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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Nightmare in Hot Springs II: Death Springs Eternal

(a continuation of this post)

The sinkhole at Mammoth does not only contain fossils of mammoths. Other large animals did occasionally slide down the slippery slopes and become trapped inside, but the excavations conducted so far have indicated that such events were comparatively rare. Many of the other mammals and scavengers that resided in the area, having in general paws and claws, were more likely to be able to scramble their way out of the hole if they did end up inside it than the mammoths with their flat, poorly gripping feet. One notable exception is a truly rare find indeed, the bones of one Arcdotus Simus, the giant short-faced bear.

Giant Short-Faced Bear

He wasn’t lightly termed a giant; this fifteen-hundred pound beast stood twelve feet on his hind legs, while his height at the shoulder when he was on all fours matched that of a human.

This brutish fellow makes the modern-day black and grizzly bears (shown below on the left) look perfectly cuddly by comparison. Indeed, it puts one in mind of other Ice Age creatures, like the saber-toothed cat, which was similarly a bigger and far nastier version of the modern-day mountain lion.

Bear Skulls

What an amazing continent this must have been, in the days of the Ice Age! It's difficult to imagine creatures of such size and ferocity living alongside humans - perhaps because they don't anymore. It's even hypothesized that it was not climate or habitat change, but man himself that directly caused the extinction of the oversized animals that were once plentiful upon the North American continent. Is it a coincidence that many of these species – which could have had few natural predators – went into decline with the arrival of human hunters?

There have in human history been numerous cultures that derived a majority of their sustenance from a single species like the mammoth, which could provide not only food, but clothing and shelter as well. Witness, for example, the mammoth bone houses built by ancient tribes of the Ukraine, Poland, and the Czech Republic:

Mammoth Bone House

Mammoth Bone House Inside

Imagine how eerie it feels to the modern person, accustomed to walls of wood or stone, to sit in the barely penetrable darkness surrounded by hundreds of bones of long-dead creatures, the sounds from outside the hut muffled by the skins covering the enclosure. To the ancients who lived in such places, one must have been continually reminded of what a gift the mammoth was to the humans who hunted it, of how tremendously its death could improve the lives of those who sought it.

Mammoth Bone House from Inside

But one can imagine, too, how too much dependence on a single species could ultimately lead to the failure of a culture or a people. Many animal species have been hunted to their ultimate demise; however, probably countless more have become extinct indirectly, owing to loss of habitat, to man's "conquest" of the environment. And it is not the only so-called lesser animals that are vulnerable to losing their livelihood in this manner. The Plains Indians provide a classic example of a similar disaster befalling humans. For ultimately it was not the war against the Indians that defeated the Indians; it was the vanishing of the buffalo, the reduction of their range, the wholesale slaughter of herds for their furs. Without the buffalo, the people of the Plains had no means of making a living on the land for which they fought. In his lack of regard for animal, man once again destroyed man.

There was a final exhibit at the Mammoth Site concerning recent newsworthy finds, particularly in Russia, of carcasses of mammoths found frozen and nearly intact, so well-preserved by the frost, in fact, that the meat was still good. This represents a fascinating development in the study of archaeology, for it is my prediction that as global warming continues and previously glacialized areas are exposed, we will discover more and more bodies of Ice Age creatures that have been cryogenically preserved down through the ages. Indeed, areas like Russia, much of which is, and historically has been, wilderness, are likely rife with such remnants long ago buried in snow and in ice. There have been no visitors to disturb them, no people to poach the tusks, no dogs to drag away the bones.

But in spite of the immeasurable boon to science, I fear it will be but a small comfort, as the ice around the earth melts away, if we uncover the remains of long-lost creatures that flourished during the last Ice Age and are able to study them. For much as we may admire the creatures who came before, their bones and flesh can only serve as a grim reminder of the extremes of which our planet is capable, and of what can happen to species that are ill-prepared to adapt to drastic shifts in the weather.

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