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College of Arts & Sciences
Maritime Research Division

Paleontologist's Panel

by Dave Cicimurri

Here we are at the beginning of the 4th quarter of 2016, and we’re cleaning up after the effects of another major storm system, Hurricane Matthew. Erosion in river channels doesn’t appear to be as bad as what happened during last year’s storm, but beaches along the southern Atlantic Coast took a beating. Some parts of the coast experienced significant beach erosion, but other areas were covered by up to a foot of sand (like Edisto Beach) from storm washovers. Luckily, a strange specimen emerged from Edisto Beach earlier this year and was largely saved from the recent storm.

Back in May a vacationer was walking along the beach when they discovered what appeared to be a piece of driftwood buried in the sand. Thinking it was a piece of wood, the discoverer pulled the item out of the sand-covered pluff mud and realized he was staring at a pelvic bone. Excited about the find, he proceeded to excavate and discovered more pieces, including skull parts, ribs, arm and leg bones, and vertebrae, which were subsequently taken back to his home in Pennsylvania. Sometime shortly thereafter, Ashby Gale from Edisto Beach State Park recovered additional bones from the same site. Although this was a great discovery, the bones were found within the tidal zone of the beach and are therefore protected by the SC Underwater Antiquities Act. After discussing the situation with all parties involved and explaining the significance of the find, the bones were eventually reunited and are now housed at the SC State Museum.

So, what exactly was found? Well, preliminary comparisons of the Edisto bones to those of cow and bison did not help with identifying the material. Cows and bison are in the same family, and their bones are very similar. The best we can say right now is that they are from an unidentified bovine species. If they are Bison, the bones would represent the only known Holocene examples of bison in SC (post-Ice Age). If Bos, the bones would represent a pre-1900s occurrence of domesticated cattle, possibly associated with the Eddingsville community (1825-1885). Archaeologists at the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program (SCIAA) are hoping to take a sample from one of the bones in order to carbon date them and determine their absolute age. The dating technique requires the removal of a small piece of bone for destructive analysis, but obtaining an absolute age of the bones could provide a firmer identification than physical examination alone.

Unfortunately, the down side to the bones having been removed without the help of a trained archaeologist/paleontologist is that we’ve lost the context of the bones. How this pit of death came to be is unknown. Did the animal get trapped in the mud and eventually die, or end up in a tidal channel where the remains were eventually buried by sediment? We know that at least two individuals are represented in the jumble of bones, including an adult and a very young individual (possibly even near-term fetus). Was this a mother traveling with her newborn calf, or a pregnant female ready to give birth?

The moral of the story is that if you find a wrecked boat, Native American canoe, or a skeleton eroding out of the beach (or along the banks of a river), please resist the temptation to remove any of the material. Call the Maritime Research Division or the SC State Museum and report the find. Work with these institutions to ensure that an awesome discovery is turned into a great learning opportunity for generations to come.