The contents of a tiny brief published in a weekly newspaper more than 130 years ago has archaeologists and environmentalists calling for a closer look beneath the surface of Plum Island.
The article, published in a July 1879 issue of The Long Islander newspaper of Huntington, announced the discovery of a woolly mammoth skeleton on the island, indicating that it could contain other prehistoric remains dating as far back as the Paleo-Indian era.
The 19th-century discovery came to the attention of local environmentalists only recently, when they noticed one particular sentence in a 500-page draft environmental impact study of the island, released by the federal General Services Administration this past October.
That sentence reads: “The discovery of a mammoth skeleton on the west side of Plum Island suggests that the island could contain prehistoric remains.”
“This may be one of the most remarkable statements about the possible presence of archeological remains that I have personally encountered over the last 20 years of reviewing development proposals,” said Bob DeLuca, president and CEO of Group for the East End.
The mammoth skeleton, which archaeologists say would have to be more than 10,000 years old, was found in July 1879 beneath a 50-foot sand dune that extended 150 feet along an area known as Brother’s Beach, near the existing light station on the west end of the island, according to GSA public affairs officer Patrick Sclafani.
The bones were revealed by wind and erosion and unearthed by a group of men who spotted them, according to the Long Islander article.
The amateur excavation produced a mammoth skull and over seven feet of backbone. At least one leg of the skeleton was also present, the article reported.
The skull was described in the article as “like that of an elephant,” which means it was likely the skull of a mammoth, Mr. Sclafani said.
The bones were moved to the light station, but the article noted that they were in very poor condition.
“From the condition of the bones, they must have been covered for ages, as they were ready to crumble and it was with difficulty that they could be handled so as to take them to the station without falling to pieces,” the article stated.
The GSA has no record of what became of the skeleton, Mr. Sclafani said.
If mammoth bones were, in fact, found on Plum Island, it would be historic, said Dr. Gaynell Stone, director of the Suffolk County Archaeological Association, adding that she had no prior knowledge of the discovery of any mammoth bones on the North Fork east of Riverhead.
According to the New York State Museum in Albany, the most recent discovery of a woolly mammoth in the state occurred in 1934, when the Randolph mammoth, said to be about 12,000 years old, was found during the expansion of a fish hatchery western New York. To date, these remains, now in the museum’s collection, represent the most complete woolly mammoth skeleton found in the state.
An archeology book published by the museum lists all mammoth discoveries made statewide prior to 1902. The only listing for Suffolk County was “more than one half of a lower jaw with teeth,” discovered between tides in Riverhead in 1823.
Other area archeologists said the DEIS was the first time they’d heard of the Plum Island discovery.
“I asked around a bit and no one else seems to be aware of its existence or history,” said archeology professor David Bernstein of Stony Brook University.
Environmental groups pushing for the preservation of Plum Island said this revelation is another reason the impact statement is lacking in critical information required to assess the impact of selling Plum Island.
The 840-acre island is home to the Plum Island lab, which is expected to be shut down and replaced by a new $1 billion animal disease research facility in Manhattan, Kan. Should the lab close, the GSA hopes to sell the property to a private developer for possible construction of up to 500 homes.
Since the island is federally owned, it is not currently subject to local zoning regulations. If it were sold, the island would fall under Southold Town jurisdiction, which has prompted local officials to create new zoning categories for the island. The zoning is a precautionary measure aimed at preventing the construction of condominiums, large houses or even a casino if the island is sold. It proposes three separate zones reflecting current uses as a research center with its own harbor and considerable open space.
However, the zoning may not help protect the prehistoric significance of the island.
In the Final Environmental Impact Study the government has marked several areas Prehistoric High Probability Zones, which might suggest that human remains of hunters that tracked the mammoths could also be buried on the island.
The Archaeological Resources Predictive Model provided in the FEIS indicates that prehistoric remains would most likely be found be at the west edge of Plum Island, adjacent to both Long Island Sound and Plum Gut — the only area where Southold Town’s proposed zoning would allow development, Mr. DeLuca said.
To address these concerns, Group for the East End believes supplemental fieldwork should be done to more thoroughly examine the extent of Plum Island’s archeological potential. The group would like to see the federal government complete a Stage II Archaeological Assessment, which would involve excavating areas near where the mammoth bones were found in1879, Mr. DeLuca said.
“Should the property be transferred to private ownership, the extent of the island’s prehistoric [significance] should be at least as well understood as its other natural, historic and cultural resources,” he said.
The Group for the East End’s comments come on the heels of a statement issued by the environmental organization Save the Sound accusing the federal government of incorrectly recommending a full, unrestricted sale of Plum Island.
Save the Sound believes the FEIS is inconsistent with the National Environmental Policy Act in evaluating foreseeable impacts of development and fails to take into account the government interest in protecting habitats of rare species.
Randy Parsons, policy advisor for The Nature Conservancy of Long Island, said he agrees with Save the Sound.
“Regardless of whether there are woolly mammoth bones on Plum Island you would expect the federal government would want to know what is out there in terms of archeology and biology,” he said. “It points to a weakness in the way the island is run by the federal government.”