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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : October 2000 : Tennessee sinkhole yielding fossil treasure that's 4.5 million years old and counting
 

Tennessee sinkhole yielding fossil treasure that's 4.5 million years old and counting

 
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Atlanta, Georgia
October 8, 2000

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee - University of Tennessee experts have substantially pushed back the age of an archaeological site in rural northeast Tennessee to at least 4.5 million years.

The change from several thousand years old to several million came with the identification of bones from as many as three long-extinct rhinoceroses.

Such specimens rarely have been found east of the Mississippi River, and never before in Tennessee.

''It is emerging as a nationally significant fossil site,'' state archaeologist Nick Fielder said of the plot unearthed in May during the widening of Tenn. 75 near Gray, about 100 miles north of Knoxville.

''We anticipate finding a great deal of information about this early time period, the Miocene Age, which has never been worked on in Tennessee before.''

An assortment of leg bones, jawbones and teeth initially thought to belong to a sloth that lived until the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, have been identified as those of waist-high prehistoric rhinos.

''We definitely have a rhinoceros,'' University of Tennessee anthropologist Walter Klippel said. ''We don't know what kind,'' he added. ''But we know that it is one that died out during the late Hemphillian" --- an age ending about 4.5 million years ago.

Klippel and Paul Parmalee, emeritus director of the university's McClung Museum, are collecting and examining the fossils from the Gray site at their Knoxville laboratory.

They recently shipped a rhino jawbone to University of Nebraska paleontologist Mike Voorhies to help pin down the type of rhino found. Voorhies was lead researcher on a spectacular find in the 1960s in Nebraska that is now Ashfall Fossil Beds state park.

''This is basically how science works,'' Fielder said. ''You keep re- evaluating, reinspecting and getting new information. Then you can change your explanations or your theories to fit the new evidence.''

The scientists believe the five-acre site in Gray --- once a watering hole over a sinkhole as much as 150 feet deep --- is an archaeologist's gold mine.

Gov. Don Sundquist has ordered the site protected with a declaration to move the road, allowing scientists to explore the site at their leisure for years to come.

Hundreds of fossils have been found, including whole skeletons of tapirs --- a hoofed, hoglike mammal whose descendants live in South America.

Other fossils suggest: an animal in the elephant family that predated the mastodon, an early crocodile, a weasel-like creature, a tortoise and a fish.

With the site guarded, scientists can move ahead with plans for cataloging what has been found --- including fossils picked up by area residents --- and plotting more meticulous excavations.

The next discoveries from Gray will be revealed with brushes and trowels, not bulldozers, he said. ''There are years and years of research ahead.''




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