Fossil hunter
Ralph Bishop displays a tusk and lower mandible from a mastodon that he estimates are about 20,000 years old. Bishop found the fossils in an undisclosed location in Nipomo. //Mark Brown/Staff

Mastodon bones found in Nipomo and carbon-dated to approximately 20,000 years ago will be on display when the Orcutt Mineral Society’s annual Rainbow of Gems Show returns to Nipomo.

Ralph Bishop, a lifelong Santa Maria resident, began unearthing the bones more than a decade ago at a location he will identify only as “Secret Canyon.”

What makes the find unusual is that the bones were found with stone implements indicating the animal was either killed or, at least, butchered by early Native Americans, Bishop said.

One stone implement found at the site matches V-shaped cracks in a leg bone, showing the stone was likely used to break open the bone to reach the nutrient-rich marrow inside.

He also found burnt stones at the site, indicating the possibility of a fire ring.

Bishop sent the bones to one of the country’s most renowned carbon-dating labs, whose scientists told Bishop there is a “90-percent chance the bones are 20,000 or more years old and a 10-percent chance they are younger.”

If, in fact, the bones are from 20,000 years ago, the “kill site” would push back the earliest known inhabitants of California by some 7,000 years, deep into the ice age, he said.

“There’s never been any kind of Indian kill site found around here with megafauna,” Bishop said as he lay a mastodon tusk, lower jaw bone and shoulder blade on a table at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts and Education Center, where the bones are on permanent display as part of an exhibit on Native American culture.

“They’ve found them in places like Colorado, but I don’t think they’ve ever found one in California,” he continued.

“What that tells us is the Indians were here long before we thought they were — and they were dining on elephant steak.”

The mastodon bones aren’t the only ones Bishop has found at the site. He’s also found the bones of horses, mammoths, giant ground sloths, huge bison and the largest cat that ever lived.

He said the ground sloths would have had shoulders basketball-hoop high; the bison would have had a seven-foot span between their horn tips; and the cat would have stretched more than 11 feet from nose to tail, making it bigger than a saber-toothed tiger.

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Bishop developed an interest in fossils and rocks at an early age. Now 61, he’s been a member of the Orcutt Mineral Society since he was 10 years old.

In 1964, also in Nipomo, Bishop found what he said is one of only three complete Clovis points discovered in the Tri-Counties area.

Long considered the earliest known inhabitants of North America, the Clovis culture — named for the first artifacts discovered in Clovis, N.M. — is believed to have inhabited the continent about 13,500 years ago.

But bones, fossils and Native American artifacts aren’t Bishop’s only interests. For about seven years, he had a semiprecious stone mining claim in Montana.

He has jade from Jade Cove near Big Sur, polished agate from Nipomo and petrified wood from the northern Santa Barbara County coast.

“I’m a hunter — I hunt anything,” said Bishop, who plans to exhibit some of those at the gem show, too.

Bishop said mastodon and other megafauna bones and fossils can be found throughout the Central Coast — if you know what to look for and where to look.

“I think a lot of people walk right by them, thinking they’re just old cow bones or something,” he said.

“They exist everywhere, and not far down, but until someone digs a hole or a creek cuts a bank, you don’t see them,” he said.

In fact, Bishop found some of the mastodon bones after they were exposed by an eroding creek bank.

The shoulder blade was found there under six inches of water after a heavy rain.

He knows there are more bones in “Secret Canyon,” so he’ll keep going back to add more artifacts to his collection and more information to the history of local Native Americans.


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