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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM SEQUIM, WASH.

Retiree Finds New Life in Ancient Bones

Washington beaches are a boneyard of promise for 'the mammoth guy,' who attracts and restores the remains of ice age creatures.

March 01, 2004|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

SEQUIM, Wash. — To Richard Dobbs' way of thinking, the whole world is a boneyard. Where most people here see idyllic beaches, Dobbs imagines a bed of ancient skeletons buried under a blanket of sand.

He has reason to believe this.

One day in the spring of 1989, Dobbs, a retired carpenter from Santa Cruz, was walking a beach east of here when he spotted something long and curved jutting out from a cliff. It turned out to be a 6-foot-long ivory tusk from a mammoth that lived 15,000 years ago. A storm had exposed the relic.

The find was big news in this northern Washington town of 4,200 on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Television crews from Seattle, 70 miles away, came, and Dobbs' picture appeared in local newspapers. The Dobbs family celebrated it as a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Then it happened again.

In the spring of 1994, Dobbs was again walking a beach after a storm and stumbled upon what looked like a small tree stump. It was actually the fat end of another mammoth tusk. This one too was about 6 feet long, and caused another local stir.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, August 14, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Mammoth tusk find: An article in the California section Jan. 15 about a mammoth tusk found on Santa Cruz Island said mammoths were ancestors of modern elephants. Mammoths and elephants are evolutionary cousins, having a common ancestor. The error has appeared as well in several previous news articles.

"Like being struck by lightning twice," says Dobbs, now 71.

The tusk, excavated with the help of University of Washington archaeology students, ended up in the university's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle.

The discoveries sparked a passion in the retiree. He has since found a small museum worth of bones and teeth from mammoths, giant sloths and woolly rhinos, creatures that roamed this land before the last ice age. He displays his treasures on tables and shelves in a small copy shop that he and his wife own and operate. It's his own mini-museum, and customers get to look at his finds free.

So established is his reputation as "the mammoth guy" that now beachcombers bring their finds to him. In late January, a local couple walking their dog found what they suspected was a mammoth bone freshly exposed during a storm. They immediately called Dobbs. Together, they unearthed a tusk 8 feet in length with the circumference of a large dinner plate.

"The biggest one I've ever seen," said Dobbs, who is working to clean and restore the tusk.

He uses diluted Elmer's glue to stick pieces together and to fill in holes with ground ivory, which he keeps just for this purpose. All his restoration work takes place in his garage and at a workshop in the copy store.

Discoveries of mammoth remains are not altogether uncommon. Typically the finders are builders or developers excavating earth.

In Western Washington over the last century, there have been about 200 such finds, the majority of them molars and bone fragments, says Bax R. Barton, a paleoecologist at the University of Washington. Of that number, about 20 were tusks or parts of tusks.

Whole tusks are rare discoveries. Barton characterizes an 8-foot tusk as, archeologically speaking, a "good find." Entire 10- and 12-foot tusks, much rarer, would be exceptional. The largest mammoth tusk on record, spanning 16 feet, 5 inches, was found in Texas and is exhibited at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Mammoths were ice age elephants that migrated from Africa and Asia to North America over the Bering land bridge about 1.5 million to 2 million years ago. The largest ones stood 14 feet tall at the shoulder and weighed 10 tons, roughly twice the size of a modern elephant.

Mammoths came to inhabit much of North America, including what is now Los Angeles. Skeletal parts of 80 mammoths -- closely related to the kind of mammoths that roamed the Pacific Northwest -- have been found at the La Brea tar pits and are on display at the George C. Page Museum.

Scientists differ on when mammoths became extinct. Most say the animals disappeared about 11,000 years ago, although other researchers say they could have survived until 4,000 years ago.

No one knows for certain why mammoths died out. Excessive human hunting and climate change were the leading theories for decades, but another theory recently posited by scientists says the creatures could have been wiped out by disease.

Along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, tall cliffs made of glacial till line the Washington coast. Scientists say the cliffs are eroding at a rate of 1 foot a year. Every so often, a storm washes away or breaks off a section, exposing whatever is buried there, says Bruce Crowley, a paleontologist at the Burke Museum.

Most of the time, the bone falls unnoticed to the beach, where it is washed out to sea, destroyed by waves or buried in sand. The window of opportunity to save them is usually small.

"This is the best time to look," says Dobbs, referring to late winter and spring, when storms hit the area with regularity. He says this with a kind of creaky glee, like a child eager to hit the playground.

He is a tall, angular man with large, square glasses that dominate his face.

He wears a worn-out baseball cap and a worn-out flannel shirt. His demeanor resembles that of an absent-minded professor, although Dobbs never went to college.

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