Nebraska’s State Fossil and the SesquicentennialJan 01, 2017 11:34AM ● By Doug Meigs
The new year marks the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood. The January/February issue of Omaha Magazine touches on that milestone. But we don’t stop there. We take you even deeper into prehistoric times…15,000 years ago, back when mammoths roamed what would eventually become our great state…and 15 million years ago, around the time ancient elephants were en route to North America.
Growing up in Nebraska, I always marveled at the fossils of mammoths found in museums across the state. Ever since childhood, I have been intrigued by the ancient giants—remains of Ice Age creatures that have been unearthed from all but three of Nebraska’s counties.
When I was living and working as a journalist in Hong Kong, I was surprised to discover shops selling traditional Chinese ivory carvings made from mammoth tusks. The prehistoric ivory allows Chinese craftsmen to carve exquisite works of art. Unfortunately, traditional Chinese ivory carving has decades of association with the tragic killing of African elephant populations.
A global ban on elephant ivory has been in place since 1989, but the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora does not regulate extinct animals or fossils.
The strange dynamics involving my state’s official fossil seized my interest. Mammoth ivory is legal, and prehistoric tusks are offering an alternative to living elephants’ ivory.
I began research and writing about China’s mammoth ivory trade for a story published in China Daily’s HK Edition, where I was a staff feature writer. After two years of working at the newspaper, I received sad news. My father was diagnosed with colon cancer. I was heading home.
But before leaving Asia, I took a month-long reporting trip across mainland China to explore the mammoth ivory supply chain for my former employer’s magazine, China Daily Asia Weekly. The reporting trip took me to Beijing, Fujian, Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, and Guangdong before I returned to Omaha.
My travels preceded the first mammoth ivory bans in the U.S. Since then, four states have outlawed the sale and purchase of mammoth ivory. More recently, China (the world’s largest market for black market ivory) has partnered with the U.S. (the world’s second largest market for black market ivory) to tighten restrictions on the ivory trade. China’s increasing regulatory pressure would likely result in growing demand for the mammoth tusks locked in Arctic permafrost.
Before I joined Omaha Magazine, a follow-up mammoth ivory research trip was in order. I returned to Asia with my favorite translator—i.e., my wife (who has written an introduction to Omaha’s most authentic Chinese cuisine in this issue)—and refreshed my research with ivory traders in Hong Kong and Beijing.
Funding for the reporting trip came from The Andy Award, an international reporting grant from the University of Nebraska at Omaha (named after Harold W. Anderson, former publisher of the Omaha World-Herald).
This issue’s cover story is a byproduct of that Andy Award. The trip also provided the basis for a paper that I presented at a panel during the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in November.
I hope you enjoy the story and this issue of Omaha Magazine. Happy New Year!