Mammoth tusks in the East River? How Joe Rogan started a 'bone rush.'

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Mammoth tusks in the East River? How Joe Rogan started a 'bone rush.'
Robert Sattler, an archaeologist and co-author on an unpublished paper, in Anchorage, Alaska, Jan. 23, 2023. Sattler believes the prehistoric remains dumped in the East River were more likely tiny fragments rather than whole tusks. (Ash Adams/The New York Times)

by Michael Wilson

NEW YORK, NY.- The surveying vessel Red Rogers made its way up the East River on a recent Saturday, stopping at a precise location off the Manhattan shoreline. Two guests on board — a fossil collector and a treasure hunter with large audiences on social media — tugged on scuba gear and dropped overboard into the frigid waters.

The boat, based in Staten Island, is named for a Korean War veteran and former New York City firefighter — and a redhead — and carries state-of-the-art equipment designed to map and scan the ocean floor to assist in construction, dredging and investigating wrecks.

On this day, they were drawn to their spot, near East 65th Street, not by scientific data or the boat’s keen instruments, but by a massively popular podcast: “The Joe Rogan Experience.” In a recent interview on that show, which has an estimated audience of 11 million listeners per episode on Spotify, a guest from Alaska presented an explosive discovery: There are tens of thousands of priceless woolly mammoth tusks lying on the river floor.

“I’m going to start a bone rush,” the guest, John Reeves, a fossil collector and gold miner, announced.

“A bone rush?” Rogan asked.

“Yes, sir,” he replied. “We’ll see if anybody out there’s got a sense of adventure.”

The answer came quickly. The podcast episode, which aired Dec. 30, was an instant sensation. Without hesitation, several teams of men and women from around the country drove, flew and floated to New York City for a chance at finding a many-thousands-year-old artifact that could be worth at least six figures.

“You can’t win the lottery if you don’t play,” said Jake Koehler, a 31-year-old underwater treasure hunter known on his YouTube channel as Scuba Jake, who booked a flight to New York from his home in Georgia after listening to Rogan. “What a story to tell your family and talk about at dinner.”

The search would be fraught; navigating the rapid currents of the heavily trafficked East River is a challenge for even the most experienced divers, particularly in the middle of winter when water temperatures dip into the 30s.

“Very popular river — very large boats go through there,” said Rick Cochrane, a fellow diver with his own YouTube channel, DigDiveDiscover, who traveled with Koehler. “Very strong currents go through there. It’s just not safe.”

Don Gann, an underwater construction worker from New Jersey who is better known as Dirty Water Don from the Discovery reality show “Sewer Divers,” put it another way: “I’m too stupid to be afraid.”

The divers attracted a virtual flotilla of news crews, photographers, livestreamers on social media, curious dog-walkers, joggers and moms with strollers who paused on the river’s chilly bank for a closer look. On this particular Saturday, Jan. 7, a drone hovered over the Red Rogers, as if peering over a diver’s neoprene shoulder for a closer look.

But an examination of the evidence Reeves relied upon to make his sensational claim on the podcast raised questions about just how many bones might be involved in this bone rush.

Reeves described it as “a boxcar load,” or about “50 tons” of bones and tusks that had been shipped to the American Museum of Natural History around 1940 but were instead dumped because, in his telling, the museum was not interested in them.

The tale of the power of what is arguably the world’s most popular podcast and the unquestioning acceptance of its sensational content begins eons ago, when mammoths and other so-called megafauna roamed the earth. Fast forward to the end of the 19th century and the gold rush that swept Alaska, which led to the discovery of countless bones, fossils, intact skeletons and even mummified prehistoric remains preserved in permafrost.

Around 1917, Childs Frick, a son of the industrialist Henry Clay Frick and a trustee at the American Museum of Natural History, began excavating prehistoric remains in several locations, including Alaska. It was hard work done quickly — the gold miners were impatient to see the bones removed so they could continue digging.

Young men in college seeking a job and adventure on the frontier arrived to help. One of them was Richard H. Osborne, who worked on what became known as the “bone wagon” in Alaska in the early 1940s. He and his fellow diggers unearthed some 250,000 specimens, which were sent to the museum in New York. Today, many of them are stored there in the Childs Frick Building, which is used for research and not open to the public.

Osborne found the work fascinating and went on to careers in paleontology and genetics. Around 2000 or so, looking back on his life at age 80, Osborne wrote a paper he hoped to turn into a book someday about his adventures collecting bones in Alaska, its scientific aspirations evident in its unwieldy title: “Early Man in Eastern Beringia: Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene Artifacts and Associated Fauna Recovered from the Fairbanks Mining District, Alaska.”

He never wrote the book, and the paper was never published. Osborne died in 2005, a few years after it was written. But nearly two decades later, a stray thought in the manuscript about an early 1940s shipment that never made it to the museum would take on a remarkable new life that he could not have imagined.

“Mistakes made in the field as to acceptable condition of the bones shipped to New York City,” the report reads. These mistakes, the paper suggests, somehow led to specimens being dumped in the East River off the East River Drive at 65th Street.

