The Clovis Mission: Ch. 4: Summers

 

Despite the very high regard I had for Leonard Carver, I thought he’d been remarkably foolhardy in the way he’d gone back.  It had been planned only as a brief scouting expedition, a chance for him to examine the countryside, in preparation for the summer’s fieldwork.  The summer project was to have involved his grad students and was going to last for six weeks.  But for this scouting expedition, he’d gone back alone, for a four-day look-see.  I thought that was stupid.  You don’t go into unfamiliar country, one swarming with big predators, alone, even if it’s only for a few days.  I still don’t know exactly how that came about.  Maybe because he was so well-known he could just do whatever he wanted.  But as a result, he was all alone back there – disastrous if anything went wrong, as it apparently had.  And, while we obviously knew exactly where he inserted, we didn’t know where or how far he’d wandered after jumping back in time.  And one man, alone, leaves a tiny footprint in a huge country.  So finding him might take us some time.

We prepared for the mission and trained for three weeks.  We trained in Englewood, Colorado.  White and Kramer didn’t stay there with me.  They  dropped me off, said that they’d take care of all of my personal and financial business while I was gone.  They were pretty nice, all things considered; shook my hand, petted Jack, wished me well.

The training center was fairly spartan, up at about 7,000 feet.  I was the first one into the training center.  On the second day, Dr. Steven Devereaux joined me as the second member of the team.  A specialist in the modeling and mechanics of the time travel apparatus, the technician who’d find out what had happened to the ASU site, and, hopefully, fix it.  He was a couple of years younger than me, thirty-two, I think.  Fairly slender, short dark hair.  Nerdy.  About what you’d expect from a techno-math-physicist.

Some of our training was academic – reviewing the maps we’d be bringing with us, learning how to send the time beacons.  Which, by the way, was easy, simple.  Food identification and preparation.

At night, we had to sleep with these mesh coverings over our head.  Neuro-linguistic programming, they told us.  Guaranteed, they said, to vastly accelerate the speed with which we’d pick up a new language.   It worked by electromagnetic stimulation of the speech centers in the brain.  I supposed it was in case we ran into any of the people living back there, back then, although I thought it was unlikely.  And, as far as I could tell, other than being slightly uncomfortable, the mesh headpiece and the neuro-linguistic training had absolutely no discernible effect.

For the most part, the training was – how shall I put this?  Stupid.  The firearms training was informative, and, somewhat to my surprise, fun.  Skinning and butchering animals, less so.  Otherwise, camping skills?  I already knew how to camp.  Saddling and unsaddling – I mean, c’mon, how long does that take to learn?  Not three weeks, that’s for damn sure.  Setting and sending the time beacons?  Easy.  Water purification?  Child’s play.  So why were we spending three weeks in “training?”

I thought, after they had pushed me so hard to decide instantly, that this delay was madness.  It made no sense to me.  If they were in such an all-fired hurry to get me committed, then why a three-week delay before sending us back?  Gene Kessler was the official in charge of the program, and I asked him about this after the third day.  He told me that this delay was only an “apparent” delay.  We would be sent back to three months before  Carver disappeared.  This, it was thought, would give us time to travel from St. Louis, to the Arizona State site, where Carver had last been, in time to find out what happened.

Time and distance.  We had a one-way journey of about 1400 miles, at a minimum.  But that was little more than a rough estimate, insofar as there were no roads, and we’d have to travel across entirely wild country.  We’d be at the mercy of the terrain, and would, I supposed, have to detour hither and yon to get there.  The team at DARPA figured that we’d average maybe twenty miles a day.  Sometimes more, of course, sometimes less, but they thought twenty miles/day was a reasonable estimate, for purposes of their time and distance calculations.  So, what? About two and half months to get there.  And a couple of weeks of “spare” time.

I knew a little about camping.  Devereaux had known nothing.  For Steven, the training was much more useful.  He’d never been camping, never ridden a horse, knew nothing about wilderness living. Not a clue about the guns.  An absolute wizard with the time beacons, though.  A very pleasant guy, I thought.  And a quick learner. He got the hang of everything pretty easily.

Lasher was a different story.  He didn’t show up until the middle of the second week.  Kessler had told us only that Lasher was Special Forces; long-range recon.  He apparently was going to be our security.   Tall, slim, dark hair, calm green eyes that missed nothing; an easy smooth walk; I had the sense that Lasher did everything gracefully, efficiently.  He looked very fit and very alert, and he was.  He didn’t say much.  He was a little older than me – probably late thirties, early forties.  No hint of a smile.  Two day old stubble.  Scruffy clothes.  A professional, I thought.  He gave off that calm, serious “Do not fuck with me” vibe.

Obviously, based on what Kessler had told us, Lasher didn’t need any training.  In fact, what he did was take over our training.  He coached us on our marksmanship, with all three weapons –rifle, shotgun, pistol.  He was surprisingly patient, and, it turned out, very good at teaching, at explaining to Devereaux and me what we were doing wrong.  And in a couple days, both of us were shooting much better.  Not marksmen, by any means, but we were at least respectable.

He also taught us about what was called the field protocol.  Basically, it was how to be alert in unfamiliar territory, how to move as a unit, how to use hand signals, all the stuff you’d want in a hostile environment, in enemy territory, or something.  I tried to explain to Lasher that we weren’t going into enemy territory.  Clovis fossils and artifacts were rare, ergo, the people known who made the Clovis points were thin on the ground.  Scarce.  Most of North America was uninhabited.  No people.  For all practical purposes, we’d be the only ones out there. We’d be unlikely to even see anybody.  And, even if we did, they’d have spears, and atlatls; we’d have rifles.  They’d have flint knives; we’d have pistols and Damascus steel knives.

Lasher just looked at me.  After a long minute, he said, “Yeah, well, we’re going to do it my way, anyway.”  That was it.  No discussion, no debate.  Just a given.

“Look, I don’t mind doing whatever,” I said. “I just don’t see why this is such a big deal to you.  There’s not going to be anyone out there, and even if there is, we outgun them by a mile.”

“I believe that is what Custer said,” Lasher replied.  And he sort of half-smiled.  I guess that was what he thought was a joke.  So Devereaux and I trained on, and learned the field protocol.

The biggest surprise was Jack.  He was a border collie mix, four years old, about.  I’d got him as a rescue puppy, and had sort of trained him, in a half-assed way.  What a great dog.  He was so smart, and full of energy.  I loved him.  And so, it turned out, did Lasher.  I saw him holding Jack’s head, and grabbing his fur, and talking to him.  So I was stunned when Lasher said “Too bad about Jack.  He’s a great dog.  But he’s not coming with us.”

“What?”

“Your dog, Jack.  He isn’t coming with us.  He’s a liability.  We can’t take him along.”

“Bullshit,” I said.  “Let’s go see Kessler.”  Lasher nodded, and he and I and Jack went into the field office to talk to Kessler.

I told him, “Look, Lasher just said that I can’t bring my dog with me.  You’ve got to talk to him.”

Lasher said, “The dog can’t come.  He isn’t trained.  He’ll spook the game.  He can’t be relied on.  We can’t bring him.”

“I see,” said Kessler.  “Well, Jeff,” he said, he said to me, “it seems to me that Mr. Lasher makes some very valid points.  I’m sure we can find someone to care for your dog while you’re gone.”

So, really, what did I think Kessler was going to do?  Referee?  Help us work it out?  What he did was, he sided with Lasher.  Of course he would.  Like he’d oppose what the security man said.

I drew on my extensive education, my doctorate, my scholarly research.  “Fuck you,” I said.  “If Jack isn’t going, then I’m not going, either.  I don’t’ care what you two have to do, but understand this – Jack goes where I go.  If he’s out, I’m out.”

I was beyond angry.  I was furious. The intensity of my rage surprised me, and even as I was swearing, part of me was watching, mortified.  He was it – other than my mom, he was the only family I had. We’d hiked for miles through the mountains and hills near my home.  He’d come with me on my fieldwork in the Green River country in Wyoming.  He’d hang out in my office on campus, while I taught class.  He was my companion.  So even though I was mortified, I was real damn serious.  I would not leave him.  Not in some kennel.  Not for four months.  Not at all.

