Nerd Culture

5 Discoveries You Probably Didn't Know Were Made in Arizona

From ancient societies to Planet X, Arizona is no slouch in the scientific community. A multitude of discoveries have been made in our dear state, ranging from dinosaurs to tree rings.

Arizona has contributed to countless archeological and astronomical advances, but some of the most notable ones include Pluto, dendrochronology, the Las Capas Canals, the Chindesaurus, and the beloved Gilbert mammoth “Tuskers.”

If you grew up in Arizona, this fact was probably hammered home. For everyone else, Planet X was discovered at the famed Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff – making it the “first planet discovered in the 20th century and the first one discovered in the United States,” according to Lowell Observatory historian Kevin Schindler.

The backstory: The 24-year-old “young fella” Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto after the observatory was founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell – and preliminary research of a ninth planet was well underway. Lowell died in 1916, and Tombaugh spotted Pluto in 1930.

“It really put Flagstaff on the map of not only the United States, but the scientific world,” Schindler says. The Lowell staff continues to study Pluto, primarily under astronomer Will Grundy on the headline-making New Horizons team.

The Dark Sky City has more than embraced this “era-defining discovery” made on its own Mars Hill. Given an hour in town, you’ll find Pluto Mocha at Late for the Train Coffee Company, the Pluto Roll at Karma Sushi, Pluto ornaments made by local atists George Averbeck, Pluto Palooza – it goes on.

“There’s just all this awareness in town about Pluto, and lot of pride in Pluto in Flagstaff,” says Schindler, “from the day it was discovered to today.”

Sticking with Flagstaff, Lowell Observatory, and historian Kevin Schindler for a minute, dendrochronology – the scientific method of tree-ring dating – also has roots in Arizona.

Lowell sent surveyor and astronomer Andrew Douglass to do some site testing for the observatory’s future locale in the Arizona territory. Douglas tested atmospheric conditions in Tombstone, Tucson, Tempe, Prescott, and ending up in Flagstaff. “Even in his early days when he was doing site testing in Flagstaff in 1894, he mentioned counting tree rings at the lumber mill,” Schindler says.

Douglass was originally interested in seeing if there was a correlation between tree rings and solar cycles, and though he never proved this, he did discover a chronology behind the pattern of a tree’s core.

Douglass eventually left Flagstaff and the observatory (and that’s a whole different story), but found a job in Tucson at the University of Arizona. “So he went down there and ended up setting up their observatory, the Steward Observatory.” Schindler says, “then that became his home base.

Today, you’ll still find the Steward Observatory in Wildcat Country, as well as the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

Las Capas Canals
First, Las Capas is a significant archaeological site found in the northwestern Tucson Basin, west of what is now the Pima County's Tres Rios Water Reclamation Facility at Interstate 10 and Ina Road. The site was inhabited from approximately 1220 B.C. to 730 B.C. – dating to the Early Agricultural period’s San Pedro phase.

“The Early Agricultural period is just that,” says James Vint, Archaeologist at Desert Archaeology, Inc., in an e-mail, “The time when maize was first introduced in to the American southwest as a cultivated food.”

It’s discovery revealed much, and Vint was there. “The degree of preservation of the canals and fields was unexpected,” says Vint, “And provides an unprecedented look at the structure and organization of an ancient irrigation system.”

A little background: The site was first identified in 1978 during I-10 construction, but not investigated. Then in 1998, ADOT provided funds for Desert Archaeology to excavate the scene for a new Ina Road ramp to I-10, That same year, Pima Country funded SWCA, Inc. to conduct an excavation of the area to expand Tres Rios. “The two 1998 projects demonstrated that the site is quite large, deeply stratified, and documented some of the earliest irrigation canals in the region,” Vint says.

However, it wasn’t until 2008 and 2009 that the site was largely exposed. Backhoes were used to strip broad areas, which revealed extensive canal and field systems,” says Vint. Field director Greg Whitney lead excavations, while Dan Arnit led the backhoe team.

Vint says beyond Las Capas itself, several facets were revealed in the most recent excavation. First, “the investment of time and labor in constructing the irrigation system speaks to the degree maize had been incorporated into the subsistence economy even though it contributed a relatively small portion of the diet,” says Vint, and second, “People were beginning to establish communities and lifeways that were more sedentary than mobile hunter-gatherer societies.”

The next points hit a little closer to home. Vint says Las Capas revealed how, “Agriculture has been a significant part of Arizona's history for more than 3,000 years, and lastly, “Even sites that have been investigated previously can reveal new and unexpected information.”

Picture this: It’s the mid-1980s, and a helicopter is airlifting remains of the most primitive dinosaur ever found in North America out of the Painted Desert. This is how the Chindesaurus bryansmalli got its start.

William G. Parker, Ph.D – or just Bill – is a Psychical Scientist of Paleontology, and has been at Petrified Forest National Park since 2001. He breaks it down further.

In the 1920s, Charles Camp of the University of California at Berkeley roamed the Petrified Forest collecting fossils and taking photographs. In the early 80s, paleontologist Robert Long, also from UC Berkeley, took to the area to relocate Camp’s sites and collect his own fossils. A member of his team, Bryan Small from Texas Tech University, “found the anklebone of what turned out to be this early dinosaur,” says Parker. “In 1985, Long’s crew came back and collected the rest of the skeleton.”

This was a big deal. Prior to this, only one good dinosaur specimen had been found in the park, “So it was a pretty significant find,” but even that first one was of a species that had already been discovered in New Mexico. Parker says these new bones turned out to be a new genus and species of dinosaur unique to the Petrified Forest area.

Over 100 media passes were sent out, and Petrified Forest ended up hosting reporters from all over the world to “view the airlift of this dinosaur out of the Painted Desert.” Parker says it also gained a lot of interest from the nearby city of Holbrook. “For a period there in 1985 everybody went kind of dinosaur crazy out this way.” For those who’ve ever taken Interstate 40 through this town, you’d argue the craze hasn’t ended just yet.

Though not the first mammoth discovered in the Phoenix area – and according to Robert McCord Ph.D., Chief Curator of Natural History and Curator of Paleontology at the Arizona Museum of Natural History – certainly not the last, “Tuskers” was a big hit.

It all started like a movie. In 2005 a construction worker in Gilbert noticed some bones while the crew was working alongside what is now the 202. He ran what was a “dinner-plate size” cervical vertebrate to a nearby archeologist, who recognized it as belonging to a prehistoric animal. McCord was immediately called in.

“I recognized it as a first circular vertebra of an elephant relative, and sorted out pretty quickly that it was a mammoth,” McCord says, “and naturally wanted to know where it came from.”

From there it was a “perfect storm” of events. The landowners and construction company were supportive of the find, and the City of Gilbert has an ordinance about fossils. It was easy for McCord and his team to begin excavation and prospecting.

“We quickly discovered two big tusks about 100 meters from each other, so it’s quite possible there were two mammoths at that site,” McCord says. “And they were of such big diameter that I can say with some confidence that they were bull.” The team proceeded to excavate the tusks, plus remains of an early llama, horse, tortoise remains, and a pronghorn antelope – the first of its kind for the Phoenix Basin.

Tuskers is now on display at the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lauren Cusimano was the Phoenix New Times food editor from 2018 to 2021. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.