A mastodon's tale or if bones could talk ...

So why did mastodons and other large beasts die out with the Ice Age? It's one of the biggest debates swirling in paleontology circles these days. (And you thought it was how certain fossils, such as Cher, never seem to get older.)

Some scientists say it was weather. Others blame those pesky primates that had moved in down the street, the ones who walked on two legs and threw sticks with sharp, pointy ends.

Sweep forward to 1977: Humans everywhere have been digging up, deciphering and displaying the bones of creatures long gone. Then something odd turns up in what we now call the Olympic Peninsula.

The find fueled a debate that still rages. This week, the Sequim Museum & Arts Center will bring an old mastodon to life, and it is safe to say that not every paleontologist will be tickled. The story of how it came to be, then, involved much intrigue, and celebrity, and pluck, and geeky trash-talking. There was a man with a backhoe and another with a Volkswagen bus. There was — briefly — a bowling alley. Also, Rambo got involved.

Could it have been any more complicated? Not in a million years.

Honey, you've got to see this

It's the late 1970s, and Emanuel and Clare Manis, of Los Altos, Calif., have semi-retired in Sequim to run a local bowling alley and raise cattle and donkeys on their scenic farmland.

The summer of 1977 was unusually dry. Manny decided the living room view, with its vast expanse of marsh and grassland, could use a pond to draw local wildlife. The former engineer liked to do stuff himself, so he set to work with a backhoe he'd got on sale.

Late that August afternoon, Clare heard her husband whistle from 40 yards away. Two scoops of the backhoe had coughed up what Manny swore were a pair of ancient mammoth — not mastodon — tusks. "I said, 'It's probably an old cow horn,' " Clare recalls. "I took one look and came unglued."

The yellow-brown arcs lay in the sun like giant smirks aware of the rabble they'd soon unleash. Clare ran to the phone, needing to call someone but not sure who. Paleontologists weren't in the Yellow Pages.

Within a couple of days she'd found Washington State University scientists Richard Daugherty and Carl Gustafson. Someone from the state's historic preservation office also showed up to ensure the tusks and other exposed bones stayed moist, to avoid deterioration.

Still, it was no jumbo event. The Manises had no idea how much their lives would change. For a brief time, they imagined setting the tusks atop their bowling alley and renaming it Mammoth Lanes.

A shard of ... something

Mammoths, mastodons — what's the difference, anyway?

The two had different ancestors, and their teeth reflected varied diets: Mammoths ate grass while mastodons were partial to higher vegetation. Humans co-existed with both near the end of the Pleistocene Epoch but, according to the evidence, had hunted only mammoths.

"Archaeologists thought people didn't eat mastodons," WSU's Gustafson says. "It was said they tasted bad because they feasted on spruce needles."

In 1977, back on the Manis farm, Gustafson and Daugherty were busy hosing down the muddy fossils, hopeful the marsh might yield a whole skeleton. Then Gustafson came across a rib with something sticking out. He ran his thumb over the protrusion. Hmmm, he thought. That shouldn't be there.

It was a pointed bone fragment. The rib had healed around it, meaning the injury occurred while the animal was alive: An ancient spear point, maybe? If so, it would be the earliest sign of humans in the Pacific Northwest — at 11,000 to 14,000 years old, predating even Kennewick Man.

Next came the find that would change everything: Clare Manis Hatler — remarried after Manny passed away in 2000 — recalls the discovery from the living room that still overlooks the site. "The next day, they were digging," she says, fetching something from a corner curio cabinet. "They saw this thing coming up in the sediments."

She presents it like a gem. Big as an apple. Dark as graphite. Worn to the nub.

It was a tooth, she says. But not just any tooth. It was the nub-worn tooth of a mastodon.

So, who slew the mastodon? The question isn't so simple.

In America's youth, prehistoric digs often furthered the idea of manifest destiny: We looked at the big bones and told ourselves, "We have rightfully conquered the giant beasts that once ate us for lunch." Then we discovered that, oops, most of them were vegetarians. Also, that they lived long before humans came along — or, more interestingly, that they lived until humans came along.

