Sangamon River Swimmer Finds Prehistoric Bone

This summer’s drought led to an unusual find in a central Illinois river. A swimmer literally stumbled on what turned out to be a bone that dates back to the Ice Age. Brian Mackey has more.

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Tony Blisset says it was one of those 100-degree days in late July. Swimming with his son and fiancee in the Sangamon River near Springfield, he jumped off a log and landed on something.

BLISSET: “It just felt hard, and I thought, since we’re jumping, I ought to move this rock.”

Blisset took a closer look, and realized: that’s no rock.

BLISSET: “I thought maybe I’d found like a pelvis bone or something.”

Calling on knowledge from a college physiology class, Blisset came to think it was a vertebra. That’s when he decided to call the Illinois State Museum.

SAUNDERS: “My first reaction was, wow it’s a very nice specimen, we ought to be able to figure this one out.”

Jeff Saunders is a paleontologist at the museum. He determined the bone was from the neck of a Harlan’s muskox — an animal that ranged across America until it went extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago.

Saunders says this summer’s drought was critical to the discovery. It left the Sangamon River 11-feet lower than normal.

SAUNDERS: “When the rivers go down, the bones come out.”

Blisset and his family agreed to donate the bone to the museum. He says he’s just happy to have a great family story.

— Brian Mackey

Photo: Tony Blisset holds the prehistoric bone he found this summer in the Sangamon River. It’s from the extinct Ice Age animal known as the Harlan’s muskox, a model of which is behind Blisset in a display at the Illinois State Museum. (Brian Mackey/Illinois Public Radio)

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