COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina now has an official state fossil, thanks to the initiative of a third-grader, despite snags in the Senate over creationism and reluctance to add more symbols to the official list.
Eight-year-old Olivia McConnell of Lake City said Monday she's happy to educate her fellow citizens.
"That was history of South Carolina that would've been lost if I hadn't done something about it," she said.
The Columbian mammoth became the state fossil Friday with Gov. Nikki Haley's signature, joining 50 other official symbols.
Olivia, who wants to become an Egyptologist, requested the designation after realizing South Carolina was among just seven states without a state fossil. Her research showed that slaves dug up fossilized mammoth teeth on a South Carolina plantation in 1725. They are thought to be among the first identified vertebrate fossils in North America.
"That just fueled her passion. It was not just about fossils but about her state being recognized," said her mother, Amanda McConnell.
But Olivia's seemingly simple idea, which easily passed the House in February, drew opposition in the Senate.
Senators tacked on language declaring mammoths were among God's sixth-day creation, as written in the book of Genesis. They also attempted to create a symbol moratorium. Both amendments were eventually tossed out by a House-Senate committee that worked out a compromise, which both chambers approved last week.
"It seemed such a non-controversial topic," Amanda McConnell said. "I could not in my wildest dreams have imagined that it became what it became."
The controversy was sometimes difficult to explain to her daughter, who regularly asked about the bill's progress. But Olivia's entire class at Carolina Academy got involved in writing letters to lawmakers.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Robert Ridgeway, said he believes in biblical creation too, but it didn't make sense to single out this bill. The Legislature has designated a variety of official state animals and plants, including a state dog, butterfly, bird and tree, without referring to their creation.
"Why treat this differently?" asked Ridgeway, D-Manning.
Like other state symbols added in recent years, this one stems from classroom studies and a field trip to the Statehouse. South Carolina students learn about state history and the legislative process in third grade. Olivia's class visited the Statehouse last fall. Weeks later, when her family went to a restaurant that used placemats picturing state emblems, Olivia realized there was no fossil. So she researched the issue and wrote her local lawmakers, her mother said.
"This is not about a state symbol, or a fossil or a Columbian mammoth. This is about a little girl who is interested in fossils and state government and how things work, and when a child shows interest in something we should do all we can to foster that interest," Ridgeway said. "You never know what that will become in the future."
Olivia says her next project may be writing a book on the process. She also wants to make T-shirts featuring the fossil that ask, "Can you dig it?"