Human interaction, then, was a nifty possibility for some but incriminating evidence for others in a murder trial for the ages. That bone fragment in the mastodon's rib was a talker. "How did it get there?" scoffs Clare, recalling the skeptics. "Did an elk explode? All things considered, it looks like man was involved."

The Sequim excavation would turn up bones forming the right side of a mastodon that had fallen into the marsh, one muddy half preserved for posterity. The site wasn't your typical mastodon stomping ground: Here, at the edge of receding glacial conditions, "was a virtually treeless environment," Gustafson says — open, brushy, with blackberries and rose bushes.

As Clare puts it: "It was a long way to Forks."

"That's why that blasted mastodon had wore out his teeth so soon," Gustafson says. "He was chewing on harsh grasses."

Then: Bones from the mastodon's other half, along with an apparent scraping tool, were found where the pond bed had sloped upward, spurring conclusions that someone had purposely moved them to higher ground.

Ah ha! But not everybody would be convinced.

Herds of visitors

The Manises knew what to expect should they allow the dig to proceed — in short, a proliferation of humans. Herds of reporters, looky-loos and fossil wonks trailing fancy initials after their names would roam their property daily. Their insurance rates would skyrocket.

Bring it on, they said. Manny, ever industrious, turned the barn into a makeshift theater with a self-narrated, 10-minute slide show. They carved out a grass parking lot and prepared for visitors. "And they came," Clare says. "They didn't object to paying a buck or two."

From Memorial Day to Labor Day of 1978, the Manis dig averaged 100 visitors a day. The couple couldn't be in two places at once, so they sold the bowling alley.

The next seven years brought more than 50,000 visitors to what scientists labeled one of the decade's major finds. "It was like a peek into the past of what the Olympic Peninsula was like," Clare says.

Newspapers called from Europe. Gustafson penned a tune called "Manny's Magic Backhoe," while dozens of Wazoo students descended into the dirt. "That was the most exciting time of my life," Clare says wistfully. "We had five kids get their master's degrees on our site. One of them made us a mastodon cake every year."

But when research funds ran out in 1985, the good times rolled to a halt, though Gustafson and his son would dig on their own dime for years afterward. WSU pocketed choice bones for study, the Manises kept a few as souvenirs, and the rest ended up in the town's scrawny, forlorn museum.

With time, and without the pull of a ground zero, interest in the bones gradually died out. After a while, not many folks even remembered they were there.

Faced with growing irrelevance and artifacts that had faded into obscurity, the board members of the Sequim Museum & Arts Center convened, then did the only thing they could do.

They called in Rambo.

'Fluffy' comes to life

Deborah Rambo. Like most folks, the newly hired museum director — and pianist by trade — didn't know mastodon from mammoth before she arrived. But she knew this much: 130 pounds of bones piled on blocks like a '57 Chevy wasn't gonna fly in 21st-century Sequim.

They lay behind glass on colorless pedestals — a tibia, vertebra, kneecap, patella, some toe bones and a humerus that alone weighed 27 pounds. On hand was a spare rib for school kids to grope; a few steps away, the 4-foot-long tusks survived under water in a feed trough, discolored and disturbingly evocative of Howard Hughes' legendary fingernails. ("If we took 'em out, they'd turn to dust," Rambo says.)

Why not show people how big the animal was, she thought? They had half a skeleton, so if they could paint a life-size one and then affix the bones. ... Last summer, she turned to husband-and-wife artists Cory and Catska Ench, whose lifelike depictions of the Kalakala and other Northwest scenes had earned local renown.

It wouldn't be easy: At 16 feet long and 9 feet high, the project overwhelmed the Enches' tiny Port Townsend studio. The bones had to mesh with the figure, restricting artistic freedom. In other words, says Cory, a wiry beatnik with a painter's cap and black, flatfoot sneakers: "We were kinda stuck with a side view."

Scientifically, too, it was a challenge: They were painting something no one alive had ever seen. How long should its hair be? What color? They consulted experts. They examined the bones. They bought elephant books. They went to the zoo.

Months of late nights, under halogen lights: The beast became a daily companion. They named it Fluffy.

