Prehistoric bones found in Northeastern California
A routine stroll last spring around their property west of town yielded quite a surprise.
“Underneath a piece of sagebrush, I saw just a little lump sticking out that looked unusual,” said Tom. “So, I just went over and picked it up.
“I don’t know why. I have a tendency to look around and pick up a lot of stuff,” he said.
Krauel’s innate curiosity had led him to a remarkable discovery.
“At the time, I thought it looked like an old cow bone. I don’t even know why I went over and picked it up,” he said.
As it turned out, they had discovered the bones of a prehistoric hippopotamus-like rhinoceros that lived 4.5 to 7 million years ago, according to paleontologists from Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif., who later identified the bones.
As they began to examine their find that day, the Krauels suspected they were on to something unusual. It looked like a bone, but it was clearly petrified or fossilized.
“And then when you feel it, it’s heavy,” said Nancy, relating how she turned it over in her hands. “So, then you think, “Oh, this is kind of interesting.’”
Tom admits to thinking at the time that he might have stumbled upon a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
“Well, that’s what you think when you find old, petrified bones. You think of dinosaur bones or something like that.”
Their curiosity piqued, the Krauels decided to investigate further.
“So, we got to kind of digging around a little bit and found another chunk of the bone,” said Tom. “We (also) found one bone shaft that was buried. We left that.”
The bones, explained the experts later, were from the right leg of a Teleoceras that lived during a previous geologic age to our own called the Miocene, long before the volcanic activity that covered this area with the lava formations that dominate today’s landscape.
“What they said was that this lava cap that lays over everything is 3 million years old or something,” said Tom. “These (bones), they’re figuring, were maybe around 7 million. So, it was buried underneath that (lava) cap. The Pit River in this basin has just basically eroded away all this stuff around the edges, now.”
Time and erosion had exposed a few bones of the ancient hippo.
“It was sort of a wash … not so much a cut but just kind of a slide,” said Tom, describing the place where he made his discovery. “And I think the bones just washed out of there.”
Eventually, the experts from Sierra College came out to do a little excavation of their own, after examining the bones for themselves and consulting with other experts.
“The more they looked at them, the older they found out that they were,” said Nancy. “At first, these men thought that they were just 1 or 2 million years old. Now it’s gotten up to seven million years.”
While no additional bones were found during the informal, impromptu excavation made by the paleontologists, they took the opportunity to educate the Krauels a bit.
A cut in a hillside along a nearby highway, where various geologic layers could easily be seen, was chosen to demonstrate how layers of earth were deposited one on top of another, much like layers in a cake or pages in a book.
“They took us up to show us the different layers of soil … and what those different layers meant … in terms of geologic time and ash flow and stuff,” said Tom, “which was tremendously interesting.”
“When they first decided it was a rhinoceros, they thought it was from 3 million years ago or something like that. And then they realized that this bone was a lot shorter. That was real puzzling to them. They couldn’t put it together,” said Nancy. “Then they realized that it was from several more million years, which made it real unique to them. They had never seen one from that era.”
Amateurs, like the Krauels, have made many important finds of prehistoric bones. Paleontologists who do field work are largely dependent upon others to fix locations where excavations may yield some new discovery.
“That’s why they hope that people bring it to their attention when they do find something like that,” said Nancy.
“So many people find things, and they just throw it out in the planter,” said Tom, noting how important it is to contact professionals with any potential finds.
“I had heard of older bones being found. You hear about it from time to time,” said Nancy. “It just makes me want to look more and find out what else was here.”
“To me it was interesting that, talking with paleontologists, most of these bones are from ancient, prehistoric deer, camels, sloths, some rhinoceros and those types of things,’ said Tom. “Just looking back, you try to paint a picture in your mind of the way things were. It was a tropical swampland. Lakes and everything around here are hard to image. Rhinoceroses typically aren’t a water animal, but this one happened to be one that was. That’s what makes it unique.”
Pleased and amazed by their good fortune, the Krauels have become ardent amateur paleontologists.
Said Tom, “To me, it was interesting because it makes you more aware of the way things were back then, and it makes you look more for bones than other things.”
“It gets your curiosity going. Then you want to know what it is and how old it is,” said Nancy. “It makes you think how much history you’re walking over every day.”
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