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Of all the tiny spots in a sea of soybeans, Jim Bristle and Trent Satterthwaite hit the honey hole. Bull’s-eye. Motherlode. When the pair of Midwest farmers dropped a backhoe bucket 8’ below mature beans and felt the machinery groan and shift, they struck a massive, prehistoric beast hidden in blue clay and released the creature from an 15,000-year sleep.

Farmland is the vault of the unseen, and Bristle and Satterthwaite made one of the most unlikely scientific discoveries of the 21st century—a woolly mammoth skeleton alongside three telltale boulders.

“A mammoth in my soybeans is the find of our lifetimes,” Bristle says, “but even now, when I’m driving or walking across the field, I can’t help but wonder: What else is down there?”

“We have a story about finding it,” Satterthwaite adds, “and the mammoth has a story all its own.”

Buckets In, Bones Out

Burned out vehicles, trash containers, and junk of all sorts—farmland is often the public’s dump site for a steady parade of refuse. “Everything from marijuana plots where growers took out our crop and snuck in their own to the bodies of murder victims,” Satterthwaite says. “We’re not artifact hunters or collectors and probably the two most unlikely guys to stumble over something considered sensational.”

On rolling ground outside Chelsea in southeast Michigan’s Washtenaw County, Satterthwaite, 64, grows corn and soybeans. Likewise, Bristle, 75, grows grain on a nearby 565-acre operation. In 2015, the long-time friends purchased equipment for a joint side-business and began installing and repairing field tile on area farms. Significantly, in 2015, Bristle bought an additional 40 acres—farmland he’d previously rented that fit his overall operation but needed a touch of drainage work.

At noon on Sept. 29, 2015, just prior to soybean harvest, on a clear, sunny day with temps ideally hovering in the mid-60s, Bristle and Satterthwaite set to work on the new ground, intent on installing a needed lift station and sub-pump. Roughly 1,000’ off Highway M-52, surrounded by 3’-high soybeans in heavy dirt, Bristle steered a mini-excavator and Satterthwaite operated a backhoe on opposite sides of a 5’-by-5’ hole.

“We were burying a 32” catch basin, so we wanted to keep the hole as small as possible, straight down,” Satterthwaite details.

“I just wanted to get the tiling done and cut beans,” says Jim Bristle. “But i Also didn’t want to ignore something so important to science.

(Photo By Russ Hnatusko,)

Buckets in and dirt out, their digging was clockwork—until the steel reached blue clay at an 8’ depth.

“I came outta the hole with the backhoe and I was confused by what looked like a bent fencepost in the bucket. It was 4’ or 5’ long and several inches wide,” Satterthwaite recalls.

He shut off the backhoe and pulled the odd object—a rib—from extracted dirt. “Jim, did you bury any fencing around here? Did you bury any cows around here? Jim?”

Staring in wonder, Bristle paused before answering: “We both know that’s no cow bone.”

Tiger by the Tail

Back onto their equipment, Bristle and Satterthwaite again dropped buckets into a pit ready to reveal its secrets.

The remains found under Jim Bristle’s farmland belonged to an adult male in its mid 40s, 6-7 tons in weight, and 13-14’ tall at the shoulder. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, University of Michigan Photography)

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