 to protect the only known Columbian mammoth nursery herd, but it preserves so much more. Mammoths draw us to the site, but giant ground sloths, camels, bison, horse, deer, pronghorns and giant tortoises were drawn to the site for water. This book provides a unique look into how a single bone fragment can become a national monument. [Calvin’s and David’s] hard work and dedication, plus the assistance of many volunteers, brought the site to the nation’s attention and preserved this rare window into the past.” –Lindsey T. Yann, Ph.D., National Park Service paleontologist at the Mammoth Site, one of only a handful of on-site paleontologists stationed throughout the entire NPS

“Waco Mammoth is a special spot on earth that just happened to have the right set of circumstances to preserve the animals that died here. The rarity and kismet of this park are mind-blowing. A documented history of the people and experiences that made the Waco Mammoth Site is vital to prolonging the park’s impact … on science, on history, on our community and on the country’s park system.” –Raegan King, Historic Site Manager, City of Waco Parks and Recreation Department

“This is a love story. Calvin imparted such a love for this site to so many people. His love for the site shows through in the book, and that love made the fundraising easier. Visitors will enjoy how this book leads you through the entire story.” –Gloria Young, Mammoth Foundation fundraising chair for many years and administrator of the F.M. and Gloria Young Family Foundation, which provided partial underwriting for the book; her late husband, construction company owner F.M. Young, donated the use of a succession of backhoes used to work at the site.

“It was an honor and also great fun to work with Calvin Smith and David Lintz to bring the story of the Mammoth Site to light. The authors colorfully illustrate the natural history of the site, offering a glimpse of life in Central Texas when these magnificent creatures roamed the earth.” –R. David Nelson, Ph.D., Director, Baylor University Press