Mammoth: Witness to Change would not be possible without the support of our sponsors and donors.

We would like to especially thank Allied Insurance for their support of the educational components of the exhibit.


Mammoth: Witness to Change Lesson Plan

For Grade Level 3 through High School


Goals/Objectives/Student Outcomes

Students will:

  • Be prepared for a visit to the State Historical Museum to examine the exhibit: Mammoth: Witness to Change.
  • Strengthen their skills in observation, analysis and interpretation.
  • Become aware of the continuous natural changes that have shaped Iowa’s physical landscape during the Pleistocene era.
  • Recognize fossils and understand how they provide evidence of earlier lives and environments.
  • Identify the characteristics of a mammoth including the lifestyle and environment.
  • Analyze the different theories explaining why the mammoths and other large mammals of the era became extinct.
  • Learn about the “first Iowans” and how Paleo-Indians used natural resources for food, clothing, shelter, weapons and tools.


Paper, pencils, sketchpads, cameras, research material, books listed in resource section.


Pleistocene era, Ice Age, paleontology, archaeology, mammoth, sediments, millennia, erosion, deposition, mastodon, glacier, loess, moraines, glacial till, Proboscideans, tusk, matriarch, herbivore, excavated, silica, extinct, Beringia, carnivore, chert, obsidian, Paleo-Indian, sites, mega-fauna, flintknapping, projectile points, atlatl


Change is a constant force. We see it as we experience the changing seasons, the aging of the people around us or in the development of our physical environment. It is difficult to imagine the vast changes that occur over centuries and millennia.

The Pleistocene, or Ice Age, era began over two and a half million years ago and ended 10,000 years ago. The retreat of the glaciers brought many changes to the upper Midwest. As the climate warmed, great rivers, vegetation, animal life and the landscape changed. Instead of ice walls and barren tundra, there was a mixture of grasslands, marsh and forests of spruce, aspen and oak. Within a few centuries, a new forest filled the river valleys, prairies stretched out to the west and south, and marshlands continued to the north. Great beasts, including the mammoth, witnessed this world change. The arrival of man as a new predator brought additional forces of change.

Mammoths originated in Africa and moved into Europe and Asia about two million years ago. They are distant relatives of today’s elephant. They crossed Beringia, entered North America and spread across the continent. At the close of the Pleistocene, three elephant-like creatures roamed the continent. There was the huge Columbian mammoth in the south and west. The wooly mammoths lived near the ice fronts and the mastodon browsed in the forests of the Midwest and east. As the climate, glaciers and varieties of vegetation shifted, so did their territories. At some times, they lived in the same areas and they were all hunted.

Mammoth fossils - their teeth and bones – are unearthed through the everyday activities of Iowans as they till the land or dig into the earth for construction projects. Mammoth fossils have been documented in every county in Iowa. In 2001, mammoth bones were discovered on the site of the Allied Insurance parking garage in downtown Des Moines. Samples of these remains were found to be 16,500 years old. The cast skeleton on exhibit is from a mammoth that died 15,000 years ago near Kenosha, Wis., on the western edge of Lake Michigan. The male "Hebior" mammoth, named for its discoverer, John Hebior, was between 25 and 28 years old. He died on the muddy floor of a small depression that filled with cold water and eventually, the body was covered with sediment. Within a few hours after death, the carcass was partially butchered. Marks from stone tools are present on several of the leg bones. Other bones show toothmarks from large carnivores. Chipped stone tools were found around and under the bones.

Extinction is the natural result of change when the species, plant or animal, can no longer adapt or continue reproduction. Adequate and appropriate food and water, a specialized habitat and a sustainable population are all needed for the survival of a species. There are many theories regarding the extinction of the mammoth and the other large mammals of the Pleistocene. The Overkill theory claims that mammoth kills increased as the human population grew and the large animals could not make up the losses in their population. Also according to this theory, the mammoth’s habitat and available food supply changed too drastically too quickly when the end of the Pleistocene brought in a period of warm temperatures that continues today. The Competition theory claims that more competitive species such as the American buffalo may have prevented the mammoth and other large herbivores in finding food. The buffalo population numbered into the millions due to the expanding prairie until overhunting in the19th century. Some scientists are now formulating a Disease theory to explain the widespread extinction of the mega-fauna. The effect of disease on an animal population can be devastating. It may reduce population numbers, strength and the reproduction capacity of a herd.

Early humans, animals, and even plants crossed a land bridge called Beringia during this time of change. Small groups of humans spread across North America as the land warmed. They were hunters migrating after their prey. In Iowa during the Pleistocene, there is evidence of food sources such as mammoth, mastodon, ground sloth, horse, peccary, camel, deer, elk, moose, musk ox, bison, giant beaver, giant bear and the smaller edible animals like the white-tailed deer, hare and turtle. The Paleo-Indians also gathered seeds and wild plants for food and caught fish. Little evidence of their culture remains other than stone weapons and tools which are, by now, buried deep underground. Early hunters chipped or “flintknapped” their tools from chert, quartzite or obsidian. A skilled hand produced a thin, long and sharp projectile point strong enough to penetrate the hide and body of a mammoth, then attached it to a spear or dart. Archaeologists categorize specific time periods and cultural traits by the kinds of projectile points that were used. The earliest points are fluted Clovis and Folsom points.