“Look,” I said.  “He’s a border collie.  They’ve been bred to work with animals, to be partners with men.  Can’t we train him, so that he’ll work with us, not scare any animals away?”

Lasher just looked me.  Then, after a minute, he said, “Okay, we got a week.  If we can get him trained, I mean really trained, then the dog can come.  But if we don’t, if he isn’t perfect, then he isn’t coming.  And then you’ll have to do what you have to do.”  And then he left.

Kessler sighed.  “That’s Lasher.  Jesus.”

So, for the next 8 days, Lasher trained Jack and me.  He was like the freaking dog whisperer.  He had Jack trained unbelievably.  Come, go, stay, heel, go left, go right, come up; all the things that border collies are supposed to do.  And he had me trained, too. “He’s your dog, he told me, “He’s got to listen to you.   So here’s what you do.”  Over and over.  Until, at the end of that week, I got it.  I understood what he was talking about, and finally, Jack and I “clicked.”  We were a team.

And Sunday night, Lasher looked at me and Devereaux and Jack and said “That’s it. We’re ready.  We’ll go in tomorrow.”

What we brought:

Twelve  Horses.  A horse for each of us to ride, a spare horse for each of us (a “remount,” as the cavalry has it); two horses for Dr. Carver; three pack-horses; and a spare pack-horse.  The reliance on the horses was our greatest worry.  We were embarking on a round trip of approximately three thousand miles – as the crow flies.  And we were certainly not going to be able to travel that directly.  In all likelihood, we’d end up travelling well over three thousand miles.  The distance alone is an enormous burden for any animal. And this was travel in wilderness.  We’d be confronting all of the perils of the trip –deadfalls,  river crossings, animal attacks.  So we all thought that we were taking too few horses.  We had discussed this at length in the preparation sessions with the DARPA representatives, and Dr. Kessler.  Unfortunately, none of us saw any way around it. Kessler and the techs thought we might be able to take two, maybe three more horses than we did.  But then, paradoxically, we thought that to take more would make the size of the remuda unwieldy.  So we were stuck.  Twelve horses it was.

Oddly, Lasher seemed the least concerned about this.  “We can walk if we have to,” he said.  “And if Devereaux can get the ASU station up and running, we can just come back that way.”  Maybe we’d only go out by horse, but come back by. . . . magic.  (I still, even after all this time, can’t write “we’d come back by ‘time travel’” with a straight face.  It sounds like something out of Star Trek).  So, in the end, it was twelve horses.

What else?  Two of almost everything.  Two rifles each, two shotguns each, three pistols each.  (Lasher took four).  Clothes for all kinds of weather and temperature. Tents, sleeping bags, water filters.  This was somewhat controversial.  I argued that since we were going back before the modern era, i.e. before pollution, that there’d be no need to filter the water.  After all, the indigenous people  didn’t have micropore filters.

“Ever hear of Giardia?” Lasher asked.   So we took the filters.

We took a first aid kit – much bigger and more extensive than I had previously seen.  Lasher had  some training as a field medic, and Devereaux, it turned out, was an EMT.

We brought lots of gear: Pots, pans, salt, coffee, sugar.  Field guides to birds, to plants, to trees, to mushrooms.  I was the nature guide on this expedition; the one who was supposed to know what was safe to eat; how to traverse the varied ecosystems we’d encounter; how to deal with the natives, in the unlikely event that we met any; stuff like that.  And I thought the field guides would be useful.  From an evolutionary standpoint, twelve thousand years ago isn’t very long at all.  So the oaks and aspens, the fungi and mushrooms we’d see would be the same as the ones living today.  Stranger, though, to think about the animal population back then.  All the animals we know today – raccoons, robins, deer, ducks – all of them – were living there, back then.  But so were all kinds of other animals.  Animals no-one alive today has seen.  Mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths.  Passenger pigeons.  They’re all extinct now.  So it was quite a juxtaposition – bringing a field guide to birds, while worrying about running into a saber-toothed cat.

So what else? Packages and packages of freeze-dried foods.  They took up almost no space, to offset the fact that they had almost no taste.  Binoculars, axes, saws, knives. Dynamite.   Rope.  Needles and thread.  Lighters.  Matches. Traps.  Mirrors (for signaling).  Spare horseshoes, files, and nails.  More stuff than I had ever thought about.    Devereaux’s gear – the stuff he was going to use to repair the tesseract, if possible.

It seemed like a lot.  It was a lot.  But even as we practiced packing it on the pack-horses, I knew, I just knew, that it wouldn’t be enough.  Or rather, that we’d need something we didn’t have.  That was the first time, really, that the enormity of what we were doing hit me.  We’d be truly on our own.  I wondered how the mountain men had done it.  What if . . . What if . . .?  No doctor, no hospital, no cavalry to ride to the rescue.  It was a daunting task, and for the first time, I really knew it.

Personal stuff:  I brought pens, pencils, and paper;  several digital cameras and lots and lots of chips; a video camera; a magnifying glass. Here’s what I desperately wanted to bring, but couldn’t:  A complete dissection kit; a CT scanner; three hundred gallons of formaldehyde; five hundred pounds of plaster of paris; a cryogenics lab; a gene sequencer; 500 radio collars; six hundred tranquilizer darts, a gas chronometer; an ultra light aircraft for aerial surveys, and a tractor-trailer to haul it all in.

I brought Give your Heart to the Hawks, by Win Blevins, a book about the exploits of the mountain men.  I commend that book to anyone who is going off into the wilderness.   Devereaux, as it turned out, brought about two pounds of weed, and a bong, and rolling papers.  That was a surprise.  Lasher brought a big long, flat box, and  square (cubical) box, about 12 inches on a side.  And packs and packs of gum.

And so, off we went.

The insertion took place at the ground floor lab at Washington University.  The array was complex, to say the least, and I was surprised at the number of technicians running around, placing sensors here, and moving cables there.  The three of us, Jack, the horses, and all of our gear were placed in the center of the array, inside the tesseract.  We all had to go at the same time, because the vagaries of the insertion were such that successive “drops” might not land in exactly the same time.  That, I gather, was part of the reason why something as big as a plane or helicopter couldn’t have been used.

Kessler came up and shook hands with each of us, and wished us good luck.  And then, (and I loved him for it), he stooped and petted Jack.

And then he left, and we stood around for about three more minutes, while they calibrated whatever it was that needed calibrating, and then they counted backwards. Five.  Four.  Three . Two.  One.

Blink.

Transcendence.

Rest.

Stop.

Taxonomy: This Will Be on the Final

Taxonomy –

Today we have to go deep into the weeds, to understand the first of several scientific concepts that are going to be necessary to understanding the Pleistocene ecosystem.

That scientific concept is taxonomy, a system for sorting and classifying things, such as animals.

The issue, I suppose, is how to we organize our views of nature.  We see that there is physical resemblance between cats and lions, or tigers.  What, if any, is the relationship between them?  Between a horse and a rhinoceros?  A dragonfly and a bee?

Once you starting thinking about evolution, about one species evolving out of another, then you naturally start considering the relationships between the various species, and groups of species.

Taxonomy is one way to approach that organizational impulse, one way to attempt to delineate the relationship between various animals and between various types of animals.

Taxonomy means “the grouping or categorizing of things into an outline or tree structure.”[1]  It’s used for all kinds of biological sciences.  There are several kinds or systems of taxonomy, but the two best known are “scientific classification,” which grew out of, and is derived from Linnaean taxonomy, and “cladistics.”

Today we’re going to take up scientific classification.  We’ll save cladistics for another time.

First an overview, then on to the details.

Overview:

Every animal (we’re not going to consider plants right now) can be identified, or labeled, as it were, within the system of scientific classification.  There are seven levels which range from the most narrow, specific category – species; to the most broad – (animal) kingdom. Every animal is assigned to some label at each of the seven levels.

