After embarking on a home building project, Laura and Bridger Hill were digging up their yard. But when a layer of the ground was removed, something unexpected appeared in the dirt: a row of rib bones. That certainly wasn’t all, though. Following further investigation, the Hills realized that they had the nearly complete skeleton of some mysterious creature on their hands. Yet even at this point, the family had no clue as to the significance of their find.
Of course, the Hills weren’t alone in wanting to spruce up their property, as many other people also choose to renovate their respective houses or yards. And on occasion, this work unearths important pieces of the past – items that have lain buried for centuries or even millennia.
What’s more, such finds may hold considerable social or financial value. In 2018, for example, newspapers were discovered that had been left in an Arizona basement almost 60 years previously. And thanks to the state’s arid climate, the items were relatively intact, too. As a result, then, developers at the Park Central shopping mall were able to offer the papers to experts to study and so glean fascinating insights into attitudes of the time.
And it seems that even museums can contain hidden secrets. In 2017, for instance, renovators at New Jersey’s Liberty Hall Museum found bottles of wine concealed behind a wall that itself dated back to Prohibition times. The wine was so old, moreover, that it had been bottled when George Washington was president of a new country known as America. And even though the museum undergoes regular renovation, no one expected to find three crates of long-lost booze. Now, though, the items can finally be displayed for all to see.
It’s not just objects that are unearthed, though; skeletons have also been found in the strangest places. Two centuries after Benjamin Franklin took up residence in a London house, conservationists decided to renovate the building so it could become a museum. During this process, however, 15 sets of bones were discovered in a hidden room in the basement. The theory is that these were used in anatomy lessons given by William Hewson, a friend of Franklin.
And not every historical discovery is made in or under a building, either – as Donald Gibson can certainly attest to. Gibson had originally pledged to his parents that he would construct them a sunroom; as his folks lived in an area of Calvert County, Maryland, where fossils are common, however, finding ancient bones buried in their yard likely didn’t surprise him at first. Even so, after more and more of the skeleton was exposed, it became obvious that Gibson had unearthed something special.
The skeleton in question actually belonged to a snaggletooth shark. And not only was the specimen 15 million years old, but it was also the most complete example of its kind ever discovered. Yes, the sheer number of bones present – along with their quality of preservation – made the skeleton unique. And Gibson’s experience just goes to show that you never know where and when you could find something historic.
If you are actively looking for ancient bones and fossils, however, then Utah is a good place to start, since the state has one of the most complete records of dinosaur habitation on the planet. Evidence of 27 different types of dinosaur has been found there, in fact, and this in turn covers a period of 165 million years. So, why is Utah so special? Well, experts believe the large amount of salt present in the area may have helped preserve the fossils that have been unearthed.
And the Hill family live in Lehi – one of the most rapidly expanding cities in Utah and only 15 miles from the city of Provo. As the area around Lehi had previously been primarily farmland, though, it makes sense that the Hills asked themselves whether the bones they had excavated had once belonged to a cow.
Indeed, it didn’t occur to the Hills that they’d found something historically significant. And even when the ancient bones emerged from the sandy clay, it didn’t stop them pursuing their original task of digging so that grass could be planted and a new retaining wall built in their yard.
So, the landscaping went on, with machines continuing to disrupt the area around the exposed bones. In addition, kids would poke and prod the skeleton to satisfy their curiosity. Months would pass, then, before the family finally decided to show their find to an expert.
Luckily, though, one of the Hills’ neighbors worked at Utah’s Brigham Young University. He was a professor of geology, too, so he knew about the sorts of things you could find underground. And it was he who first suspected the actual origins of the skeleton. His theory was that it had once belonged to a horse – perhaps even an animal from the Pleistocene epoch.
At this point, it’s worth stepping back to investigate what Utah looked like several millennia ago. Back then, for instance, the Great Salt Lake was just a small part of what was once the ancient Lake Bonneville. This prehistoric body of water covered a large portion of the northwest of the state as well as parts of Idaho and Nevada. And the lake was truly massive, too – spanning 20,000 square miles and with a depth of 1,000 feet.
Yet while Lake Bonneville formed around 25,000 years ago, its location had already played home to similar large bodies of water for millions of years. Meanwhile, the shrinking of Lake Bonneville into what would become the Great Salt Lake occurred between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago – partly because the local climate began to change.
