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Living in Elephant Country: When mammoths ruled the earth

Where's Big Bird?They were BIG, very big, stood about 12 feet to the top of their wooly head, about as long as a school bus


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Where's Big Bird?They were BIG, very big, stood about 12 feet to the top of their wooly head, about as long as a school bus and weighed around six tons. As long as you didn't bother them, they probably wouldn't bother you, if you got one mad, however, you were in a heap of trouble - but I'll bet they tasted good.

I saw a tooth and part of a tusk of one years back when I took a bunch of budding paleontologists on an OMSI fossil-collecting trip up the Columbia River near Arlington. One of the young men, an up-and-coming geologist (now retired), found it in sand and gravel deposited by the Missoula Floods. That tooth was massive, big as a football! Yes, by Jove, you have it: the Wooly Mammoth.

These magnificent early elephants roamed all over this country as the snow and glaciers of the last Ice Age melted, building up sprawling lakes around Millican, Christmas Valley, Fort Rock and Great Basin. Dire wolves and saber-toothed tigers feed on mammoths and ground sloths while cranes and herons that stood twice as big as present day species scavenged leftovers and man was living in his cave training wolf puppies to help him kill mammoths and sloths.

(For my friends of the Friends of the Pleistocene, I had better comment on the "Last Ice Age." The last glacial period is sometimes referred to as the "last ice age;" glacial periods, on the other hand, refer to colder phases within an "ice age" that separate interglacial times. The end of the last glacial period was about 12,500 years ago, therefore, the end of the last ice age may not yet have come, in spite of global warming.)

Out where I live between Bend and Sisters, there were some good-sized glacial lakes. Islands of high ground supported grasses and brush that fed mammoths, keeping them fat and healthy for when they were slaughtered by Early Man. Every time I dig into the ancient lake bed, I look for mammoth remains.

Wooly mammoths enjoyed a lengthy longevity, beginning about 10 million years after a dazzling comet (or meteor) smashed into the Earth near present-day Yucatan, eventually wiping out dinosaurs and giving rise to the heyday of mammals. Like man, Africa was also the site of the ancestors of mammoths and elephants. The first elephant was about the size and appearance of a large pig, known in today's scientific circles as Moeritherium, but it had no trunk or tusks. A few million years later, that small beginning grew into what paleontologists named Phiomia, about the size of its ancestor, but it did possess the beginnings of a trunk and tusks.

Nature is always experimenting with her models, and mammoths didn't escape this process. A little later Deinotherium came upon the scene, almost the size of a full-blown elephant, but the tusks curved down, instead of up. Stegodons were next, and looked like present-day elephants, and as they say, the rest is history. Except...

Right between stegodons and mammoths came the mastodons. These gigantic pre-elephants had a lot of fur on them to fight off the terrible ice and snow of that glacial epoch. Mastodons earned their place in the history of Man when their bones were found with the first actual evidence that Humans killed them. The famous Folsom Point originated in a mastodon skeleton.

In the millions of years mastodons wandered away from Africa and through ancient Europe, they eventually found their way into North America over the famous ice bridge across the Bering Straits and to where Arizona is today.

Folsom points are found widely across North America and are dated to the period between 9,500 B.C. and 8,000 B.C. The discovery of these artifacts in the early 20th century threw a monkey wrench into the ideas of when the first humans actually arrived in North America. In 1932, an even earlier style of projectile point was discovered. Clovis, which dated back to 13,500 years ago and was found in association with mammoth and mastodon skeletons on the Lehner Ranch near Tucson.

About six years ago, woolly mammoth remains were found in a gravel quarry at Lynford (Norfolk, England) dating to the Middle Paleolithic, or about 60,000 years ago, when Neanderthals were the top movers and shakers. With the mammoth bones and tusks were flint tools, including hand-axes and scrapers.

Whether the animals became stuck in the mud and died naturally or were hunted is not known. However, no limb bones were found, which may indicate that these were specifically selected for roast leg of mammoth. The questions of why mammoths became extinct are still considered one of the great mysteries of paleontology. While some scientists are quick to accuse man of eating them into extinction, others claim it was climate change.

Which leads me to wonder if scientists from some other place at some future time will ask, "What caused Humans to vanish from this planet? Did they kill themselves off in their incessant wars; did climate change get them - or did they poison the planet and run out of things to eat...?"

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