Starting with the broadest category, and going to the most specific, the categories are: Kingdom

Phylum

Class

Order

Family

Genus

Species

 

It’s a hierarchy.  Species is the most specific category; Kingdom the most general.

This system of taxonomy is a way of evaluating diversity of animals through time.  That is, if you go all the way back to the very beginning, there was the first member of the animal kingdom – probably a blob of protoplasm.  From there, it divided, and evolved and over eons and millions of years, different types of animals arose.  Taxonomy is a system for sorting through those different types of animals, in order to see their relationship with one another.   And the hierarchical system is sort of a time machine.  Species is the last, most recent type of a given animal; genus is the name for a group of closely related animals that evolved from a common ancestor; family is older and earlier still.

Say you’ve got a cat, an ordinary house cat.   That cat would be identified, taxonomically as

Kingdom:       Animalia

Phylum:         Chordata

Class:              Mammalia

Order:             Carnivora

Family:           Felidae

Genus:            Felis

Species:          F. catus

Taxonomy, then, is a way of organizing our thinking about how animals relate to one another.   As we will see, however,  these categories – Family, Class, Phylum, etc. are imprecise, and imperfect.  For example, when we talk about what is a species, down below, you’ll see that while there is a general idea of what a species is, there are also exceptions to the rule, and cases where the label is useful, but not strictly accurate.  Still this taxonomic system has been a useful tool for decades, so it’s worth taking a look at.

So, lets’ start at the bottom, at a level even below species – “Breed.”

What is a breed?  A breed is a type within a species.  Dogs are the easiest to use as examples.  There are lots of breeds of dogs, right?  Pomeranians to Great Danes.  Each breed had been developed to have certain consistent characteristics – shape, type of fur, behavior.  And when mated with another of the same breed, the offspring will have those same characteristics, too.  Animals of the same breed demonstrate homogenous behavior, and have a homogenous appearance – but only within the breed.  That is why all standard poodles look and act so poodle-y, and not at all like bulldogs.

But breeds are (a) only applicable to domesticated animals; and (b) are still the same species of animals.  All dogs, whatever their breed, are still dogs.  That means that they are still the same species; and capable of mating with any other dog, and having viable, fertile offspring.  That is where mutts come from.

So “breed” is a concept of types of domesticated animals within a single species.

Species.

A species is a group of animals which can interbreed with another animal of the same type, and have fertile offspring.  For the most part, an animal of one species cannot, and probably will not, mate with an animals of a different species.  And animals of one species cannot produce fertile offspring with animals of another species. Thus, for example, porcupines mate only with other porcupines, and have baby porcupines, called, by the way, “porcupets.” Really.   And crows mate with crows.

Crows don’t mate with porcupines, or with seagulls, for that matter; and porcupines don’t mate with skunks.  So, in very broad general terms, these concepts underlying the term species, work fairly well.

But there are exceptions to this rule, or, more specifically, cases where the term species doesn’t have the neat classical boundaries associated with the concept of speciation.

First, occasionally animals of different species do breed with one another, even though they “shouldn’t.”  Recently a grizzly bear-polar bear hybrid was shot and killed in northern Canada.  And even though they’re different species, horses can and do mate with asses, and produce offspring.  So, since people knew that (sometimes, some) different species could nonetheless interbreed, the idea of species was modified to incorporate the idea that even if different species interbred – say a horse and an ass – the offspring would be sterile.  So another test of defining a species was whether its offspring were fertile.  As long as the offspring – the jackass – was sterile, the concept of species was okay.

But even that caveat is not watertight.  Although wolves and coyotes are considered to be different species, they do mate and reproduce, and have fertile offspring.  And lions don’t normally breed with tigers.  But they can, and can produce hybrid offspring:  Ligers or tigons.  Now, in fact, this doesn’t happen outside of zoos (partly because outside of one small area in India, the ranges of lions and tigers don’t overlap; and partly because lions and tigers preferentially seek out their own kind to mate with).  But sometimes, rarely, hybrid offspring –ligons, say –are fertile.

These situations – fertile wolf-coyote hybrids; fertile ligers seem to cause the clean definition of species to break down.

Moreover, it is not always easy to know whether a given animal fits within an already defined species, or should be assigned to a new species.  This can be particularly difficult given the normal variation of animals within a given species – regional differences in coloration, for example.  Likewise, the line between two closely related species can sometimes be blurry.

So the notion of a species is neither perfectly clear, nor perfectly simple. Species is a concept that kind of works, but has lots of holes.

And yet – the idea does work, pretty well.  We can tell a robin from a blue jay, a skunk from a badger, an Indian elephant from an African elephant.

So while the idea of species isn’t perfect, it’s what we’ve got.  It means the same kind of animals, breeding only with the same kind of animal, and producing viable, fertile offspring.  Crows mate with crows, and have baby crows.  Same thing with porcupines, or killer whales.

Moving up the hierarchy, we come  to “genus.[2]

Genus comes into play when you see animals that are kind of like one another, but different, too.  Different kinds of giraffes, say, or seagulls.  They all look kind of similar, but there are enough differences so that it’s clear that they’re not the same.

That’s where genus comes in.

A genus is a group of closely related, quite similar species of animals.  So, for example, a house cat, is in the genus felis, together with other, small, closely related species of cats, such as the jungle cat, the black-footed cat, and the sand cat.[3]  There are lots of animals which have a common name, even though they may fall within different species.  So we might say, “oh look, there’s a sparrow,” even though there are a number of different species of sparrow.[4]  We’d say, “watch out – There’s a skunk,” even though there are different species of skunks.  So we use the name “sparrow” or “skunk” generically.  And that, kind of, is the concept of genus.

800px-Striped_Skunk

Oh hey – a skunk!

 

They all look pretty similar, and its not too hard to imagine that they all shared a common ancestor not too long ago.  So they’re different species; live in different habitats; have different habits, maybe; and don’t interbreed with one another.  But they’re close.

An inherent notion here, although it’s oversimplified, is that members of the same genus evolved from a common ancestor, not so long ago.  That is, as we will see below, members of the same family may have evolved from a common ancestor, too, but the various family members diverged from that common ancestor earlier, before the members of a genus diverged from each other to make new species.

But then, what about similar animals, which are nonetheless still a little more different?  A leopard, say, compared to your house cat.  They’re both clearly cats, right?  And yet, different size, different habitats, different behaviors.  Leopards are in a different genus:  panthera, along with the lion, tiger, and jaguar.  And what about the puma, also called the cougar or mountain lion, you might well ask? Nope, neither felis, nor panthera, but its own genus (along with the jaguarundi) – puma.

The Lynx and the Bobcat are in the genus lynx.

This is where the next level of taxonomical sorting comes in – the “Family.”

This is the level for clustering animals that are somewhat similar, but also quite different from one another.  The idea is that they have all descended from some earlier ancestor, and there are still some anatomic similarities in their skeletal structures, but over long periods of time have adapted to very different conditions, have developed different features, and in short, are not as closely related to each other as members of the same genus are.  A family is a cluster of genera.

So even though house cats are in a different genus than leopards, they’re all still in the same family – felidae.

yeah, this shouldn't happen.

 

 

yeah, so this shouldn’t happen.

 

 

And if you think of clumping related groups (genera) together, it makes sense. Of course all cats – from house cats to lions – belong in the cat family.  Dogs, wolves and foxes – sure, lump ‘em all into the dog family.  Bears are bears.  All tapirs are in the tapir family.

The level, moving up, is “Order.”

This is where animals that are still more distantly related to one another are clustered, based on some similarities.

An order is a group or cluster of families.  For example, the order Carnivora, includes the cats (from lions and tigers on down); dogs (and wolves and foxes); bears (all of them); hyenas; minks; raccoons; civets; and pandas; walruses and seals.  The word Carnivore – meat-eater – is the basis for this order.

