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Richard Cerutti, whose mastodon discovery shook up the archaeology world, dies at 78

Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Making a living in the dirt was elusive, however. He took jobs hanging wallpaper, working as a carpenter, helping at an advertising agency, and when he felt cooped up, he headed outdoors.

An experienced knapper, Cerutti belonged to the arcane group of archaeologists who create stone tools with stones. By understanding how rocks fracture and break ("their DNA"), he could better distinguish man-made from natural objects.

"The New World – and San Diego – are blanketed with artifacts," he said. "We just don't recognize them."

He once counted 45 buckets filled with chipped stones ("the lithic history of the people who lived here") stacked in the living room of the home that he shared in Chula Vista with his wife.

In the early 1980s, he started working at the San Diego Natural History Museum, earning $8.50 an hour as a construction site monitor. He had just donated his prized specimens, doubling the museum's collection of vertebrate fossils, and Demere wasn't about to let him go.

"He was the most generous person I have ever known," said Demere. "On more than one occasion, he would literally take the shirt off his back to lovingly wrap a fossil that he was transporting to the museum."

 

Cerutti's first paleontological site was a housing tract in Chula Vista, Calif., where an initial grading revealed "a gold mine of fossils." After nearly a year, he and his team had unearthed 3,000 specimens, including a new species of whale and a partial skull of a distant relative to a manatee. Eager to share his enthusiasm for the planet's ancient abundance, he oversaw the donation of a fossilized shell bed, weighing 37 tons, to the neighboring Clear View Elementary School.

A modest unassuming man, Cerutti often faced down foremen and construction crews who saw any delay as a financial loss, and according to Demere, he often won them over with his willingness to share what he found.

His tenacity and commitment led to the discovery of new species that earned his name: a surf scoter (Melanitta ceruttii) and a porpoise with an extended lower jaw (Semirostrum cerutti) from the Pliocene Age, and a carnivore (Ceruttia sandiegoensis) and primate (Brontomomys cerutti) from the Eocene Age.

But none of these finds was more meaningful than the mastodon he began to unearth on Nov. 16, 1992. After just a few hours brushing away soil from the fragment of tusk and discovering a nearby stone with a sharp edge, he knew the site was special.

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