Was Plum Island home to ancient mammoths?

Replica of a woolly mammoth on display at

Replica of a woolly mammoth on display at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, British Columbia. Woolly mammoths roamed North America, Europe, and Asia during the Pleistocene epoch. (Credit: Jonathan Blair/Royal BC Museum)

Mammoths might once have roamed Long Island.

That tantalizing possibility emerged from a federal environmental report on the sale of Plum Island, which briefly mentioned what would be the first mammoth discovery on Long Island, archaeologists said.

"The previous discovery of a mammoth skeleton on the west end of Plum Island indicates that the island could contain prehistoric remains that range in age from Paleo-Indian to the time of European contact," according to the final environmental impact statement by the U.S. General Services Administration.

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The GSA's source was an 1879 article from the Long Islander newspaper.

Local archaeologists tempered their enthusiasm because no other record of the discovery exists.

Gaynell Stone, museum director of the Suffolk County Archaeological Association, said she "was somewhere between" cautious and excited about the discovery. Scallop fishermen have dredged up mammoth fossils in the past, she said.

The newspaper description "does sound like it. But it's not totally definitive."

The article said "some gentlemen" made the discovery after winds blew away a sand hill.

"The skull was between two and three feet wide, and they uncovered a length of backbone of over seven feet," according to the article in the Huntington-based newspaper. "They describe the skull as in form like that of an elephant."

The story said the bones "were ready to crumble and it was with difficulty that they could be handled so as to take them to the station without falling to pieces."

The article did not mention where the fragile skeleton was taken and did not use the word "mammoth." Paleontologists said mastodon remains are much more common in upstate New York than those of mammoths. Mammoths became extinct 10,000 years ago, while mastodons became extinct 9,000 to 12,000 years ago, experts say.

Environmental groups said there should be additional archaeological studies of Plum Island before its sale. The island is scheduled to be sold after the animal disease lab there is shuttered, which currently is slated for 2019.

The passage in the GSA review about the mammoth "may be one of the most remarkable statements about the possible presence of archaeological remains that I have personally encountered over the last 20 years of reviewing development proposals," wrote Bob DeLuca, president of the environmental organization Group for the East End.

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