This important archaeological find containing the remains of twenty-five Columbian mammoths lies just on the outskirts of the city of Waco. Paul Barron and Eddie Bufkin discovered the site in 1978 while hiking along the banks of the Brazos searching for fossils and arrowheads. As Barron climbed up an incline in the riverbank, a piece of bone broke off in his hand. Recognizing the significance of his discovery, he brought the bone to geologists at the Strecker Museum at Baylor University.
Officials at the Strecker Museum initially were skeptical of the big find Barron and Bufkin claimed to have uncovered. Yet after traveling to the site, it became clear that the remains of several animals rested in the riverbank. Between 1978 and 1980, David Lintz from the Strecker Museum and George Naryshkin of the Baylor Geology Department, along with a team of volunteers, excavated five Columbian mammoths.
For many years following the discovery, a lack of funding prevented large-scale excavation. Intermittent grants from the Cooper Foundation, an organization dedicated to making Waco a “better or more desirable city in which to live,” allowed teams of volunteers to continue working at the site. Workers had uncovered a total of eleven mammoths when heavy rainfall flooded the site, shifting soil and exposing more animals. Another grant from the Cooper Foundation allowed for several protective measures for the site to be built, such as a dam to divert future floods, a tent to cover the entire site, and the hiring of a chief excavator and volunteer coordinator. By December of 1984, Baylor faculty, students, and volunteers had excavated fifteen mammoths.
Baylor geologists moved the remains of sixteen mammoths to the Strecker Museum in 1990 to preserve them from damage while excavation continued at the site. By this time, the Waco Mammoth Site was internationally known. Renowned anthropologist Dr. Gary Haynes visited the site several times, and in 1997, Calvin Smith, the director of the Strecker Museum from 1984 until 2003, presented a paper on the site at a geological convention in Beijing.
The cause of death for the mammoths initially stumped the scientific community. The bones did not appear to be disturbed by scavengers or predators. For many years, geologists thought that all twenty-five mammoths and the other animals found at the site died in a single flash flood thousands of years ago. Yet thesis research completed by a Baylor student on soil samples revealed that the mammoths died in three separate events. A flash flood trapped nineteen mammoths from a nursery herd and a camel sixty-five thousand years ago. Excavators uncovered a juvenile mammoth from this heard draped across a female’s tusks, indicating that she had been attempting to lift the young mammoth above the flood waters to safety. A second flood trapped a saber-toothed tiger and another unidentified animal. A third flood trapped a bull, a female, and a juvenile mammoth around fifteen thousand years after.
In 1996, Sam Jack McGlasson donated just under five acres of land to the city of Waco for the purpose of developing research, education, and tourist opportunities at the mammoth site. The city began development proposals for the site, and in 2006 these proposals included a plan to make the site a public park. Congressman Chet Edwards introduced legislation to make the site a national park, though this never came to fruition. However, on July 10, 2015, President Barack Obama designated the mammoth site a national monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906, declaring it to be “a rare opportunity” for research.
In 2009, the site containing the bones of a bull, a female, two juvenile mammoths, and the camel opened to the public. Exhibits displaying casts of the mammoths can also be found in the Mayborn Museum Complex at Baylor University. The attention the mammoths drew earned Waco standing in the international scientific community and increased tourism and commerce for the city. Most importantly, the mammoth discovery unlocked a fascinating part of Central Texas environmental history.