Mammoth Rubbing Rocks

Edge of the continent, Sonoma County

“Groovy, man. How much do you want for this special battery-powered back-scratcher in the showcase, man.”

“Cost you one dollar and ninety-five cents.”

“A necessary item, man, haul it out.”

—The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle (1974)

I have long thought that the .97¢ I spent on a bamboo backscratcher from the local drugstore was one of my life’s great investments.

Horse Badorties, the Fan Man, he knows.

I’ve thought about handing them out as gifts to the uninitiated.

I wish somebody would have turned me onto a backscratcher sooner in life.

I cannot believe people live without them.

How do you go through an entire lifespan without a backscratcher, man?

When the scratcher stick periodically goes missing I get frantic and antsy.

The ol’ back-against-the-door-jamb technique doesn’t work so well and my wife’s pelt puller, also known as a hair brush, reaches only so far.

Because few things in life feel better than “itching the hell out of” a good case of the itches.

Or. . .scratching. If you’re really uptight about by-the-book proper usage of the mother tongue and refuse to notice my intended folksy tone. Man.

If you hit the right spot on an itchy dog, especially one of those old lumpy and perpetually smelly senior dogs, it will drop them on their ass, neck stretching, lips pulling tight, leg strumming.

And then they crawl back licking their lips begging for more. 

What else do you know that feels better than a good scratch?

Wait. Don’t answer that. It’s a family blog.

There aren’t many things that feel better. Let’s leave it there.

Mammoth Rocks

The other day I cut sign for Columbian mammoth.

The thought still provokes a sense of wonderment and thrill.

Over 12,000 years after the last mammoth heart fell still and here I was searching the land for signs of their presence.

“Wild man. Wild.”

Near the mouth of the Russian River a number of blueshist boulders and metamorphic outcrops rise from the grassy coastal terrace.

On these rocks may remain the prehistoric signs of mammoth.

“On the Sonoma Coast, we can view rock polish that is considerably older than 10,000 years old and produced not by the action of glaciers but rather by the grooming behavior of the Ice Age megafauna.” (Parkman 2002a, 2002b).

The California Serengetti
E. Breck Parkman, Senior State Archaeologist, California State Parks, November 20, 2006

The grooming behavior of mammoths and other Ice Age megafauna may have been similar to that of today’s elephants in Africa and the bison of North America.

“The only area of the world that in recent times has had a megafaunal menagerie comparable to that of Pleistocene California is in eastern and southern Africa (Edwards 1991:4). In southern Africa, rubbing stones are common in the savanna and grassland areas (Ouzman, Sven, personal communication, 2001).

According to one South African researcher:

‘They stand as monuments to ancient itches. Rocks rubbed to a shine by massive rhino rumps. Boulders polished to brightness by itching elephants. Stones worn smooth with the scratching of buffalo and bushpig. Rubbing stones glint in desert and forest, savanna and grassy highland all over southern Africa (Skead 1976:21).'”

Rancholabrean Rubbing Rocks on California’s North Coast
E. Breck Parkman, Senior State Archaeologist, California State Parks, June 15, 2007

The relic wallow thick in waist to chest-high grasses.

Between the rubbing stones lies a remarkably green depression that stands out from its surroundings rather prominently.

Parkman, the archaeologist quoted above, has suggested that this greener-than-elsewhere low spot may be the remnant remains of a prehistoric mud wallow.

“Contemporary rubbing rocks are typically associated with the bathing and grooming behavior of megafauna.

For example, African elephants wallow at waterholes in order to coat themselves in mud, then, as the mud dries, they rub it off against a hard object, often a large boulder. This helps remove extoparasites from the animal’s skin. Bison often use dry wallows for a similar purpose.

I suspect that Ice Age mammoth and bison had similar practices to their modern-day counterparts. If so, then it seems probable that some of California’s vernal pools began as animal wallows.

In the case of those that did not, it seems likely that they served as useful waterholes in late spring and early summer, and would have thus been affected by the very presence of the megafauna (e.g., African elephants are known to enlarge and ‘improve’ waterholes).

California’s vernal pools are typically associated with late Pleistocene soils and landforms (Anonymous 1998:18; Holland 2000:31-32; Stone 1990:91).

While some of the Pleistocene pools have undoubtedly filled in over time, it is likely that many of these depressions have survived through the ages.”

Rubbing Rocks, Vernal Pools, and the First Californians: Pursuing the Rancholabrean Hypothesis
E. Breck Parkman
Senior State Archaeologist
California State Parks

Another view of the wallow from afar, which lies between the two outcrops, about center-frame in the image.

The two photos above and below show the same portion of polished stone.

The second photo below shows the reflection of my palm when I held my hand up close to the stone.

The photos were taken at 5:46 in the afternoon on a gloomy day, just after I snapped the photo of the relic wallow above.

In other words, that is how polished the stone is, that it reflects my presence so brightly on such a darkened late afternoon.

Mammoth Rocks sit a short distance from cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. They are surrounded by grasses and scrub.

At the time of use these rocks would have been much farther away from the sea, set in the ecotone between grassland and low hills rising into coastal mountains.

The area was an expansive grassland that stepped down toward the sea in a series of geologic shelves, most of which are now underwater.

The rocks would have provided shelter from cold onshore winds blowing off the sea in addition to serving as scratching posts to compliment the mud wallow.

The rocks are thought to have been situated at the mouth of an important animal travel corridor linking the coastal grasslands with the interior valleys.

The ancient animal trails made use of today’s Russian River Valley. Today a highway follows the same corridor.

A view of the polished stone as seen when standing and looking upward. It is clear and easy to see when standing beside the outcrop that the polished patches on the schist rise well over one’s head. Scholars have measured the polish up to around the 12 foot level, well above the reach of any animals in historic times like cattle or sheep.

A knobby protuberance on the outcrop polished black and shiny.

I trip out on this.

That in getting a good scratch on I can relate, as a fellow sentient being, to extinct Columbian mammoths that lived so many thousands of years ago.

Some 12,000 years later and a different species altogether and being only but 5’11” and 175 pounds with puny teeth, I still think I know how damn good those rubbing rocks must have felt to a 14 foot, 20,000 pound mammoth with 15 foot-long tusks.

I have a bamboo backscratcher, man. A necessary item.

Related Post:

Mastodon and Mammoth Sign: Reading Trees In the Santa Ynez Mountains

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3 Responses to Mammoth Rubbing Rocks

  1. rangerdon says:

    Thanks, Jack,

    Wonderful essay – I surely learned something new and interesting. Great Ranger talk info. My bamboo backscratcher is a lifelong treasure. It’s the little things in life that make it worthwhile.


    Don Scott

  2. Thanks for offering me the imagery of vernal pools being ancient mammoth wallowing holes…!

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