Museum unveils woolly mammoth skeleton

Museum Mammoth
Milwaukee Public Museum exhibit artist Craig Yanek , right behind the skeleton, looks on as officials put the final tusk in place on the Hebior woolly mammoth. Dinesh Ramde / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A 14,500-year-old woolly mammoth skeleton dug up in 1994 has been unveiled at the Milwaukee Public Museum, giving locals a glimpse of perhaps the most intact specimen discovered in North America.

Few paleontological specimens are as complete as the Hebior mammoth. The skeleton lacks a rib as well as a few bones in the tail and feet, but is otherwise nearly whole.

Standing more than twice the height of a person, the woolly mammoth is among three with scientific significance for southern Wisconsin.

It's not clear whether the mammoth had been hunted or died of some other cause. Besides evidence of arthritis in its feet, scientists say little else is known about the male beast.

Small gouges on the bones suggest the meat was scraped off with human tools, meaning people lived in the Upper Midwest at least 1,000 years earlier than previously believed, said Carter Lupton, vice president of museum programs.

"The Clovis tribe had been known to be in the area 13,000 years ago," Lupton said Tuesday. "These butcher marks indicate human activity, which means there were humans in Wisconsin more than 14,000 years ago."

Two other mammoths found in the area have similar butcher marks that support that theory, although anthropologists are still debating whether the earlier peoples were Clovis or part of some previously unknown tribe.

Anthropologist David Overstreet helped excavate the fossils from cornfields in southeastern Wisconsin. He discounts the idea that the mammoth may have become frozen in a glacier and had its meat scraped off after it thawed 1,000 years later.

Siberian mammoths have been found with their skin and hides intact, he said, but the meat underwent chemical changes that render it black and leathery — virtually inedible.

"There would be no reason for people to try to eat it," he said. "I think the freezer burn would be a little bit extreme."

The Milwaukee museum already had skeletons of a mastodon and Chinese elephant. This is its first woolly mammoth.

The mammoth is named for John and Theresa Hebior, who own the fields where the bones were found in the 1960s and excavated in 1994. For years the Hebiors tried to find a buyer for the fossils, but museums and universities were too cash-strapped to pay the six-figure asking price.

Finally two Milwaukee benefactors, John J. Brander and Christine Rundblad, bought the fossils last year and donated them to the museum. John Hebior says they paid more than $100,000.

The real bones are too fragile for display and are being preserved for research in Milwaukee. But a number of fiberglass replicas have been made. Besides the set unveiled Tuesday at the Milwaukee Public Museum, others are already on display in museums in Kenosha and elsewhere.