  • Have a pre-visit discussion asking students what they know about the Ice Age. They will mention movies, television shows, and possibly books on various connected subjects. Ask them how they think scientists have learned about the Ice Age from studying fossils of bones, teeth, tusks, seeds and plants. Well-preserved frozen mammoths have even been discovered. Share the background material in this lesson plan with them.
  • Research and create a timeline in class of the Pleistocene and Holocene (present day) eras. Be sure to include reference material so they can visualize the vast amount of time that elapsed since the dinosaurs so they do not get confused with fictional entertainment like “The Flintstones” and think dinosaurs, mammoths and humans interacted.
  • During a school visit to Mammoth: Witness to Change, assign students to take notes, photos, and make drawings to create a display on the classroom bulletin board. Have the students select information that intrigued them in the exhibit and do further research. They could present individual or group reports, write poems or songs or have a dramatic presentation. Students could pretend they are newspaper reporters writing articles about the exhibit.
  • Talk about glaciers and their effect on the Iowa landscape. Ask students to draw pictures or create dioramas and reliefs of Iowa during the glaciers or as the environment warmed and they receded. Add animals that were native during the various times. Take a large map of Iowa and highlight the different landscapes that were formed by glacial movement and melting.
  • Research the differences between Geologists, Paleontologists and Archaeologists. Have guest speakers visit the classroom or go on a field trip to listen to presentations and examine objects and artifacts. Students can conduct oral interviews, take notes, and make sketches and later do individual or group presentations.
  • Discuss the vast number of animals that lived in North American during the Pleistocene era. Have the students make a list on the blackboard. Surprise them by adding camels, lions, and llama to their list. Divide the class into groups and have them pick categories of animals to research. Some categories could include predators, mega-fauna, animals that are extinct, animals that still exist today in the world or in Iowa, strange species, or animals that were in Iowa until settlement in the 1900s.
  • Ask the students why they think the musk oxen and buffalo survived when the other mammals were becoming extinct. Have them draw a mammoth that may have survived to modern time and make a list of adaptations.
  • Create a bibliography of resources with student assessment. They could make recommendations of materials such as fiction and non-fiction books and documentaries and movies for different ages and grade levels. The completed bibliography would be presented to the school library and the community library.
  • Watch a movie in class that is set during the Ice Age and discuss the historic and scientific accuracy.
  • Study the elephant family tree and examine the differences and similarities of mammoths, mastodons, Asian elephants and African elephants. Discuss the extinction of mammoths and mastodons and the plight of modern endangered elephants.
  • Do some mammoth math problems. Figure out how tall they were and compare them to the average height of adults and children. Compare their life spans to other animals with graphs. Find out how much water and food a mammoth ate every day and figure out how much food and water was needed by an average herd of thirty. Research the life cycle of a female mammoth and estimate how many calves she could have in her lifetime.

Assessment of Outcomes:

Contributions to discussion in class.
Behavior and participation on field trips.
Amount of participation and effort in projects, presentations, reports or artwork display.
Historic and scientific accuracy of research, amount of understanding and creativity.

Extensions and Adaptations:

Most of the activities listed under procedures can be adapted to meet the learning needs of most students at various ages. Many of the listed activities can be used as art, music, writing, and math or science projects. Be sure to draw on other teachers and resource people in your community.



Iowa Natural History

Wayne I. Anderson. Iowa’s Geological Past: Three Billion Years of Change. Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1998.

Tom Cooper, Exec. Ed. Iowa’s Natural Heritage. Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and Iowa Academy of Science. Ames: Iowa State Univ. Press, 1983

Cornelia F. Mutel. Fragile Giants: A Natural History of the Loess Hills. Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1989.

Jean Prior. Landforms of Iowa. Geological Survey Bureau, Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources. Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 1991.

Jack Clayton Troeger. From Rift to Drift: Iowa’s Story in Stone. Ames: Iowa State Univ. Press, 1983.


Natural History – Adult/H.S.

Miles Baron, Ian Gray, Adam White, Nigel Bean, Stephen Dunleavy. Prehistoric America: A Journey Through the Ice Age and Beyond. Yale Univ. Press, 2003

Claudine Cohen. The Fate of the Mammoth. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002

G. Haynes. Mammoths, Mastodons and Elephants: Biology, Behavior and the Fossil Record. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991

Ian Lange. Ice Age Mammals of North America. Mountain Press Pub., 2002

Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn. Mammoths. New York: Macmillan USA, 1994.

