There was a time when scientists thought the southern Kenai Peninsula’s distant past, as in tens of thousands of years ago, could be described in one word: ice.
Three recent discoveries of ancient bones offer support for a different perception of the peninsula: that the Homer area had been ice free during glaciations.
“There’s been at least five glacial advances covering much of the Kenai Peninsula, at least thick enough to get into the Caribou Hills or even this lower area of the peninsula,” said Janet Klein, Homer author and historian, of conditions that precluded a mammal community during the Pleistocene (two million to 10 thousand years ago).
In 2015, after citizen scientists found within a span of 56 years 18 ice-age mammal fossils on the southwestern peninsula, Klein and Dick Reger, a Soldotna geologist, presented an alternative view published in the Alaska Journal of Anthropology. Having documented and radiocarbon dated the fossils and examined known glacial boundaries, Klein and Reger presented the peninsula as one where large vertebrates, such as woolly mammoths and steppe bison, once roamed ice-free areas.
Within the past month, finds of three new items — a woolly mammoth tooth, an astragalus (ankle bone of a hooved animal), and the core of a steppe bison horn — help buttress that picture of the peninsula’s past.
“Every piece is another piece of the puzzle,” said Lee Post, known locally as the “Boneman” for his extensive knowledge and assembling of animal skeletons. “Enough pieces and it starts making a pattern.”
One piece was found by Homer resident Aaron Carpenter, who said he rarely finds anything interesting to take home from visits to area beaches. While walking the beach north of Diamond Creek with a friend and the friend’s dog, however, Carpenter saw what looked like a piece of petrified wood in the gravel at his feet. His curiosity piqued, Carpenter picked it up for a closer look.
“I twisted it around and saw the grooves on the top and it was pretty recognizable,” he said of the woolly mammoth tooth he held in his hands.
Carpenter showed it to Klein, and “she told me she couldn’t know for sure how old it was unless we had it (carbon) dated, but that it was probably 30,000-40,000 years old.”
Its size and condition compared to others found in the Homer area led Klein to suggest it might have come from an adolescent animal, rather than a mature one. As amazing as it was to hold something that old, Carpenter said it was “even more amazing to just find it sitting amongst the rocks like that.”
Since then, Carpenter has returned to the area of his discovery, keeping his eyes open for more pieces of the past. Wishing he “knew more about this stuff,” Carpenter does know enough to recognize the importance of discoveries like his.
“This is just one more little thing that changes the paradigm of what (scientists) think the peninsula was like back then,” he said. “It makes me wonder how much is laying there in fragments that people just don’t recognize.”
Don Henry was doing something he’s done for years — walking his dog on the northeast side of the Spit — when, like Carpenter, he spotted something of interest.
“I’m always looking for unusual stuff — been a rock hound forever,” Henry said.
What caught his attention looked like an “odd piece of wood,” but not just any piece of wood. It was dark brown, heavy and had holes in it similar to ones he’d seen on bones.
Henry took it to Post, who couldn’t find an exact match in any of his reference books, but did confirm it was fossilized bone. Lee referred Henry to Klein, who took pictures and measurements she then forwarded to Patrick Druckenmiller, PhD, a paleontologist at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks.
“This is definitely an artiodactyl astragalus. Looking at the size, I’d say bison, but would need to check the morphology,” said Druckenmiller.
An artiodactyl is an even-toed ungulate. Examples are cows, moose, musk oxen, or, more appropriately to the bone’s age in the neighborhood of 40,000 years, a steppe bison.
The astragalus is unique for where it was found since most local fossils have appeared between Diamond Creek and Bishop’s Beach.
“The Spit was a glacial moraine, so possibly it’s been there all along and just got uncovered,” Post said.
The steppe bison horn core was found on top of debris in the high tide line near Diamond Creek. It measures about nine inches in length and has a small amount of skull attached.
“This gives us five steppe bison horn cores,” Klein said of the total found in the area to date.
To have three new pieces found in a month is “quite amazing,” Klein said.
Why that happened remains a mystery.
“We’ve had some storms, but no exceptional high tides, no flooding, no (erosion) of cliffs,” she said. “So, we’re back to storms, waves and tides that might be pulling sediment up, things that were deposited tens of thousands of years ago and are just now being revealed because the tides are pulling off the rocks. … I don’t know what’s going on. We’re still speculating.”
Items found below the mean high tide mark are on state land and, therefore, belong to the state, but, “these things can move up and down along the beach, so we don’t have ownership,” Klein said. “They’ve all been moved. From whose land, we don’t know. So what I do is encourage people to consider at some point in time giving them to the Pratt Museum.”
First, however, Klein and Post encourage people to have pieces identified, something each of them is willing to help with. If neither Klein nor Post can identify an item, photos can be forwarded to Druckenmiller for further study.
“It’s always a thrill when people bring bones in here,” Post said of items brought to the Homer Bookstore, where he is a business partner. “I had an 8-year-old bring in some bird bones yesterday. He was excited to find out what they were. I didn’t know what species, but I could show him where on the bird they came from and a few things it wasn’t.”
It wasn’t so long ago that scientists laughed at Klein when she suggested an area of the peninsula had remained uncovered by ice and a haven for mammals. As evidence of that possibility has increased, scientists have from time to time joined in the search, hoping to bolster her argument. For now, however, that discovery remains to locals.
“(Reger) and I think this is citizen science at its best,” said Klein.
For help identifying specimens, contact, Janet Klein at 907-399-8077 and Lee Post at 907-235-7496.