Boy Finds 1.2 Million Year-Old Stegomastodon By Casually Tripping Over It

Published July 19, 2017

"I didn't know what it was," the boy said. "I just knew it wasn't usual."

Peter House Fossil Photo

Peter HoudeDr. Peter Houde with the Sparks brothers during the Stegomastodon excavation.

There are benefits to being clumsy.

For example, when you trip on something in a New Mexico desert and it turns out to be a Stegomastodon fossil from 1.2 million years ago.

That’s what happened to 9-year-old Jude Sparks last November when he was exploring the Orange Mountains with his family.

Jude’s brother, Hunter, originally wasn’t convinced that the find was impressive.

“Hunter said it was just a big fat rotten cow,” Jude told KVIA TV. “I didn’t know what it was. I just knew it wasn’t usual.”

To him, the discovery looked like “fossilized wood.”

His parents agreed and contacted Peter Houde, a professor at New Mexico State University, who returned with the family to the site the next day.

Sure enough, the boy had stumbled over a fossilized tusk.

It’s a big discovery — both literally and metaphorically. The ancient mammals were cousins to the wooly mammoth and modern-day elephant, so the remains are large.

Stegomastodon Skeleton


They’re also rare, since prehistoric bones typically disintegrate quickly after being exposed to the elements. Houde suspects the Sparks family came across the tusk just after erosion had brought it to the surface.

“This is really very unusual to find,” he told The New York Times.

With Houde’s help, the family reburied the remains and set about fundraising for a formal dig.

It took them months to organize a team and secure a permit — but in May they finally uncovered an entire skull made of fragile “egg-shell thin” pieces.

Jude Sparks

Peter HoudeJude Sparks

“We’re really, really grateful that they contacted us, because if they had not done that, if they had tried to do it themselves, it could have just destroyed the specimen,” Houde, who hopes to display the remains at the university, said. “It really has to be done with great care and know-how.”

Oddly, this isn’t the first accidental Stegomastadon find. In 2014, a hiking bachelor party found a 3-million-year-old skull belonging to the dino in New Mexico’s Butte Lake State Park.

Humans may have hunted the Stegomastodon toward the end of its existence, though it’s likely that its mammoth competitors kicked it off the evolutionary tree. The creatures remains — a bit smaller than the average African elephant — are easily identified by their broad, upward curving tusks.

As for Jude, he isn’t really as into fossils as he was when he was “little.”

He’ll take the attention, though.

“I’m not really an expert,” the now-10-year-old told the Times. “But I know a lot about it, I guess.”

Next, read about the 14-year-old who discovered a German warplane while working on his WWII homework assignment. Then, check out the fossilized “sea serpent” recently found with a baby in its belly.

All That's Interesting
Established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together a dedicated staff of digital publishing veterans and subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science. From the lesser-known byways of human history to the uncharted corners of the world, we seek out stories that bring our past, present, and future to life. Privately-owned since its founding, All That's Interesting maintains a commitment to unbiased reporting while taking great care in fact-checking and research to ensure that we meet the highest standards of accuracy.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.