The idea, apparently, is that these types of animals, while certainly different, nonetheless have some things in common, derived from a common ancestor long, long ago; so that scientists can lump them together.  In the order carnivora, for example, these are all predators, meat-eaters.

But right away, you can see the problem:  Some of the animals on here – pandas, for example – are in this order, but they almost exclusively vegetarian, subsisting mostly on bamboo.  And some mammals which are carnivorous – orcas, for example – are not in this order.  So, what gives?

There are a couple answers to this question:

  1. It’s not a very good system.  And, in fact, there are lots of differing approaches to how best sort and organize animals in relation to one another.
  1. It is based on organizational underpinnings from the past, when it was the only system of organizing.
  1. It depends on what any given taxonomist says, although some conventions are so well –established that they aren’t going to change. (But that’s not always true for newly discovered animals).
  1. There are underlying anatomic similarities between the families of animals which comprise an order, so that it seems reasonable to lump them together.  For example, the horse family, the rhinoceros family and the tapir family are lumped together in the order Perissodactyla, because they have an odd number of toes on each foot (one or three; and remember, horses evolved from earlier species that had more than one toe, per foot).  So, even thought they are otherwise dissimilar, horses, rhinos and tapirs have this foot anatomy in common, and so are lumped together.

And the teeth and skeletal structure of pandas are so like that of bears that they seem to fit in here, even if they have evolved to have a different diet.

And killer whales’ anatomy is so different that even though they have evolved to eat meat, too, they don’t fit here.

There are lots of orders, just within the class of mammals:

•          Order Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates: antelope, deer, camels, pigs, cows, sheep, hippos, etc.)

•          Order Carnivora (carnivores: cats, bears [like the panda, polar bear, grizzly, etc.], weasels, pinnipeds, etc.)

•          Order Cetacea (whales, dolphins)

•          Order Chiroptera (bats)

•          Order Insectivora (insect-eaters: hedgehogs, moles, shrews)

•          Order Lagomorpha (rabbits, hares, pikas)

•          Order Macroscelidea (elephant shrews)

•          Order Perissodactyla (odd-toed ungulates: horses, rhinos, tapirs)

•          Order Pholidota (the pangolin)

•          Order Primates (apes, monkeys, lemurs, people)

•          Order Proboscidea (elephants, mammoths, mastodonts, etc.)

•          Order Rodentia (rodents: rats, mice, squirrels, gerbils, hamsters, etc.)

•          Order Sirenia (sea cows, manatees)

•          Order Tubulidentata (aardvarks)

•          Order Edentata [also called Xenarthra] (sloths, armadillos)

•          Order Hyracoidea (hyraxes)

And these are just the orders for placental mammals.[5]  There are orders for birds, reptiles, insects, fish and amphibians, too.  Many, many orders.

“Class” is the taxonomic level where big differences, and these vast numbers of species, genera, families and orders are simplified.  What I mean is that there are (or were, under traditional systems of scientific classification) only seven classes, in which to sort any given animal.  They are:

Class Agnatha (jawless fishes)

Class Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fishes)

Class Osteichthyes (bony fishes)

Class Amphibia (amphibians)

Class Reptilia(reptiles)

Class Aves (birds)

Class Mammalia(mammals)

Now, obviously, before assigning an animal to one of these classes, you’d need to know the definition of each class.  What exactly is an amphibian, or a mammal?  But – once you have those definitions, you can match your animal up to the list, and see which one of these seven classes it belongs to.  Here, we don’t care which species, or genus, or order the animal is – we’re just sorting it into one of these big classes.

We can spend endless amounts of time worrying out the precise, persnickety definitions of each class, but screw it – we’ve got better things to do.  So let’s not waste time.  Here’s the quick and dirty:

If it’s a fish and it has bones – Osteichthyes

If it’s a shark – Chondrichthyes

Frogs, toads, salamanders –  Amphibia

Feathers –  Aves (Birds)

Snakes, lizards, crocs, gators – Reptilia

Fur, milk – mammalia  – Mammals.

If it’s a fish and it has no jaw, it’s gross and disgusting – Throw it back and get out of there.

LAMPREY0624_3GD_6393811-600x363

Omigod! Omigod! That’s a freakin’ jawless fish!  Run!

But again, the beauty of this system is that we are still sorting based on common characteristics.  There are lots of different types of fish, but here, we put them all into the same class, so long as they have bones.  Same thing with mammals or birds.

Okay, onto “Phylum.”

Phylum, the level of classification below Kingdom, is simultaneously easy, and devilishly difficult to pin down.  There is a lot of disagreement about just what, exactly, phylum means, and how many phyla there are.  We, however, are going to take the simple, straightforward route to understanding phylum.  For our purposes, it is a system of classifying animals based on common bodily attributes, and to make it even easier, there are only two phyla we need to be concerned with, here at Pleistoscenery: Insects, and everything else.

Insects are in the phylum arthropoda –they have segmented legs, and exoskeletons.

Everything else, for our purposes, means all the fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.

And what makes all those different kinds of animals –  fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals – fit into the same phylum?  Answer:  They all have spinal cords.  And, indeed, the phylum is called chordata – animals with central nervous systems, and spinal cords.

Overall there are something like 35 phyla.  But the reason we’re going to skip them is because they mostly consist of various types of mollusks and worms.  And, really, who cares?

The final level in this hierarchy is “Kingdom.”

“Kingdom,” although it seems easy, isn’t quite as simple as you might think.  Sure, it’s easy enough to place a cat in the animal kingdom, instead of the plant kingdom, but what about bacteria?  Fungi?  Where do they fit?

Answer:  They fit into their own kingdoms, but guess what?  We’re going to ignore them.

All you need to know is that every fish, reptile, amphibian, bird, insect and mammal fits into the animal kingdom: Animalia.

This system is far from perfect.  It’s based, to a large extent on what a given taxonomist thinks is the best place to assign an animal.  Some of these scientists are splitters – they think each animals should be in its own genus, and its own species. [6] Others are lumpers – they tend to lump lots of animals into the same genus, the same family, even the same species.

And this process of deciding where taxonomically, an animals fits is even more difficult when it comes to paleontology, when all you’re working with is a partial animal skeleton, in a poor state of preservation.  Or when you only have one or two skeletons – total – to base the decision on.

But the fundamental idea makes sense – new species arise out of older ones, evolving and adapting to changes in the environment.  New anatomic adaptations, new appearances, new behaviors emerge, but they do not simply spring into being – they grow out their earlier ancestors.  So by studying the anatomy and behavior of animals, scientists are able to make informed judgments about the (a) evolution of different species; and (b) the relationships between various species.

Is this system perfect?  Absolutely not.  But it is a useful tool to understand (or to try to understand) the network of life around us.

Okay – we’ve studied taxonomy.  You tell me what this is:

JackalopeHistory2


[2] The plural of genus is genera.

[3] By the way, do yourself a favor and look up the black-footed cat.  Adorable.

[4] In fact, it gets even more confusing, because there are many different genera of sparrows.  So any given sparrow is a member of a species, is in a genus, and in a family.  Thus, the name “sparrow,” doesn’t identify the bird too strictly – all it says it that this bird in the family of sparrows.  Two little brownish birds, both called sparrows, could be different species, and even different genera.  But they’d still be in the same family.

[5] Don’t even get me started on marsupials, or the duck-billed platypus.

[6] I’m not saying that whoever is in charge of sparrows is a splitter, but go take a look at “American Sparrow” over in Wikipedia, and tell me what you think.

The Clovis Mission: Ch. 3: Ross

Metairie, Louisiana.

Ross knew the General; well, the retired general now, Ambrose Maddox.  Forced, ever so delicately, into retirement after reports surfaced about some of his activities in Afghanistan.

And Ross knew about those activities, too.  After all, he had served with Maddox, before he’d been cashiered, along with several of his men.  Over fucking bullshit. Bastards.

No, wait.  Calm down a minute.  Be here now.  Ross regained his equilibrium.

“Thank you for coming, Colonel,” Maddox said. “It’s nice to know I can count on a few good men, when I need them.”

