Well, That’s One Way to Get ‘A Head’ in Life: Story of the Mysterious Skull Found in the Willamette

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On Canby Then today, we’re going to take you back in Canby’s history much, much farther than we usually go. So buckle up, and hold on tight.

During the waning days of the Pleistocene epoch, between 240,000 and 220,000 years ago, a massive species known as the steppe bison migrated from Siberia to Alaska.

The steppe bison, or to use its Latin name, Bison priscus, was an ancestor of the modern bison, and resembled it in many ways. It was just a lot bigger. You’ve heard of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his giant Blue Ox?

Legend has it that Babe turned blue when she was buried to the horns in a blizzard, and was so big it would take a crow a full day to fly from one eye to the other. Well, trust me when I say Babe wouldn’t have wanted any part of B. priscus.

The steppe bison stood over 6 feet tall and was longer than a Ford F-150 XLT. With the wooly mammoth, ancient horses and the wooly rhinoceros, it dominated the mammoth steppe, which was the Earth’s most extensive biome during the last Ice Age, spanning from Spain to Canada and from the arctic islands to China.

The steppe bison has been preserved numerous times in cave drawings, including in the famed Cave of Altimira in Spain and Le Grotte de Lascaux in southwestern France. But it has been preserved in other ways as well.

In July 1979, a gold miner in Fairbanks, Alaska, discovered “Blue Babe,” the 36,000-year-old remains of a male steppe bison, almost perfectly preserved by a rare and lucky set of circumstances.

Examining several wounds on the bison’s neck and back, researchers determined that it had most likely been killed by an American lion — not Andrew Jackson, but a subspecies of the long-extinct Ice Age lion, the ancient ancestor of the modern African lion.

That part wasn’t lucky, at least not for Blue Babe, but everything else was. Extreme cold had caused the bison’s body to quickly freeze, protecting it from vultures. And over the thousands of years that followed, layers of ice and snow covered the carcass, effectively mummifying it, almost completely intact.

The minor named his discovery “Blue Babe” after Paul Bunyan’s mythical ox, because of its size and because it was also blue — not from being buried in a blizzard, but from a coating of vivianite, a blue iron phosphate that covered much of the specimen.

Blue Babe is notable not just for the quality of its preservation, but by how a research team chose to celebrate the completion of their years of work preparing it for permanent display at the University of Alaska Museum: they ate it.

No joke. University of Alaska paleontologist Dale Guthrie and his team carefully removed some meat from the bison’s neck and used it to prepare a stew.

According to Guthrie, the 36,000-year-old meat was tough and somewhat hard to chew, but also quite delicious and resembled ordinary beef. Talk about eating paleo!

Eventually, the steppe bison made its way to North America and the Pacific Northwest, where it spawned a number of subspecies, some even larger than itself, before dying out, perhaps as recently as 10,000 years ago.

Native peoples were known to hunt both the modern bison and its ancient cousins, relying upon them for meat, hides and bone, and archaeologists believe this may have contributed to the demise of the now-extinct subspecies of the present-day bison.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “This is fascinating and all, but what the heck does it have to do with Canby?” Well, good question. Let’s skip ahead…all the way to Saturday, Oct. 13, 1923.

A crew from the Crown-Willamette Paper Mills was working a large gravel digger on the Willamette River between Canby and Canemah, when they made a startling discovery. It was the skull of a “prehistoric monster” — at least that’s how the Canby Herald recounted it.

The old bone was an intact skull, buried 30 feet under the water. It had eye sockets deep enough to lose a man’s arm in, and horns that measured 40 inches from tip to tip, and nearly half a foot in diameter. Each horn was about a foot long, and 20 inches around the circumference.

Monstrous though the creature may have been, it was later identified by an Oregon City paleontologist to have been what was then known as a “broad-faced ox,” either B. antiquus or B. occidentalis by their scientific classifications.

D. Edwards, proprietor of the Electric hotel and, according to The Oregonian, a “dabbler in paleontology,” made the identification and supporting his findings by textbooks and treatises on geology.

“According to Edwards, who made his classification when other local scientists had failed, the broad-faced ox must have been a huge creature,” an early article said, “many times as large as a buffalo or any other bovine of this day. Its history overlaps that of prehistoric man, and the big oxen were well known to the first men on earth.”

The skull was, at that time, one of the finest and most intact specimens ever discovered (the only other known fossils being a handful of skull fragments discovered in Corvallis earlier that same year) and not surprisingly, a fight over its ownership ensued between Crown-Willamette, their gatekeeper A. O. Hollingsworth, and the crew that actually discovered it.

The matter was eventually settled, and the fossil was donated to Oregon State University, which was then known as the Oregon Agricultural College. It was, perhaps, the largest example of the species ever found in the nation, with even W.D. Matthews, curator of the American Museum of Natural History, noting its “extraordinarily” large size.

It was estimated that, in life, this bison would have stood 7 feet tall at the withers and weighed over 3,500 pounds.

“Assuming these estimates to be correct,” The Oregonian wrote, “it can be seen that if this animal were to stand alongside an ordinary buffalo, the disproportion in size would be as marked as that of an ordinary milk cow alongside of her yearling calf.”

Numerous researchers with the college, and from across the country, analyzed the specimen or photos of it, and confirmed the species’ classification as Bison occidentalis. A man who wrote into The Oregonian’s editorial department, though, had a different theory.

“Many, like myself, have doubted the truth of the stories about Paul Bunyan and his blue ox,” he wrote. “It is indeed a relief to know that evidence of their existence has been found.

“Might it not appear reasonable that Paul was finishing up the digging of the Willamette River, using perhaps a dull plow in the rocks at the falls, when the blue ox ‘overbet’ himself and kicked in? Sure thing it is possible.

“Now, if the excavators will unearth the stove that the flapjacks were cooked on and other relics of that wonderful man and ox, all doubts will be removed, and we will believe all that has been told about Paul Bunyan. Ain’t nature wonderful?”

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