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Digging for bones in the Quebec savannah

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Published: 15 Oct 2007

McGill archaeology students excavate Parc Safari burial ground

Students in a unique archeology course at McGill University have been spending their Friday afternoons ankle-deep in mud, dung and – when they get lucky – the occasional rhinoceros or watusi carcass. The 17 students have been given the unique opportunity to dig through burial grounds at the Parc Safari exotic animal zoo in Hemmingford, Que. They'll hit real pay dirt when they locate the remains of Magic, a male African elephant that passed away and was buried seven years ago.

The unique course, Archaeological Field Methods, was created when officials from the exotic animal zoo about 60 kilometres from Montreal approached McGill anthropology professor Andre Costopoulos with a proposal that would benefit all concerned. "The park wants to put the bones on display for educational purposes, and for us, it's an excellent field experience," said Prof. Costopoulos. "It's not every day you get the opportunity to dig up an elephant and train students on how to excavate exotic animals less than an hour from Montreal."

So far, the process has involved setting up a series of test pits roughly 50 centimetres in diameter and five metres apart. Every bone they find is cause for excitement – and wonder, since some burials predate the zoo's institutional memory, according to zoo director Patrice Denault, who said macaques, zebras, giraffes and a variety of other species have been buried over the years.

The students recently discovered the remains of Alice the rhinoceros in one of the two burial grounds Parc Safari uses, as well as a watusi – a species of African cattle with long, formidable horns. This second find was a brief, magical moment for the class: when the tip of one of the watusi's horns was unearthed, they thought they had hit the motherlode.

"We found what seemed like a tusk, but it turns out the tusks were removed before the elephant was buried," said Prof. Costopoulos, adding the team has also found a monkey jaw and other small bones. The excavation will continue until the ground freezes and resume in the spring. "I think we'll be working there for a long time," he said. "Just finding and then excavating the elephant will take several months, and there are many years of work for us to do there."

On the Web: McGill Reporter

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Contact: Michael Bourguignon
Organization: McGill University
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Office Phone: 514-398-8305
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