Richard Cerutti knew from an early age that he wanted to be an explorer of the past. He was not yet 10 when he joined his father at a construction site in La Jolla, Calif., and began collecting fossilized clams and snails more than 30 million years old.
What began as a curiosity became an obsession that would one day lead to Cerutti's name being attached to perhaps the most contentious discoveries in North American archaeology when he found in a highway-widening project the tusk of a mastodon that would eventually bear his name.
Respected for his keen eye and a delicate touch with a rock pick, Cerutti died Sunday of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, according to his son Matthew. He was 78 and belonged to a generation of postwar scientists drawn to the coastal valleys of San Diego County for their wealth of fossil deposits.
Among colleagues at dig sites, he was known as Rooster for the red stripe on his hard hat, and he bore a striking resemblance to Burt Reynolds. His most prized possession was a butter knife lifted from a Black Angus restaurant.
"Richard had a deep personal connection with the earth and his place in the history of life," said his friend Tom Demere, curator of paleontology at the San Diego Natural History Museum. "He felt it was a privilege to be able to participate in this exploration and be part of the continuum of time -- from the past to the present and into the future."
While field work wasn't glamorous and progress measured centimeter by centimeter through excavated sediments, Cerutti was driven by the answers that lay underfoot.
"We're scientists," he said, "and we want to know our own history.... Who were the first Americans? When did they get here? How did they get here?"
Growing up in San Diego County in the 1950s, he developed a love of nature exploring the undeveloped tracts of land east of National City. After a stretch in the Army in the early 1960s, he returned home to watch the hills of his childhood slowly disappear.
The perennial desert oasis offers activities aplenty.
Earth-moving equipment cut into the uplifted coastal terraces, exposing ancient marine and terrestrial life. Without a degree or formal training, Cerutti explored construction sites and learned to listen to what each stone and specimen said about its history.