Money magazine says the Orem area is one of the best places to live in America. And, according to scientists working along the shores of ancient Lake Bonneville, it wasn't too shabby 14,000 years ago, either.
In addition to lush green savannas and forests, the shores around modern-day Utah Lake were teeming with mammoths, camels, horses, musk ox and an array of other Ice Age mammals."The shores were a real haven for Pleistocene animals," said state paleontologist Dave Gillette. "It really was a good place to live back then."
Gillette is coordinating efforts to excavate a giant prehistoric sloth recently discovered in a gravel terrace on the west edge of Orem City. It is only the second prehistoric sloth found in Utah, and "from a scientific standpoint an extremely valuable discovery."
The discovery has generated enormous public interest in Utah County, prompting Gillette and state archaeologist David Madsen to coordinate tours of the excavations, which began Thursday. Volunteers from the Utah Statewide Archaeological Society and the Utah Paleontological Society are assisting in the dig.
The site was first discovered by local resident Ron Robison, who showed the bones to a brother, who happened to be a geologist. The brother tentatively identified the bones as those of a prehistoric sloth and notified Gillette.
It took authorities three weeks to secure permission to excavate the site, located on private land.
The sloth appears to be of a variety called Megalonyx Jeffersoni, named after Thomas Jefferson who discovered an identical prehistoric fossil and even displayed it in the White House. "It was his pride and joy," Gillette said.
Jefferson, upon discovering the giant claws, believed he had discovered a huge prehistoric lion, subsequently fueling a scientific debate over the origins and superiority of certain carnivores.
Since that time, sloths of different varieties have been discovered all across the Western Hemisphere.
"They are not unusual," Gillette said. "What's unusual is we haven't found more of them in Utah."
Megalonyx Jeffersoni was about the size of a grizzly bear, only heavier, sometimes weighing more than a ton. They were also hairy and likely "the ugliest of Ice Age mammals," Gillette said.
Scientists hope to extract amino acids from the bones. The acids can then be radiocarbon dated.
Scientists have used geological methods to date the gravel terrace where the bones were found - called the Provo Terrace - to 14,000 years ago, the period right before the giant lake breached into the Snake River and subsequently created Utah Lake and the Great Salt Lake.
Archaeologists are on hand in the unlikely event human artifacts should be found in association with the animal bones. Humans were believed to have entered the area about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
So far, the excavation has yielded foot bones, a shin bone, a claw (the sloths are known for their six-inch-long claws) and a tooth. Ribs, a kneecap and other unidentified bones are visible in the gravel, but have not yet been removed.
In the past, scientists have excavated prehistoric sheep, mastodons and musk ox from sites along the shores of ancient Lake Bonneville.
Gillette said the public is welcome to view the excavation, located just south of the Orem water conservancy district offices near the 1200 South exit onto I-15.