Help uncover Tri-Cities history at the Coyote Canyon Mammoth Dig site

KENNEWICK, Wash. — The Coyote Canyon Mammoth Dig site in Benton County has reopened its doors to the community after a lengthy shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

You may remember the partial Columbian mammoth that was unearthed years ago at the site.

But officials said their work has been going on long before that since 2008.

“That’s when the nonprofit MCBONES was organized and that’s what oversees us,” said Education Director Gary Kleinknecht. “We’re essentially an independent scientific project done by Tri-Cities community members.”

MCBONES stands for Mid-Columbia Basin Old Natural Education Sciences. Their mission is “moving forward to understand the past.”

That’s exactly what the team of volunteers does multiple times a month by digging and sorting through piles of thousands-year-old dirt.

“We’re doing a paleoecological study and we’re taking all the dirt that comes out of each unit, and washing it over a one-millimeter screen. What that gives us at the end is a bunch of wet sand and anything bigger than a millimeter. But things that are bigger than a millimeter that people don’t think about are the bones of rodents on the landscape,” Kleinknecht said. “There are lizards on the landscape, plant remains, insects. What that’s going to tell us is what was living on the landscape as we go backward in time.”

Kleinknecht added that it’s a long, careful process that’s “worth every effort.”

“We take samples of soil, set them out in the sun in their screen, dry them, and put them into a bag. Then we send it to our picking lab where people go through the sand and look for something that was organic,” Kleinknecht said. “Then they’re photographed with a microscope in many angles and then we get experts to identify the species.”

Research Director Bax Barton agreed, noting that “it’s essentially a climate and environmental record.”

“We’re going to be able to tell you what the temperature was like here, before the mammoth, during the mammoth, and after the mammoth, what the precipitation was like, what the vegetation was like,” said Barton. “Snakes, lizards, birds, rodents, snails, beetles, insects, spiders. You know, we have 13,000-year-old spiders out of this material.”

This is Barton’s eighth mammoth dig. He’s also a research associate in paleontology at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.

“What we’re doing here by its very nature is a paleontology dig. There’s nothing associated with early humans here, or archaeology at all. But what we’ve done is taken my background, my training in archaeology, and we’ve applied it to a paleontology project,” Barton said. “It’s never happened in Tri-Cities before. It’s a unique opportunity.”

According to Barton, there have been 49 mammoths discovered in Benton County. In the dig site’s 27 acres, one Columbian mammoth and part of a camel have been found.

“This is filling in some of that missing information which has not been commonly done here in our part of the world,” said Kleinknecht. “We’re doing some original work.”

The site is also home to a museum, bone lab, and photography lab. 3D printers make replicas of bones that are over 17,500 years old.

“Anytime you find another bone, somebody is scraping into the dig with their trowels. Everybody’s joy meter goes up and that’s a fun thing,” Kleinknecht said.

But all of that was paused when the coronavirus hit.

“It’s the year that wasn’t. I mean, it’s just like anybody else, we were shut down. Some of the work here kept going and some of the small lab work could be done, but no group stuff,” Kleinknecht said.

Now, they’re trying to adapt to the “new normal.” The site is 100% volunteer-run with the majority of volunteers being retired.

“We need more volunteers and we need donations,” Kleinknecht said. “Being private and not governed by any institution like a university, we have no access to that kind of money.”

All of the 2021 public tours have been filled. The registration for next year’s tours will open in early 2022.

To volunteer, click here.

To donate, click here.