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The Moab Mastodon: Did the Big Beast Once Roam Utah?

The Moab Mastodon was pecked on a Navajo sandstone cliff face on a bench above the Colorado River. Photo @ Stewart M. Green

The Moab Mastodon, a petroglyph on a cliff band bordering a wide bench above Hys Bottom on the Colorado River south of Moab, Utah, possibly represents a long-extinct mastodon that was created by a PaleoAmerican artist thousands of years ago.

The image was discovered in 1924 by Moab newspaperman John Bristol. After a photograph of it appeared in Scientific Monthly in 1930, some scientists called it a modern hoax and fake. The article noted: “Were it the work of some itinerant cowboy or other person wishing to establish a hoax, it doesn’t seem that he would have deliberately placed the figure in a position where the likelihood of its discovery would be so remote.”

Since then the mastodon petroglyph has been a riddle.

Is it old? Or was it made by a recent joker? It is impossible to determine its age since the image occurs on a rock face with no accompanying cultural material or nearby datable artifacts.

This is what is known: the petroglyph measures 42 inches from trunk to rump, and has a short upturned trunk, short tail, and three toes on its four feet. The image is solidly pecked and appears, at first glance, that it could be a mastodon. It has an elephant-like appearance and could also be a mammoth. Again, it is hard to know what animal the petroglyph represents since the design is inconclusive and the artist's intent is unknown.

Naysayers also looked at the desert varnish, thin layers of dark patina that build up on an exposed rock surface over time on the petroglyph. The mastodon does have some varnish but it is difficult to know how long it took for the patina to darken the image at this specific site.

More recent visitors have enhanced and refreshed the petroglyph by pecking it and chalking it so it stands out better for photographs. There is also a hole between the rear legs caused by a bullet shot by some damn fool.

So how old is the Moab Mastodon?

Did early Paleo-hunters roam the area, hunting big game and drawing their images on a sandstone cliff over 10,000 years ago? Or did some drunk cowboy spend a day laboriously pecking out the image on a hidden face rather than riding into Moab for the day? Or maybe it is a bear or tapir or a hallucination of a Fremont Indian shaman 1,500 years ago.

No one knows.

My newest book Rock Art: The Meanings and Myths Behind Ancient Ruins in the Southwest and Beyond will be released on September 28, 2018 by FalconGuides. This section on the Moab Mastodon was originally written for the book as a sidebar but not included because of space considerations.

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