You might expect to find many things while digging a hydroelectric dam just outside the Chilean capital, but the perfectly preserved skull and tusks of a 2 million-old-year mastodon probably wouldn’t be one of them. Nevertheless, builders working on a dam in Padre Hurtado, southeast of Santiago in the Metropolitan Region, found just that on March 25.
The first hint of what laid below was the end of a four-foot long, six-inch wide tusk. The builders that first stumbled on it immediately recognized the discovery as the tip of an iceberg and called in a team of paleontologists who set immediately to work. The skull that was eventually unearthed is the first intact remains of a mastodon found in Chile.
Ancient ancestors of modern-day elephants, mastodons were present across the globe as many as 40 million years ago. Some paleontologists have traced them as far as 60 million years back to a far smaller creature called moeritheres through evidence found in Sub-Saharan Africa. Offshoots of this species, including beasts like the mammoth, are believed once to have roamed every continent on earth.
Ten foot giants, mastodons looked similar to modern elephants, though they were more heavily muscled and had thick pelts to protect them from the cold climate, and lived on shoots and leaves. Paleontologists believe that mastodons may have lived as recently as 10,000 years ago, meaning that early man would have lived alongside these massive creatures for millennia.
To date, the vast majority of mastodon remains have been unearthed in North America, and particularly at the California site discovered in 1993 and now known as the “Valley of the Mastodons.”
Fragments have been discovered in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America, but not nearly to the same extent as in the United States. The largest mastodon remain yet discovered was a 16 ft tusk weighing in at one ton unearthed in Greece.