I just finished an interesting read about humans making their way to and around the Americas, called Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America. The author spent time visiting and wandering around North American paleoindian sites, trekking through or imagining himself inhabiting these spaces back in the Pleistocene. It seemed fascinating, until he talked about spending the night on the ice in the dead of winter in northern Minnesota with only a sleeping bag.
The Pleistocene is often thought of as the planet’s last Ice Age. It ended about 11,000 years ago, coinciding with the final extinction of most of America’s large mammals, including — but not limited to — the woolly mammoth, short-faced bear, American lion, giant bison, saber-toothed cat and even a car-sized armadillo. There is abundant evidence that all of these animals once wandered Wyoming, except for glyptotherium (the armadillo). Like a modern-day senior citizen homo sapiens, it preferred Arizona and Florida to more northern latitudes.
Children are often said to be fascinated by dinosaurs, but honestly, I’ve always preferred Pleistocene megafauna. I’ll take a dire wolf over a T-rex any day. Perhaps this is because, unlike dinosaurs (sorry, Fred Flintstone), humans co-existed with them. We hunted them … and some of them hunted us. Imagine getting up for a drink in the middle of the night and instead being crunched down on by a lion-sized North American jaguar. Think it’s hard to wrangle your small children now? Try keeping them from becoming a smilodon snack or falling into a crevasse while you cross a glacier to stay ahead of a blizzard. At least one unfortunate young woman ended up fatally mired in the La Brea Tar Pits. Life in late Pleistocene North America was probably just as stressful as our present-day existence, maybe minus having to buy all those Christmas gifts. Jesus was still several millennia in the future.
We know humans co-existed with these animals from the exquisite cave paintings in Chauvet and Lascaux, France, and from butchering marks found on North American mammoth bones. The German company Schleich, which makes those really cool, sturdy plastic toy animals (I confess I check them out whenever I see a display in toy and hardware stores), does have a dinosaur line, but there are no Ice Age mammals. If they did, I’d probably buy every one and set up some sort of ridiculous paleolithic diorama on the office conference room table.
One of my favorite cocktail party questions is “If you could bring one animal back from the Pleistocene, what would it be?” Most people assume a worried expression and walk away in search of a drink, but now and then I get a taker. My answer to that question is unquestionably the woolly mammoth, but I must qualify that. There’s been plenty of talk about using extant mammoth DNA from Siberia to clone one, which would doubtless be gestated in the womb of a modern elephant cow. However, even if it were possible, I think that cloning extinct mammals would be morally questionable. It wouldn’t be a 100 percent true woolly mammoth, probably would be unable to reproduce and would live out its lonely life being gawked at in some objectionable Pleistocene “adventure” park. Still, how cool it would be, as Thomas Jefferson hoped, to see a herd of mammoths roaming and grazing somewhere in the American West?
I’ve written before about the ancient legend of a mammoth hunt in Wyoming (“My Favorite Haunted Road,” September 2013), but the idea of going backpacking and hoping that my bear spray would work against an 11-foot-high short-faced bear, or deter the charge of Cervalces scotti (the stag moose), leaves me pretty pessimistic. Big game hunting would become big game-hunt-or-be-hunted. Well, at least we wouldn’t have tourists from Florida coming up here and abandoning their guides at the sight of a grizzly bear. Add Ice Age carnivores to the mix today, and a skittish hunter and his left-for-dead guide would most likely both be summarily devoured.
Let us just be glad that we don’t have to deal with giant ground sloths. If they were anything like modern sloths, they would never get off the road. Sloth jams in Yellowstone — you would miss two meals and five Old Faithful eruptions in a row.
I’ll close with an interesting fact, from a study released last April from University of New Mexico paleobiologist Felisa Smith. The average size of a non-human mammal in North America 11,000 years ago was 200 pounds. Contemporary update=15 pounds. Earth is losing its big mammals, but that’s a story for another column.