Ross nodded, and said, “Sir.”

“Colonel, we’ve got a situation, and we need your help.”

Ross thought, “We?”

Ross said, “Sir?”

“You know about this time travel thing, right?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Three stations, right?  Fairbanks, St. Louis, and Arizona, right?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Well those DARPA pukes been using it for some scientific research into cavemen or some such shit, and now they fucked up.”

“Sir?”

“First, the station at ASU – that’s Arizona State University, Colonel – the station there has gone down.  Deader than Uncle Harry’s Aunt.”

“Sir?”

“Second, they’ve sent a civilian –  a civilian, for Chrissakes! –  back to fix it.  Accompanied by another civilian, some professor of cavemanology or some such shit.  Well, Colonel, the people in the Defense Department, and my friends at NSA do not want some civilian running around out there, or back there, whatever.”

“No Sir,” Ross said.  He knew his lines.  And he knew this story was phony.  Maddox was out – O. U. T. – out.  No fucking way he was tied-in with Defense or NSA.  No.  The story was bullshit.  And obviously bullshit.  He was meant to see through it. So okay, why?

Because this is something else.  This is a black op.  This is the spooky stuff – covert.  Fair enough.

Didn’t matter much.  Ross knew what loyalty meant.  He knew that the General would take care of him – hell, he already had.  He’d run some serious interference protecting Ross and his boys after that last go-round over there.  So, yeah, Ross knew about loyalty.  Whatever the mission, he was in.

“No sir, we don’t want that at all,” Maddox continued. “It’s absolutely critical that we get that station repaired, and prepared – you know the President’s going to go out there to that Arizona station to give a speech, honor the fine men who perfected time travel, let the world know what we done.   And now that very station has gone down?  A little too coincidental, I think.”

“Colonel, we have reason to believe that this station has been brought down by an act of sabotage, and these purported civilians making their way out to Arizona present a clear and present danger to this great land of ours, to our science, to our technology.  These men are traitors.”

“That’s where you come in.  We want you to assemble a small team – no more than eight men.  Your men, Colonel.  We’ll task two scientists to accompany you.  We want you to jump back there, find those traitors, eliminate them, and then proceed to the ASU site, where the two scientists – our scientists –  will get the station up and running.”

Okay, Ross thought, so that’s the cover story – go back and wipe out these traitors.  Got it.  What’s the real story?

“Yes sir,” Ross said.

“We’re also going to send two more of our men with you, Colonel.  Good men.  Treat them with respect.  They are mission critical.”

Ah, this was a clue.  These guys, whoever they were, were part of this op, whatever it was.  Two of “our” men.  Whose men would that be?

“Understood, Sir.”

“We’ll keep working from our end, here.  Maybe we can jury rig a way to get that station fixed from this end.  But your job, Colonel, is to go back and get those two, then proceed to the station in Arizona.

“Yes, Sir,” Ross replied.

“Time is short, Colonel.  I want you to assemble the team within one week.  My aide, Swanson, has all the details.”

“Very good, General,” Ross said.

“That’s all, Colonel,” Maddox said.  “Dismissed.”

Ross had almost made it to the door when Maddox said “One last thing, colonel. Something that might interest you.”

“Sir?”

Those two civilians have some security on their trip.  Someone you know.”

“Sir?”

“Daniel Lasher, Colonel. Master gunnery sergeant Daniel Lasher.”

The Clovis Mission: Ch. 2: Summers

Things started happening real fast.

First, to my amazement, Dean Mendelsohn got out of the helicopter, with luggage.

“I’ll stay and wind things up here, for you,” he said.

The Dean?  Here?  That sly old devil – still wanted to show he could do fieldwork, I guess.  Or maybe this was so urgent that they didn’t have anyone else to come in for me.

But either way, this was happening fast, fast.

Because as he was stepping out of the chopper, they told me to pack up my gear, because I was flying out with them.

So within an hour of their arrival I found myself flying across country with two men from DARPA, heading for training for this mission.

Here’s the thing:  I didn’t know anything about time travel.  I still don’t, really, not the complexities of the math, or the real science behind it.   I’d heard or read that we couldn’t change the past, but that we could learn from it.  In other words, no matter what you or I did 12,000 years ago, wouldn’t matter – we’d end up exactly as we were.   That always seemed a little weird to me, but I didn’t really think about it very much.

And when I did think about it, it was usually to envy someone like Carver, who had had the opportunity to actually go back in time and study the Pleistocene.

So as we flew, White tried to explain time travel to me.

“Let’s start with time travel itself, first, before we talk about the beacons, okay?”

I thought that sounded like a good plan.

“As you know (I hadn’t), the secret to time travel is quantum entanglement – spooky action at a distance.  Turns out it works over time as well as space.”

“But it requires amazingly accurate pinpoint computation, to synchronize this ‘now’ with that ‘then.’  We’re talking about the kind of calculations that make supercomputers seem slow.   It’s so slow and expensive that we’ve only got these three stations up and running, ASU, St. Louis, and Fairbanks.”

“Yes, but how does it actually work?  What happens?”

“Why, from your standpoint, that of the time traveler, it’s easy and painless.  The transmitter, say the one at Washington University, is a big box.  They call it a tesseract – it’s a multi-dimensional cube.  They build a smaller one inside it, and that is sent back to the time you’re aiming at.  Then, you and your companions and your gear stand within the main tesseract, it does quantum scanning, and transmits you to the slightly smaller tesseract which has been prepositioned at the time you wish to visit.”

“Wait – it transmits me?  How?  Am I de-materialized?  What?”

This started sounding a little scary.

“No, not at all.  ‘Transmits’ is just the term we use for the process.  What happens is that the quantum field set up within the tesseract substitutes the previously chosen time for the present.  That is the variable that changes.  You are within the field, and the three physical dimensions –- length, height, width, you know  —  remain the same, but the fourth dimension –  time – is switched.  That’s the math part that we’ve been talking about.”

“Yeah, right, spooky action at a distance.  Got it.  But it’s safe, you say?”

“Oh yes.  You stand there, or sit, for that matter, while you’re scanned, and then the tesseract changes the one variable – the time in which you exist – substitutes the past for the present.

“And that’s it?”

“Yes, that’s it.  You feel a flash or some people have described at as a twitch, or a tingle, and look around, and you’ll see that instead of being in the lab at Wash. U., you’re back sometime in the past – whatever time you’ve picked.”

And, he explained, you come back the same way – step into the tesseract that is back when and where you are, and it does its magic and the one variable that changes – time – flips, and instead of being back there ten thousand years ago, here you are, back in the present.

But as it turned out, time travel had some odd, or at least not-obvious limitations.  Kramer said that this was party due to the fact that time travel was so new, and partly, I think, because they didn’t fully understand the math or physics that underlay it.  They could make it work – they had made it work –but apparently no one completely understood how it worked.  But he explained to me what they had learned.

Kramer:  “First, we have established that one cannot use the past to change the present – one cannot go back in time and kill Hitler, for example, tempting though that might be.”

Yeah?  Have they tried?  I’d sure as hell try.

So I asked.  “Did you guys try?”

Kramer glared at me.   “Damn right we tried.  Nailed him, too.  Only it doesn’t matter.”

“What?  Why not?” I asked. “Why doesn’t our present change, if you go back in time and change something in our past?  I don’t get it.”

“Excellent question,” White said smoothly.  “Why this is – that is not well understood.   The prevailing theory, though, is that the present, our present, is immutable, because of a theory of multiverses.  That is, we don’t travel back into our past per se, but rather back into a past that the time travel process itself calls into being, a past identical in all ways to our own, with the simple problem that whatever is done back there, has no change on the present we return to.”

“In other words,” he said, “you can go back in time, kill all the Hitlers you want, but when you come back to our time, our history includes Hitler; is unchanged.”

But wait a minute.

“Wait,” I said.  “Is the past we go to the real past, or a fake past, called up out of the ether?”

