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Today is October 4, 2022

Mississippi Seen

Low water level a boon to river fossil hunting

Low water level a boon to river fossil hunting

Puddin' Moore of Greenville can explain the difference between a mammoth tooth and a mastodon tooth. This is a mammoth tooth he is holding. He pulled it from a gravel bar of the Mississippi River during his years of river exploring. Photo: Walt Grayson

    The coming winter rains will probably put the Mississippi River back up to normal stages. But it has been awfully low this summer, at or below record lows in many places, and this after record high water on the Mississippi just last year. It is amazing to stand at the edge of the river this year and imagine back in April of 2011 there would have been 50 feet of water over your head at that same place. The contrast from last year to this is without comparison in the recorded history of the Mississippi.
    River buffs will tell you that while the extremely low water might not present the best conditions for the towboat industry, it is excellent for relic hunting. And this has been a banner season for finding ice-age fossils along what would normally have been the submerged banks of the Mississippi River.
    I was in Greenville a few weekends ago for the first annual Delta Tamale Festival and dropped into Jim’s Café downtown on Washington for breakfast. Gus Johnson, the proprietor, sat down at my table as I worked over my omelet and we got to talking about the river and the extreme levels between last year and this.
    Gus started telling me about all the finds collectors are turning up this year. He showed me a couple of the specimens he’s found over his years of collecting. He keeps them in the front window of the café. There is a huge vertebra from some extinct animal, and then a rock with what Gus calls a monkey paw on it. I have no idea what it really is. Neither does he. But it is a fossil of some kind.
    Gus directed me to Puddin’ Moore’s shop in what used to be the pressroom of the Delta Democrat Times back when it was still on Main Street next to the levee. Puddin’ has a remarkable stash of fossils of Ice Age animals he has found in the river over time. Jawbones, skulls, vertebra, mammoth and mastodon teeth, and all sorts of other bones.
    George Phillips, the fossil expert from the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science says there was a huge extinction of most of North America’s mega-mammals about 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. Mammoths, mastodons, North American camels, saber tooth tigers and the like would have been included. Over time their bones have been washed from wherever they were over the mid-continent into the gravel bars of the Mississippi River.
    Phillips says a lot of collectors brought specimens to the museum for identification this year, things they collected in areas normally under water. Plus, the excessive currents during the flood last year swept the sand from some of the bars, leaving the fossil-holding gravel beds exposed.
    I managed to find one little old fossil while out on a sandbar picnic while in the Delta. But it was way older than the Ice Age bones a lot of folks are coming up with.
    Now, before you wander over to the Mississippi to see what you can find, let me tell you what Daddy told me when I was a boy growing up in Greenville: “That river will kill you.” And to underscore that, Greenville writer Shelby Foote once wrote that the river will kill you a hundred different ways.
    So be careful, lest some relic hunter years from now finds the fossil of someone who was out trying to find fossils.


Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television, and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” Contact Grayson at

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