Boy literally stumbles on molar from mastodon

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

PLATTSBURG, Mo. -- A chance discovery by two young friends turned out to be more than first met the eye -- or in this case, the foot.

What they first took for a rock, and one boy's mother dismissed as an "old cow tooth," turned out to be a souvenir from northwest Missouri's prehistory.

Earlier this spring, Alex Downing and John Michael Pipes, both 12, were hiking along a creek bed near Plattsburg when John stumbled over something.

"I called him a klutz, and then I saw it," Alex said.

The two friends decided to dig up the brown and white obstacle. Alex carried it home in his backpack, and the sharp edges of their newfound acquisition punctured soda cans in the pack. The soda drained out the bottom and trickled down Alex's legs.

The boys showed their discovery to Alex's mother, Karen Downing, who was unimpressed.

"I said, 'Get that old cow tooth out of here,"' she said.

The boys' find was relegated to a shelf in the garage with Alex's collection of antlers and animal bones.

A few weeks later, in mid-April, sixth-grade science teacher Janet Talley of Plattsburg got a look at the object and immediately knew two things: It was far older than a cow's tooth, and it was starting to deteriorate.

Others examined it, and calls were placed to a couple of universities before the truth came to light.

The object was a mastodon molar at least 9,000 years old.

David Easterla, distinguished professor of biology at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, made a positive identification on the 6-inch-long, 5.7-pound tooth.

Easterla likened the boys' discovery to finding an antique.

"One person's junk is another person's treasure," he said. "Scientifically it has significance, but it is not the first mastodon tooth that has turned up in this area."

Meanwhile, John and Alex are reveling in their status as the tooth's finders.

"If we're finding things now at this age, it makes me think, 'What else we can find if we really look?'" John said.

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