It must be noted, however, that ancient animal bones have been found in other parts of Utah. And some of these, it turns out, are remains of the megafauna of the last Ice Age – including iconic creatures such as woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers. The state’s Wasatch Front is home to a number of gravel quarries that have housed bones from the Pleistocene period, in fact, with that gravel having come from Lake Bonneville.
In 1988, for instance, a man in a bulldozer was working on Utah’s Wasatch Plateau as part of the Huntingdon Reservoir Dam project. During this process, though, he suddenly unearthed a leg bone – followed by a partial tusk. In all, experts managed to recover a massive 90 percent of a woolly mammoth skeleton from the site. And this specimen, it’s said, was over 10,000 years old at the time.
But back to the Hills. When the family were starting to realize that their skeleton may be more important than they had originally thought, Laura approached Lehi’s Museum of Ancient Life for advice. Subsequently, a team of paleontologists led by Rick Hunter came to examine the bones. And in the process, the researchers discovered that the remains were actually extraordinary.
Indeed, as soon as Hunter saw a photograph of the skeleton, he knew it hadn’t belonged to a cow or even a mammoth; instead, the specimen was once part of a horse. That raised yet more questions, however. For instance, how did the animal die? And how did the skeleton manage to stay in almost one piece for so long? The find, you see, was nearly 85 percent intact. And this number is perhaps all the more impressive when you consider that digging up just 20 percent of the remains of a dinosaur is often cause for celebration.
It took the paleontologists two days to thoroughly excavate the skeleton, which lay around seven feet underground. Once free from their burial place, however, the remains then made their way to the museum’s laboratory. There, experts often examine dinosaur fossils, which made it the perfect place to identify the bones, learn more about the creature’s life and preserve the discovery for the future.
And it turned out that the Hills’ neighbor had been right. The skeleton had indeed belonged to a horse, which the paleontologists believed had lived somewhere between 14,000 and 16,000 years ago. The team also noted that the equine’s legs were curled under its chest, leading them in turn to note that the animal had been similar in size to a modern Shetland pony.
The Pleistocene epoch during which the horse would have lived spanned the period from around 2.6 million years ago until approximately 12,000 years ago. It was the time of the last Ice Age, when giant glaciers dominated the Earth’s surface. And even though this period came millions of years after the extinction of the dinosaurs, conditions were still harsh for the plants and animals that thrived during that era.
During this particular epoch, however, Homo sapiens began to make its mark on the world. Yes, while many other animals were becoming extinct, humanity started to thrive. And by the time that the Pleistocene era ended, members of our species had made their way to nearly every corner of the globe.
But, of course, Homo sapiens wasn’t alone on the planet at that time; woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers also stalked the Earth back then. And these creatures lived, too, alongside the ancestors of many recognizable modern animals – from cattle to kangaroos. Birds such as geese and reptiles including crocodiles similarly thrived in the Pleistocene era.
Around 13,000 years ago, though, something happened on Earth. And while scientists still argue over the exact nature of the event, what is certain is that the majority of the Ice Age’s megafauna were wiped out. Yes, the mammoths, tigers, giant bears and mastodons almost completely disappeared. As mentioned, though, we still don’t know for sure what caused this mass extinction.
Today, then, much of what we know about the creatures that lived in the Pleistocene epoch comes from one site in Los Angeles, California. In particular, the city’s La Brea Tar Pits have preserved countless species for thousands of years. Animals would have entered the sticky asphalt at the location and become trapped, with their remains going on to become the fossils that now fascinate so many experts.
What’s more, over a million separate bones have been found in the pits, with these belonging to more than 400 identified species. Remains of an almost complete mammoth have been unearthed, for example, as well as a partially complete human female skeleton.
The area that would later become Utah, however, experienced similar conditions to much of the world during the Ice Age. At that time, the higher parts of the state froze into glaciers, with the resulting meltwater subsequently helping Lake Bonneville to grow. As the ice melted and refroze, though, the environment changed massively. And between the lake and the glaciers, mammals were forced to live on a narrow stretch of land.
