The Mastodon Matrix Project

This is such a creative solution to an unwieldy problem. In 2000, while deepening a backyard pond in Hyde Park, New York, excavators uncovered the remains of a prehistoric mastodon. Not wanting to lose any potentially important pieces, they isolated 22,000 pounds of dirt from around the skeleton. Since then, school classes, individual hobbyists, and other volunteers have been picking through this matrix of dirt trying to anything else related to the find. It’s called the Mastodon Matrix Project.


The scientists get the data without having to put in the intense hours of sifting, and the volunteers get hands-on science experience and actually get to contribute to a research project.

This story describes the project and tells of a 4th-grade class in Pennsylvania who worked with 2.2 pounds of that dirt. They mostly found shells and seeds, but a kid named Elliot De La Torre found a black, bristly 8-inch long mastodon hair.

All of the students examined the hair, which had been embedded in the soil, through their magnifying glasses and found that it did not resemble human, dog or cat hair, [the class’s teacher, Linda] Azaroff recounted. The conclusion was unavoidable: It came from the mastodon.


The children felt they had touched and handled something that was thousands of years old…”

I would have loved to have participated in something like this when I was a kid. There’s still a depression in my parents’ backyard where, as an 8 year-old, I dug a 12-inch-deep hole, around three feet in diameter, looking for dinosaur fossils.

I didn’t find anything cool.

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Nathan Reimer

posted June 15, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I live in Ithaca, just a few miles away from the Museum of the Earth, that is leading that project. My kids love to visit to see the fossils and especially the mastodon. What I don’t enjoy is having to come up with believable answers to their questions about the “millions and billions of years old” and other evolutionary topics.

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posted June 15, 2011 at 10:29 am

Jeremy Sanders and I tried to dig to china when we were five, starting from the sandbox in my backyard. Ultimately, it didn’t matter that we hadn’t accounted for the earth’s molten core. We punctured a gas pipe and went running to my dad for help.

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