They saved their creativity for the background, adding a second mastodon (Fuzzy) and a green, mountainous horizon. Oh, they added another thing, too: People. But not just any people. People carrying spears. Hunter people.

You can almost feel the pebble rolling around in the shoe of the collective science establishment.

Facts and entertainment

The defense calls University of Washington anthropologist Donald Grayson, whose recent science-journal writings pooh-pooh most evidence of mastodon murder. Blaming people, he says, is just environmentalist guilt-tripping. But like Gary Haynes, an anthropology professor at the University of Nevada-Reno, he says the main problem with the Manis site is a lack of science-journal documentation for peer review.

So far, Haynes says, "it's not real smoking-gun kind of evidence. Some juries might say yeah, it was killed by people, but you might get a couple of holdouts."

That museums might favor the better tale, though, isn't surprising. "Museums are in the business of interpreting facts, but also entertaining," he says. "And that's a good story. It's not the only story, but it's a strong possibility. I'm willing to say a case has been made."

As for Gustafson: "I guess I'm gonna have to go back and do some more publishing on it. There's a lot of information that should be made public. Anyone I've showed the bones to is convinced."

Such folks, though, are few. Prize fossils can't just be carted around like a P.T. Barnum sideshow. But times change, and he's got a plan, possibly involving digital cameras.

Solving mastodon mysteries, Haynes admits, has turned political. Climatic change? Act of God? Fine. But for some, "if (Native Americans) had a hand in wiping them out, it's a sensitive issue," he says. "If they acted unwisely, the next implication is they were no better than Western people who are wiping out species left and right today."

Generally, he says, "we don't give thought to these issues. We think, let's just find the truth." And anyway, each theory has holes, including those blaming weather. "Animals survived all kinds of changes. The only difference is that 12,000 years ago, people were there."

'This is very cool'

February 2003. Billions of humans now roam the Earth. Of the many calling themselves artists, a good number are prevalent in Port Townsend. It's that kind of town.

For Cory and Catska Ench, six months of work are about to evolve into a paycheck. "We're bringing home some food here," Cory says as the couple leave their studio, each holding one end of a 9-foot-tall panel showing Fluffy's massive head.

Actually, they've since renamed the beast Eldamere. "It just didn't work with everybody calling her Fluffy," says Catska, in an accent bearing traces of her native Uzbekistan. "If you're going to be painting the majestic mastodon, you can't call it Fluffy."

The four panels gradually eclipse Cory's red, 1971 Volkswagen bus before being loaded into the vehicle, one atop the other, snug as credit cards in a wallet. "Looks neat!" squawks a passer-by at the painting. "What do they call it — 'Hippie Van Driving Through The Jungle?' Ha ha! It looks neat!"

Yes, humans have made long strides since the Ice Age. Now, on this sunlit afternoon, a VW bus rolls into Sequim, pulling this mastodon's tale toward its end at the museum warehouse, by a cattle farm where humans butcher the occasional cow by modern means.

The artists erect their Ench-a-Sketch against their endangered species of a vehicle, relic on relic, happy to see the creature from more than 10 feet away. There the beast stands, agraze in millennia-old swampland.

"This is very cool," admires director Rambo, hopeful the exhibit will help reverse museum fortunes. The Chamber of Commerce plans to feature it on its new city map; the mural itself will be up by today, with the bones to follow on aluminum mounts.

Prehistory, come to life. "That was one of our inspirations," Catska says. "To get people to imagine what it was like to see one of these around, chowing down on grass. To appreciate those things that are not extinct."

(From its own little pasture next door, a lazing cow chimes in with a moo.)

As for the Manises: How much did their lives change? Well, for one, Clare Manis Hatler's curio cabinet now swells with pachyderms gotten over the years as gifts, again and again. "And I'm a good Democrat!" she protests.

"I've talked to school groups," she says. "They want to know, 'How much money did you make? How much are these bones worth?' " She laughs. "They can't understand that they're priceless."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

If you go

The Sequim Museum & Arts Center is at 175 W. Cedar St. in Sequim. It's in the middle of a remodeling, but the mural is available for viewing. Hours are from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free. More information is available at 360-683-8110 or www.sequimmuseum.org.