Richard Stone. Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant. Cambridge: Perseus Pub., 2001

A.J. Sutcliffe. On the Track of Ice Age Mammals. London: British Museum of Natural History, 1985.

Archaeology/History – Adult

Lynn M. Alex. Iowa’s Archaeological Past. Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 2000.

Fern Brown. American Indian Science: A New Look at Old Cultures. 21st Century Books/Henry Hold & Co., 1997.

George C. Frison. Prehistoric Hunters of the High Plains. San Diego: Academic Press, 1991.

Jayne Clark Jones. The American Indian in America, Vol. 1. Minneapolis: Lerner Pub. Co., 1973

Betsy and Giulio Maestro. The Discovery of the Americas: From Pre-history through the Age of Columbus. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1991

Shirley J. Schermer. Discovering Archaeology: An Activity Guide for Educators. Office of the State Archaeologist, Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa, 1992.


Natural History/Archaeology/History – Juvenile

Dr. Larry D. Agenbroad and Lisa Nelson. Mammoths: Ice Age Giants. Minneapolis: Lerner Pub., 2002

Aliki. Wild & Woolly Mammoths. New York: Harper Collins Pub., 1996.

Aliki. Fossils Tell of Long Ago. New York: Harper Collins, 1990.

Caroline Arnold. When Mammoths Walked the Earth. New York: Clarion Books, 2002.

Windsor Chorlton. Wooly Mammoth: Life, Death and Rediscovery. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2001.

Katie Duke. Archaeologists Dig For Clues. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.

James Cross Giblin. The Mystery of the Mammoth Bones and How It Was Solved. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.

Ian Lange. Ice Age Mammals of North America. Mountain Press Pub., 2002

Elizabeth Levy. Who Are You Calling a Woolly Mammoth? New York: Scholastic Inc., 2000.

Karen Liptak. North American Indian Survival Skills. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990.

Patrick O’Brien. Mammoth. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2002.

Judy Press. The Kid’s Natural History Book: Making Dinos, Fossils, Mammoths & More. Williamson Pub, 2000.



Prehistoric Fiction – Juvenile

Jan Brett. The First Dog. New York: Voyager Books, 1988.

William J. Brooke. A is For AARGH. New York: Harper Collins Juvenile Books, 2000.

Patricia Nikolina Clark. In the Shadow of the Mammoth. Blue Marling Pub., 2003.

Roy Gerrard. Mik’s Mammoth. Sunburst Pub., 1992

Rafe Martin. Will’s Mammoth. New York: George Putnam’s Sons, 1989.

Margaret Zehmer Searcy. Eye the Hunter – A Story of Ice-Age America. Gretna: Pelican Publishing Co., 1995.



This lesson plan may be used to meet the following academic standards:


National Council for Social Studies
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies
Theme II: Time, Continuity and Change

Human beings seek to understand their historic roots and to locate themselves in time. Such understanding involves knowing what things were like in the past and how things change and develop – allowing us to develop historic perspectives and answer important questions about our current condition.


National Science Education Standards
K-4 Science Content Standard C: The Characteristics of Organisms, Life Cycles of Organisms, Organisms and Environments

Making sense of the way organisms live in their environments will develop some understanding of the diversity of life and how all living organisms depend on the living and nonliving environment for survival.


K-4 Content Standard D: Properties of Earth Materials
Fossils provide evidence about the plants and animals that lived long ago and the nature of the environment of that time.


K-4, 5-8, 9-12 Science Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry
Identify Questions That Can Be Answered Through Scientific Inquiry.


5-8, Life Science Content Standard C: Understanding of Structure and Function in Living Systems, Reproduction and Heredity, Regulation and Behavior, Populations and Ecosystems, Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms
Extinction of a species occurs when the environment changes and the adaptive characteristics of a species are insufficient to allow its survival. Fossils indicate that many organisms that lived long ago are extinct. Extinction of species is common; most of the species that have lived on the earth no longer exist.


5-8, Earth and Space Science Content Standard D: Structure of the Earth’s System and Earth History
Landforms are the result of a combination of constructive and destructive forces. The earth processes we see today, including erosion, movement of lithospheric plates, and changes in atmospheric composition, are similar to those that occurred in the past.


9-12, Life Science Content Standard C: Understanding Biological Evolution and Interdependence of Organisms
Natural selection and its evolutionary consequences provide a scientific explanation for the fossil record of ancient life forms, as well as for the striking molecular similarities observed among the diverse species of living organisms.
Organisms both cooperate and compete in ecosystems. The interrelationships and interdependencies of these organisms may generate ecosystems that are stable for hundreds or thousands of years.


9-12 Content Standard D Earth and Space Science
In studying the evolution of the earth system over geologic time, students develop a deeper understanding of the evidence, first introduced in grades 5-8, of earth’s past and unravel the interconnected story of earth’s dynamic crust, fluctuating climate, and evolving life forms.




© State Historical Society of Iowa