“Excellent question,” he said again.  Guy must have given this lecture, answered all these question hundreds of times before.  He was unflappable.

“It’s both,” he said. “It’s the real past – we see the actual events that happened, observe historical events that we know happened – all the data matches.  But at the same time, it’s parallel, dual, identical to our past, but not our past.  It’s a past on a different track:  equally real, equally viable, solid, real.  It exists.  But there’s a disconnect somewhere.  Like I say, you can kill Hitler back there, but whatever you do, the present you return to – our present – includes the bloody history of Europe in the thirties, and World War II.”

“That’s why the program has evolved as it has.  All time travel can do is let us learn from the past.  We cannot change the past we know in our present.  That we cannot do.  But we can change our future, change our behavior in the future.  If we learn, for example, why mammoths became extinct in North America about twelve thousand years ago, maybe we can prevent some other extinction events in our time.”

Kramer jumped back in.  “And time travel has – so far, at least – strict, but poorly understood limits on retrieval.”

“On retrieval?”

“Yes, bringing material forward, from the past.”

“It’s a phenomenon called “quantum identification.”  Each time traveler, and all of his or her equipment must first be scanned at the quantum level, before transmission into the past. This scan provides the template, as it were for retrieval back to our present. “

“But only what is scanned can be retrieved.  In practical terms, what this means, at least at present, is that only what is sent back in time can be retrieved, brought forward to the present.  So, no mammoths, no cave men, not even tissue samples, as yet, can be brought back.”

Now that’s weird.  Why not?  Why can’t they bring anything back?   Look I know I’m not a physicist, and I’m sure I could never understand the math, but it seemed so unfair.  I mean, wouldn’t it be cool if you could go back in time, and bring back a baby mammoth or something?  Can’t they figure that part of it out?

Matter is energy, I guess, and I know we’re not talking about travel to a place, but travel to a different time.  Maybe a different kind of energy?  I don’t know.  And White and Kramer didn’t – or couldn’t – explain it in a way I could understand.

But I got the rule, though.  That I understood.  Nothing from back then comes back to here and now.  But not clear, and not fair.

He was still talking.

“Now this rule can be bent, even if we can’t yet break it.  So, for example, data stored electronically can be brought back – photos on digitized chips, digitally stored voice or video recordings.  Drawings, notes, those are fine too.”

Well, that’s interesting.  I’ll bring a sketch pad, to go with my cameras.

“But intriguingly, that is it, at least for now.  Nothing more can be brought back.  Even the dirt that one would expect to find on the shoes or clothing of returning time travelers does not return to the present.  We haven’t found even a microbe, or bacteria.”

“So the problem of quantum identification is an intriguing, and perplexing one.”

Well, those, it seemed, were the rules of time travel.  The math supporting all this was, I was given to understand, remarkably complex, incredibly sophisticated.  I am not a mathematician, thankfully, so they didn’t even try to explain that all to me.

On to the time beacons.

The way it worked was that from any of the three centers, travelers would be shifted back in time, but not transported through space.  They’d end up right where they had been – in Arizona, or Missouri, or Alaska, simply back in an earlier time.  All well and good, but then your time traveler wants to actually, you know, travel.  Walk around, see the country, do some research.  So for the duration of that trip, the time traveler is wandering around, travelling, doing whatever.

So each traveler is given little beacons, about the size of a tea light, to send at the same time every day, sort of like checking in, saying all is well.  It just triggers a flash on the tesseract sensors, letting the monitors know where you are (since the terrain then is the same geographically as the terrain now), and that you’re still alive, well enough to send the beacon.  And every traveler was given an emergency beacon, saying, basically, “send help now!”

And, up until now, it had been safe.  So long as a given station kept running, the time traveler could always just come home.  Or if he or she needed help, a second team could be sent back to help out.  Which they told me had never been necessary.

And Carver had gone back, successfully, since he’d sent two of the time beacons.  But three days ago, Carver hadn’t sent the beacon.  And none had come in since.  And then, yesterday, the telemetry and chronometers and everything at ASU had gone offline.  Everything had been debugged, power cables checked, tech guys called in – everything.  But for some reason, stubbornly, obstinately, the station remained down.  Never happened before.  Shouldn’t have happened now.  In fact, it was theoretically impossible.

The only problem was that it had happened.  An “oh shit!” moment for the people at DARPA.  Because they couldn’t tell what had happened to Carver, and because the station was down, they couldn’t just zap someone back to find out.

But DARPA had a protocol for situations like this.  Even though, as I say, it was theoretically impossible, they had planned for it.

And now, I was part of that plan.

The Clovis Mission: Ch. 1: Summers

It’s funny, the things you remember.  I remember how hot it was. Valley floor, at the base of a shale cliff, digging for fossils in the Green River formation in Wyoming.  Bright, bright sunshine, and baking in the heat.  Really scorching.

Three of us were digging – two graduate assistants and me, and it was late morning, and we’d found nothing, and it was hot.

I shouldn’t say we’d found nothing.  ‘Nothing that morning’ would be more accurate.  A couple days earlier we’d found some bones which I thought were – improbably – helmeted muskox bones. Bootherium bombifrons.  If I was right, and I was pretty sure I was, that’d be a fairly exciting discovery.  The helmeted muskox, now extinct, like so many of the other Pleistocene megafauna, were muskox – real muskox – but unlike the muskox which survive today, they were bigger; had shorter hair; and most remarkably, lived down here – scattered throughout the United States, not relegated to the artic north.  But their remains were rare, and not previously found in Wyoming.  So, yeah, that was kinda cool.

Figuratively speaking, of course, because we were baking in that sun.

I remember, too, that I was thinking about those fossils, and about what I did, and, really, how frustrating it was.  Don’t get me wrong – I love being a paleo-ecologist, love studying the past, especially the relatively recent past – 50,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago, when it all changed.  Because between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, two things happened:

First, people – human beings – came to this Continent for the first time.  Those people are associated with big stone spear points first found near Clovis New Mexico, and for that reason are often called the Clovis people.

Second, right around that same time, many, many species of animals, especially large animals, became extinct.  Mammoths, mastodons, the American lion, the enormous short-faced bear.  Animals which had lived here, thrived here, for hundreds of thousands of years.  Gone.  Extinct.  And suddenly, too, within a few thousand years, at most.

And no one knew – no one knows – why.

So I have devoted myself, my career, to trying to figure out why.

But what I was thinking there, that morning, was how frustrating it all was.  Say I was right – say those were the bones of a helmeted musk ox.  So what?  Oh, we’d be able to reassemble as much of the skeleton as possible, determine its age, and gender, and conclude that it had lived around here, back then.  But that would, really, be about it.  We’d never be able to look at it, see how it moved, or browsed, or ran.  Never see how it interacted with its environment.  And that was frustrating.  Really frustrating.  I knew so little, and wanted to know so much.

Maybe it was just because it was so damn hot.

Anyway, we were just about to retreat to the work tent, for some shade, and water, when the chopper came.

Big, and dark green, and noisy as hell, and stirring up dust clouds like you wouldn’t believe.  And pissing me off.  Who the hell would come flying into an archeological site – my archeological site – and blow dust around everywhere, and maybe mess up our specimens?  Right away, I was angry, and despite the heat, set off up the swale to where the tent was, and where the chopper was just setting down.

“Hey!” I yelled.  “What are you doing?  Get that thing out of here!”

Well, no.

They didn’t move the chopper.  It stopped and the rotors gradually slowed down, as I stood there, sweating and glaring.

Two guys stepped out.

Dr. Kramer, and Dr. White, as I learned later.

Kramer was short, stocky.  Short blond crew-cut, black-rimmed glasses, short-sleeved white shirt, black tie.  Looked like a stereotypical scientist from the nineteen fifties.  White was tall, thin, beaky nose, longish brown and gray hair, swept back over his ears.  Tweed sport coat.  The politician of the bunch, if I had to guess.

White told me that they were from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, not the Park Service.

“Professor Summers, you know of Dr. Leonard Carver, of course.”  White spoke. “His interests and research are quite similar to yours, I think.”