Meanwhile, according to American Museum of Natural History curator Ross MacPhee, the history of North American horses stretches back 50 million years. These ancient animals were survivors that were capable of living in the harshest environments. And the horse skeleton that was unearthed in the Hills’ yard may well have belonged to one of these creatures.
The origins of the horse itself can be traced back to the Eocene era, which took place between 34 and 56 million years ago. Indeed, Eocene fossils from both Europe and North America suggest a browsing animal with hooves once existed that may have been an ancestor of the modern horse. That said, the creature in question would have little resembled the horses with which we are so familiar today.
For starters, the so-called “dawn horse” was considerably smaller than its modern descendants. The largest examples of the species would have stood no more than two feet high at the shoulder, in fact. In addition, the dawn horse’s hooves, skull and teeth were all also of a different shape to those exhibited in similar animals today, while its brain was also significantly smaller. Yet these mammals did have one thing in common with present-day equines: they too would have relied on speed to survive.
And from the fossil record, it seems that every new evolution of the horse brought it closer to an equine that we would recognize. Indeed, horses now are still creatures that are designed to run fast. They also possess both complex brains and teeth designed for the herbivorous, grazing life. Currently, though, the biggest draft horses can be more than six feet tall at the shoulder.
Still, there is some argument over when exactly humans first domesticated the horse – although one theory is this took place more than 5,000 years ago on the steppes of what is now Kazakhstan. Regardless, horses have certainly become an essential part of human life and culture since. In the intervening millennia, the animals have played a part in travel, combat, food, farming, sport and entertainment.
Interestingly, though, horses became extinct in North America after the last Ice Age. As a consequence, then, modern-day wild mustangs are in fact descended from domesticated horses that were brought from Europe in colonial times. The last truly wild equine species is known as Przewalski’s horse, and they are only found in captivity these days.
As for the the skeleton in the Hills’ yard, it appeared to be an almost complete set of bones from a wild Ice Age horse. Indeed, at first glance, the only part of the specimen that seemed to be outright missing was the head. There was, however, visible damage to the bones that was assumed to have been caused by both the weather and other animals. Inspection of one ankle, meanwhile, suggested that the animal may have had bone cancer; there was also definite evidence that it had suffered from arthritis.
Hunter still wanted to know where the animal’s skull had gone, though. In an effort to find that part of the skeleton, then, he and his team created a 50-foot perimeter around the original find in which they could search. But what the group discovered may have ultimately been disappointing. You see, they found molars and skull fragments in the soil, which suggested in turn that the landscaping efforts may have shattered that particular section of bone.
And while there’s no clear evidence of how the animal actually died, Hunter nonetheless has a hypothesis. In his opinion, the horse may have run into a prehistoric lake in order to escape from a predator. And if the equine had been injured or become trapped, it may have therefore drowned in the water – leaving its bones to remain on the bottom of the lake for thousands of years.
However the horse ultimately met its fate, though, it seems that its skeleton has already inspired some of the younger residents of Utah. A volunteer accompanied Hunter, you see, on a trip to the Hills’ yard in order to deliver a talk to the local children. And in the process, that individual spoke about Lake Bonneville and the animals that lived around it – including the one that Hunter has named “Hill Horse.” Now, as Laura told The New York Times in 2018, “All these little kids want to be paleontologists.”
But what happens to the skeleton in the long term is entirely up to the Hills. Indeed, it’s up to the family to decide if they want to donate the specimen – and if so, where it should go. MacPhee at least believes that an institution is the best place for the bones, while Hunter hopes that they can stay in the Museum of Ancient Life.
Owing to the skeleton’s current state, though, paleontologists still face challenges in keeping it intact. And that’s largely due to the way in which the specimen has naturally been preserved. Generally, preservation through fossilization occurs when a dead plant or animal is quickly buried in sediment. With enough pressure, then, the sediment will subsequently turn to rock that itself preserves a skeleton’s shape even after the bones have dissolved. The horse’s bones aren’t old enough to have gone through this process, however, meaning they are far more fragile than a stone fossil.
And although the equine bones are relatively well-preserved, they are nevertheless dehydrated. The conservation process will dry them out even more, too, meaning there is the real risk of the skeleton cracking and becoming more damaged. Such a precious find needs careful treatment, then – whatever the plan for its final home.