When her son Jeremiah pulled a weird-looking rock out of the creek behind her mother’s house, Megan Johnson was flummoxed.
At first, she thought it might be a piece of petrified wood, but it was an interesting shape — not exactly a log or a branch. She posted the find to Facebook, where her rockhound friends confirmed that it was something beyond an ordinary rock, but nobody knew quite what it was.
She began calling experts to no avail. She finally happened across Leland Gilsen’s email address. Gilsen, who was the Oregon state archaeologist from 1978 to 2002, confirmed that it was an herbivore tooth and suggested that Johnson reach out to the University of Oregon’s Department of Anthropology.
She emailed the anthropology department, which forwarded the email along to the UO’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History. After a flurry of correspondence, Patrick O’Grady, a museum archaeologist and director of the museum’s Rimrock Draw Field School, wrote back, “Your nine-year-old has a great eye! It is a big fragment of mammoth tooth.”
O’Grady went on to describe the structure of a mammoth tooth: the enamel interspersed with dentin, which gives mammoth teeth a distinctive light- and dark-banded appearance.
“I am so impressed that he found this tooth fragment and recognized it as something unusual and potentially important,” O’Grady wrote. “I dreamed about finding something like that when I was his age, but he actually did!”
O’Grady and the family are working on finding a time to meet up and more thoroughly examine the tooth. Meanwhile, they’ve been fielding calls from reporters left and right, including the local newspaper and TV station as well as The Sacramento Bee and The Washington Post.
When asked how he feels about all the attention, Jeremiah expressed frustration with phone interviews, but, overall, that it makes him feel wanted.
“Like people want to be your friend, or like an outlaw?” Johnson asked.
“Like an outlaw!” he said.
“The interactions with the museum have been my favorite part of my family’s experience,” Johnson said. “From day one, we've been treated with the utmost respect, and everyone we've interacted with has been amazing to us.”
O’Grady has invited the family to come take a behind-the-scenes tour of the lab, which, Johnson says, “we FULLY intend to take him up on.”
“Answering one simple phone call or email can sure improve our understanding of the natural history of Oregon,” O’Grady said. “This story is a great example of the museum’s mission to enhance knowledge of Earth's environment and cultures, inspiring stewardship of our collective past, present and future.”
“Children thrive when they have the time and opportunity to explore the natural world,” he added, “as well as a parent that sees the importance of nurturing their curiosity.”
—By Lexie Briggs, Museum of Natural and Cultural History
—Top photo: Jeremiah Longbrake shows off the fossil mammoth tooth fragment he found in a creek