What?  Of course I knew Lennie, and as a paleo-ecologist, I was, of course, familiar with his work.  Like me he was interested in the megafauna extinctions possibly associated with the Clovis culture.  We were not friends, although I had met him a couple of times at various symposia.  I thought his work was meticulous, and that he certainly deserved his reputation as one of the foremost archeologists working in the peopling of the Americas.  I knew he was one of the very few scientists awarded the grant and opportunity to travel back in time to conduct research, and had gone back in time from the station at Arizona State University.  I was eagerly awaiting his report.

Then Dr. Kramer took it up. “You’re aware that he’s been selected to go back in time, to study the extinctions associated with the Clovis culture, some 12,000 years ago? We’d like to talk to you about that, if you can give us some time.”

“Sure,” I said. “What’s going on?”

We all walked in under the shade of the work tent and sat uncomfortably in the directors chairs we used when we’re sitting around the specimen table.  I sent the two kids – my graduate assistants – home for the day.

“Basically,” White explained, “Carver has disappeared.  He hasn’t sent any of the time beacons back to us, for the last three days, our time.  And then, yesterday afternoon, the ASU station stopped.”

“Wait a minute.  I didn’t think he’d gone back yet – isn’t that set for later this summer?”

“Yes, that’s correct.  Only he inserted a couple days ago, just for a brief scouting expedition.”

“So what do you mean he’s disappeared?”

“He’s been out of touch – no time beacons for three days now.  That shouldn’t happen.  He’s supposed to light off a beacon every day, so we can track his place in time and space, but he hasn’t.  He’s gone.  Missing.”

Kramer chimed in.  “And now the station itself, the one in Arizona has gone down.  It isn’t working.  We can’t send anyone back to see where he is, or what’s going on.”

Well, shit.  This didn’t sound good, at all.

“So, wait.  How big was Carver’s group?”

“There was no group.  It was just him.”

“Are you kidding me?  That’s crazy.  I mean, I have the highest respect for him, but that’s nuts.”

“Look, it was just supposed to be a quick look around.  Only four days, in preparation for his work this summer.  He wanted to walk the ground, do some preliminary reconnaissance of where to begin his studies.”

“You’re serious?  He went back alone?  Who let that happen?”

I was pissed.  I mean, I was no mountain man, not even a park ranger, but I knew how stupid that was.  Carver was probably sixty, sixty-one, twenty-five years older than me.  No way should he have been wandering around out there by himself.

“Well,” White began, and then trailed off.

“Look, Professor,” Kramer said, “We have never had a problem with any of the technology, with any prior trips sending or retrieving.  And we had no reason to think that there’d be any problem this time.”

“Who runs this?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” White said.

“I mean, who makes the decisions to go and who gets to go, and when and for how long.  Who’s in charge of this?”

“Why, we are,” White said.  “I mean, DARPA has been given authority over administration of the time travel program.  We have a budget, and there is a grants program that we administer, and from the list of applicants, we select who gets to go, and work out the details of the trips.  We answer to the Secretary of the Interior.  Is that what you meant?”

Well, no, not really.  What I guess I meant was how was anyone stupid enough to let someone go back twelve thousand years alone.  But whatever had happened was already done.  No point in stirring it up.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.  “I thought it might have been under the supervision of the Army or the CIA or something.”

“Oh, no,” Kramer said.  “That’s all been worked out.  If they, or anyone else wants to use one of our facilities, they have to come through us, just like everyone else.”

“So what you’re telling me is that Carver is gone, or lost – out of touch anyway, twelve thousand years in the past, and you don’t have any way to get back there and rescue him.”

“Well, not exactly,” White said.

“No,” Kramer said.  “Not exactly.  That’s why we’re here.  We want to talk to you about going back there to find him.”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

“But you just said that the station was down or dead or something.”

“Yeah, it is.  But only the station at ASU.  The one in St. Louis is still running.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes.  So the team would insert at St. Louis, and then go the Arizona and find him.”

“Wait,” I said. “Look, I don’t know the first thing about time travel or how it works or anything, but instead of schlepping from St. Louis to Arizona, why don’t you just put in a new gate or station or whatever you call it right there in Arizona?”

Sounded like a pretty good idea to me.

“Can’t,” Kramer said.  “Time and money.  The cost is too prohibitive.  Unbelievably prohibitive.”

“Hundreds of millions of dollars,” White added.

“Budget won’t permit it,” Kramer finished.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked.

They assured me that they were not.

“Time, too,” White added.  “We’d have to assemble the new tesseract inside the existing one at ASU, before we could send it back, and that would take eighteen months at a minimum.”

“More like two years,” Kramer said.

“And we can’t wait.”  This time, it was White who finished.

“Well, okay, then, I guess.  But why me?  Why not just send a chopper back in St. Louis, fly out, pick him up and bring him back?”

“Too big,” Kramer said, just as White said, “too far.”

“No infrastructure,” Kramer added.

“What?”

“We can’t,” White said.  “A chopper big enough to fly out there and return – that’s about three thousand miles all told – is to big and heavy to fit inside the St. Louis tesseract.  We can’t send it back.”

“And even it we could, it doesn’t have the range.  Can’t fly that far without refueling, even with extra tanks.  And there’s no infrastructure back then – no place for it to land, to refuel, no GPS to let it navigate.”

“Same problem with a truck,” Kramer added.

Well.  Not good.

“So, how would I – ?” I began.  “I mean, how can I help?”

“That’s where you come in,” Kramer said. “We are planning to send a team – a small team – back to find Dr. Carver, and see if we can figure out what happened.  We’d like you to join that team.”

I kept thinking about what they were offering me.  A chance to go back for myself and see the world I’d spent my whole life studying?  Fantastic.  Amazing.  Look, I’m in.  If its safe, if I can go back in time, and then come back home safely, I’m in.

Only – how in heck do we get there?

“Horseback,” White said.

“You and the team travel on horseback to Arizona, to find Dr. Carver,” he continued, like it was the most obvious, sanest thing in the world.

What?”

“Yes,” he said. “You and the team insert at St. Louis – Washington University – and ride cross country to find him and bring him home.”

I think I just stared at him.  My mind was racing.  On the one hand it would be fantastic to go back in time to see the mammoths, and cave lions, and horses, and everything that went extinct.  A paleo-ecologist’s dream.  But on the other hand, I didn’t really know anything about the science (or witchcraft, or voodoo) of time travel, and I wondered what had gone wrong with Dr. Carver.  That was a little scary.

“So, who would go?”  I asked.

“We think it’s best if it’s just a small party – three of you.”

“Three?  That’s all?  Why?”

“Distance, and weight, mostly,” White replied.  “You have a lot of ground to cover, and everything you take has to fit on the horses.  We have weight limits, as we’ve discussed.”

I thought about that for a moment.  At first, it seemed crazy, foolhardy.  That was a big, wide dangerous world back there.  But by the same token, this may have been a case where size didn’t matter.  First, this was before (or, strictly speaking, just around the time that) humans were first coming into the Americas, so essentially there wouldn’t be any people– no dangerous criminals, or marauding armies  – to worry about.  Then too, without resources, what good would a larger party be?  How could a surgeon, say, operate, without an operatory, without anesthesia?   Didn’t lessen the risk any – you got sick, you died, is what it boiled down to, but that fact alone didn’t mean you’d be any better off with a larger group.

But still, only three of us?

“We think you’d be a good fit,” White said.  You know more about the ecology and terrain of the North American Pleistocene than almost anybody, and you’re young, fit, like to camp – We think you’d be a real asset to this trip.”

Kramer jumped in, playing the bad cop.  “Don’t get us wrong, Professor,” he said.” We’re not saying that this trip will be easy.  Far from it.  Because ASU is down, we’re going to have to insert in St. Louis.  You’ll have to travel from there to New Mexico, by horseback, just like the pioneers.  The trip will take four months at a minimum – maybe much longer.  You’ll be out in all kinds of weather, and most of all, you’ll be involved in a mystery , because we can’t tell you what the hell went wrong.”  He sat back, belligerently, if that makes any sense.

