Nine-year-old Jeremiah Longbrake was visiting his grandmother’s house near the small town of Tenmile, Oregon, located about sixty miles from the Pacific Ocean and nearly ninety miles south of Eugene. It was a pleasant day in April 2023, so Jeremiah spent his time playing in the backyard.
Jeremiah’s grandmother, Rhonda Johnson, has lived in the house for more than three decades. His mother, Megan Johnson, played in the same backyard when she was a child. But on this day, April 11, Jeremiah made a chance discovery that no one saw coming.
A Curious and Energetic Boy
Like many nine-year-olds, Jeremiah is a curious child who is full of energy. That’s why, on this particular day, he wanted to be outside instead of stuck in the house. He burned off his excess energy by jumping on the trampoline and swinging on the swing.
It was such a nice day that Jeremiah made his way to the small creek that runs through his grandmother’s backyard. He often played in the creek. In fact, one of his favorite pastimes was poking around the water, looking for unusual rocks. Then he spotted something.
A Find of a Lifetime
Jeremiah spied a peculiar object in the water. It was dark brown in color and, at first, looked like some sort of plastic container. Jeremiah did what all young boys would have done … he poked it with a stick!
Using his stick, Jeremiah pried the object from the creek bed. He described it as roughly the size of both his fists. He thought it was a rock, but he liked how it looked. It had strange grooves running up and down it. He decided to take it inside and show his mom.
Jeremiah’s Mom Is a Rock Hound
Megan Johnson is a self-described rock hound. She enjoyed rock hunting and has even joined a Facebook group devoted to rock hunting enthusiasts. When she first saw her son’s find, she knew right away that it wasn’t a rock.
“I thought it was a piece of petrified wood or something,” explained Megan Johnson. “Then I got to looking at it more and it just looked odd.” So Johnson took the discovery to social media, hoping her Facebook group would have some answers.
“That Looks Like a Tooth“
Johnson stated, “I figured I’d throw it out there to see if anybody had any ideas.” They did! Before the end of the day, she had comments from over a dozen people saying, “That looks like a tooth!” Johnson was a bit skeptical. After all, it was rather large for a tooth.
Her next course of action was to contact some of the anthropologists and archaeologists in Oregon to get their opinion about the find. She found her answer when Pat O’Grady, a staff archaeologist at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene, Oregon, gave her the exciting news…
A Prehistoric Tooth!
The item Jeremiah had found was, indeed, a tooth. Not just any tooth either. It was a fragment of a mammoth tooth! Of course, little Jeremiah had heard about mammoths before. He learned about them in school and there was a mammoth character in the animated movie Ice Age, but to him, mammoths were as distant as dinosaurs.
When Jeremiah told his friends at school about the mammoth tooth, they didn’t believe him. “Everyone thought it was fake,” he recalled. But it was the real deal … evidence that mammoths once roamed the area.
Mammoths of North America
Extinct members of the elephant family, the massive mammoths inhabited North America during the Pleistocene era. Woolly mammoths were common in Oregon. Unlike modern elephants, woolly mammoths had thick, shaggy coats and long, curving tusks.
Woolly mammoths disappeared from Oregon and the rest of North America about 10,000 years ago. The exact reason for their extinction is a hotly debated topic among scientists, but it was likely due to a combination of factors, including climate change and overhunting.
Identifying Mammoth Teeth
Mammoth teeth had enamel that was interspersed with dentin. This gave the teeth their distinctive ridged appearance. The hard, dense enamel takes a lot longer to deteriorate than regular bone, which is why Jeremiah was able to find a tooth and not the rest of the mammoth.
O’Grady cannot say with certainty where the tooth came from or how it ended up in Jeremiah’s grandmother’s backyard creek. The likely scenario is that it broke off from a location further up the creek. When the winter snow melted and the volume of the creek increased, the tooth may have been carried downstream until it became lodged in the Johnson backyard.
A Magical Discovery
When Rhonda Johnson learned of the mammoth tooth, she was surprised. “I was just shocked”, she said. As for Megan Johnson, Jeremiah’s mother, she was thrilled that her son has the same opportunity to explore nature and make magical discoveries in the same place she spent her childhood.
“They get to experience the same magic that I experienced when I was a kid,” Megan Johnson noted. “This is where my fascination with rocks started, but to have my son find something way, way, infinitely cooler than the little white rocks I used to pick up, it’s definitely, definitely awesome.”
Testing the Tooth
O’Grady asked Jeremiah to allow a small sample of the tooth to be taken for testing at the museum. The boy has agreed to that because he understands that scientific knowledge can be gained for analyzing the mammoth tooth. But he still hasn’t decided what he wants to do with his remarkable discovery.
He could keep it as a focal point of his future collection. Or he could donate it to the Museum of Natural and Cultural History where it can be further studied and put on display for others to see. One thing is clear … Jeremiah now has the rock hunting bug just like his mom. “We are always out looking around,” she said. “He’s got the eye.”