The remains could make for a challenging recovery dig, Osborne added, “in the distant future.”

The general public was introduced to that distant future in the very last days of December 2022 by the tall, broad-shouldered Reeves from Fairbanks, himself a subject of a television show, “Goldfathers,” and a documentary about his fossil-rich property, “Boneyard Alaska.” Reeves owns land where the bone wagon collected its specimens some 80 years ago, and since 2000 he has sought to have some bones at the New York museum returned to Alaska for local display.

Seated across from Rogan during his episode, Reeves revealed Osborne’s typed paper with fanfare worthy of a drumroll. He read its long title and identified its three authors: Osborne; Robert L. Evander, a former paleontologist at the museum; and Robert A. Sattler, an archaeologist from Fairbanks. Then he slowly read the passage about remains dumped at East 65th Street and the river.

“They’re finders, keepers,” he told Rogan and his millions of listeners. “So if you want to go and find some bones, I’ll tell you exactly where they’re at.” He added an expletive.

Reached over Instagram, Reeves declined to elaborate for this story: “I’m perfectly happy with letting things play out the way they’re going to play out without any more comments from me,” he wrote.

He did say, however, that he obtained the document from Osborne himself — suggesting it has been in his possession for at least 17 years. He did not say why he waited until 2022 to make it public or what prompted him to do so.

Both of Osborne’s co-authors cast some level of doubt on the bone-dumping story.

Evander, who worked for the museum for 25 years until 2015, said he had no recollection of the document but nonetheless called the idea that tusks were dumped “implausible.”

Sattler said Osborne, his friend, had shared his belief that bones had been dumped in the river in conversation and in writing. This week, looking through his files, he found a document written by Osborne that repeated that claim and singled out Frick, who bankrolled one of the world’s greatest fossil collections, as a culprit.

“To simply dump specimens in the East River as Frick did with those he considered sufficiently studied or no longer of use — or useless — is not really viable in today’s world,” Osborne wrote in the late 1990s. He provided no evidence or context.

But Sattler said he believed Osborne was referring to tiny fragments, like crumbs or powder, perhaps of use to future scientists but worthless to a museum in the 1940s. “I really don’t think they would have been dumping tusks,” he said.

Finally, the museum issued a measured response to Reeves’ claim this month.

“We do not have any record of the disposal of these fossils in the East River,” said Scott Rohan, a museum spokesperson, in a statement. “Nor have we been able to find any record of this report in the museum’s archives or other scientific sources.”

The young men who showed up early this month to dive for tusks harbored no apparent skepticism.

Koehler — Scuba Jake from Georgia — said fans began tagging him on social media immediately after the Rogan episode aired. He was at first hesitant: “I wasn’t going to do it because it’s cold,” he said. But then Cochrane, the diver from Florida, called. “He said, ‘I’ll go if you go.’”

Koehler was also drawn to the novelty of the dive. “Not many people probably have been down to the bottom of the East River that are alive,” he said.

They reached out to Rogers Surveying on Staten Island, home of the Red Rogers, where they found an immediate welcome. Connor Rogers, the son of the owner, is a Joe Rogan fan and was eager to join the bone rush.

And so on Jan. 7, the two divers and their companions — Cochrane’s wife, Koehler’s girlfriend and a videographer — and the crew of the Red Rogers motored up the East River toward East 65th Street.

“Let’s make some dreams come true today,” Koehler said on camera. “Let’s find some bones!”

When they arrived, they made an unpleasant discovery: Another diving crew was already there. It was Gann — Dirty Water Don from “Sewer Divers” — leading a team that included two personalities from the media site Barstool Sports. On that boat, cameras were rolling and spirits were high: “We’re going to Bone Depot today, baby!” a passenger cried out.

Koehler and Cochrane waited until slack tide, when the currents would be the weakest, and around 4 p.m. that frigid Saturday, 45 minutes before sunset, clad head to flipper in gear, they dropped into the water.

Each diver carried a powerful flashlight to the riverbed, which revealed itself to be an epic field of debris. Concrete blocks, rebar, tires — even what appeared to be multiple Citi Bikes and a car. Koehler surfaced at one point with a skateboard covered in muck.

As the cold set in and their fingers went tingly and numb, the divers hastily combed the debris, finding nothing that resembled a tusk but some promising fragments, which they scooped into bags. Finally, after 15 or 20 minutes, the cold became too oppressive and they ascended to the Red Rogers.

Downriver, the Barstool Sports guys emerged from the water holding a huge femur — a gag they had brought with them, taken from a plastic Halloween skeleton.

The crews returned home to sift their specimens. Weeks passed. Then, last weekend, Cochrane posted an update on YouTube: “None of them actually are bone,” he said.

He was disappointed.

But the tantalizing tug of the story held anyway. The young college student in Alaska, his theory about the river, the podcast — what if?

“The bones,” he told viewers, “could still be there.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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