“Well?” White said.  “Will you help us?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I have classes.  I mean the semester doesn’t start for  a couple months, but I’m teaching a heavy course load . . .I’d have to check with the Dean.”

“Of course,”  White said.  “He’s sitting out there in that cool air-conditioned helicopter. Let’s go see him, shall we?”

What?  Are you kidding me?

So the three of us trekked back out to the chopper, climbed up into that blessed coolness, and there, by God, was Nate Mendelsohn, same as ever.  Cool, imperturbable, patrician.  Chewing on that goddamn pipe of his – unlit.  No smoking aboard the aircraft, apparently.

“Oh, I don’t think that would be a problem,” Nate said. “I’m sure we could get coverage for your classes.”  Thanks a lot, Chief, I thought.

“When do you need to know?”  I asked. “I’d like to think it over for –“

“Now,” Kramer interrupted .  “We’re sorry to be so abrupt, but we’re treating this as an emergency, and we need to know now.”

“Your help is important to us,” Dr. White said.  “To DARPA, and the program, and to Dr. Carver.”

“I think it would be a feather in the University’s cap, if you’d go,” Nate said, “but of course, I don’t want you to worry about that at all.”  Thanks again, Chief.

Great.  A trip lasting four months, at least, twelve thousand years ago, and they need an answer right this minute.

Well, let’s see.  I’m single.  The past has always been my passion.  Nate and the University will apparently cover for me.  Why not?  Oh, yeah –that’s why not.

“I have a dog,” I said.

That’s how Jack came to be with us on the expedition.

 

When Muskoxen ruled the Earth

Muskox (Ovibos moschatus), picture taken on 30...

Muskox (Ovibos moschatus), picture taken on 30 October 2004 in Dovrefjell National Park, Norway (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, that’s not true.  That’s a lie.  Muskoxen never ruled the earth.  I just said that to catch your eye.

But – Muskoxen did live here.  Not just up in the high arctic, but here, where we are – in the continental United States, in California, New Jersey, Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma.  They were everywhere.

So, let’s spend a moment talking about muskoxen, scientific name: Ovibos moschatus.   Sometimes called the tundra muskoxen.  And, yes, the plural of muskox is muskoxen.   And apparently, one can spell the name of the great beast as either muskox (one word), or musk ox (two words).  Ditto muskoxen (or musk oxen, if you will).

There are still muskoxen today, mostly living up in the Canadian arctic and Greenland, although a few introduced populations exist elsewhere in the polar north, including Sweden and Alaska.

And, despite their appearance, they are not oxen.  They are more closely related to sheep and goats.

They’re big, standing 4 to 5 feet at the shoulders, weighing 500 to 900 pounds.  Both the males and females are armed with those sharp, curved and deadly horns.  Both sexes are covered with thick shaggy pelts, with guard hairs that almost reach the ground.  They’re the ones who form a protective ring around their young when threatened by predation from wolves.

The name comes from the strong musky scent of the males.

Big, shaggy, razor-sharp horns, and they smell:  What’s not to love?

To my eye, they look primitive, atavistic, survivors from a by-gone era.  And that’s just what they.  They’re believed to have come into North America one hundred to two hundred thousand years ago, across Beringia, the land bridge that connected Siberia to North America, when the ocean levels were hundreds of meters lower, due to the Ice Age.  And then, during the extinction event of eleven thousand or so years ago, their range shrank dramatically:  While they had previously been widespread in the circumpolar north, they disappeared, save for those living in northern North America.  From there, they gradually spread north and east, arriving in Greenland around 350 A.D.

The map shows the distribution of muskox. The ...

The map shows the distribution of muskox. The red colour shows the “original“ distribution of muskoxen (in the beginning of the 19th century). The blue colour shows the areas where muskoxen have been introduced with success in the 20th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They were contemporaries of the mammoth, the mastodon, all of the other (now-extinct) megafauana.  But unlike so many other species, the muskox survived, and did not go extinct.

Yet.

Today there are fewer of them, and less genetic diversity than before.   They may be on the long slow road to extinction.  Maybe not.  Check back with me in fifteen or twenty thousand years.

-But –

They’re not the muskoxen I want to talk about today.

Today, I want to talk about a closely related species of muskox, a species now extinct:  The helmeted muskox, Bootherium bombifrons. 

This one – the helmeted muskox – was the one that was here; the one that lived in New Jersey, and Texas, and California until about 10 or 11 thousand years ago.

This one is ours.  This muskox appears to have evolved and lived only here, in North America.

Its closest relative is the tundra muskox living far to the north today,  but the helmeted muskox was significantly different.

For one thing, it was bigger; taller, anyway.  It stood five to six feet at the shoulders.  But it was leaner than Ovibos.  Its skull was thicker, and its snout was much longer.  And its horns –those curved, pointed, killing weapons -were fused on the top of its head, forming a great bony plate.  Ideal for head-butting your rivals when it’s mating season.  This anatomy differs from that of the tundra muskox, whose horns are separated from each other by a groove, although the tundra muskox engages in serious head-butting during the rut, too.

Like the tundra muskox, the helmeted muskox had a coat of dark brown hair, but its was shorter and finer than that of Ovibos.

As mentioned above, its remains have been found all over – but not a lot of them, not many fossils.  So, although they were widely distributed, there apparently weren’t vast numbers of them.

And, as is so often the case with extinct animals, much about them is not known.  There is, for instance, some question about its preferred habitat.  It seems likely, however, that it preferred open wooded areas, or savannah-like habitats, where it could eat a varied diet of grasses, woody plants, and shrubs.  So, a generalist, not dependent on a single food source.

It was here, throughout the United States, moving through open woods, probably in small herds, rutting, mating, raising its young, forming a defensive ring to stand off wolves or other predators; grazing or browsing on shrubs.

And yet, it is extinct, while its close cousin, the tundra muskox, survives.  Why?  There aren’t a lot of fossil remains, but it doesn’t seem likely that hunting was the primary reason for its extinction (although it certainly may have been a contributing factor).

Climate change?  Probably.  But the details are unclear.  Lots of large animals went extinct roughly ten, eleven thousand years ago, but not all of them:  Not the moose, not the bison, not the pronghorn, and not the tundra muskox.  So why did the helmeted muskox disappear?  It was  widespread, had a varied diet – what happened to wipe it out?  One theory, and it is only a theory, is that it got squeezed between the tundra muskox – better adapted for life in the far north; and the bison – better for life in open woods.  But I don’t know.

Let me know if you find out.

And one last thing:  The helmeted muskox was NOT the only muskox species to live here.  There was another, a giant:  The Shrub-ox, Euceratherium collinum.  It was huge, much bigger than the muskox or helmeted muskox.  But that is a report for another day.

The Clovis Mission: Prologue

 

The screaming shocked me.  A huge, high, squalling, screaming blast. It came from up ahead, but our vision was obscured by a grove of trees.  As the three of us rode past the trees though, I saw what had caused the noise.  Two mastodon bulls were facing off, both equally large, heavy, strong, and ready, apparently, for a fight.  Not with us – with each other.  Mating season.  The rut. They were only about ten feet apart.  The one with his back to us was lashing his tail.  The trunk of the other was waving in the air.  Both were shaking their heads from side to side.  Beyond them, in the near distance, several cows stood placidly.

Again the screaming blast. And they closed with one another fast and hard.  They slammed into one another, piston legs driving, slashing and stabbing with their tusks, pushing with their heads.    A cloud of dust arose around them from the impact.  The fight was swift and savage.  Neither backed down for several seconds.  Then they separated, and again smashed into each other. They twisted sideways, each seeking some purchase, some advantage.  And again they separated, and again smashed together.  This time, though one slipped the guard of the other, and his tusk drove into the shoulder of the other.  The injured bull screamed and backed off.  But again they charged.  And again.  And again.  Only the injured shoulder started to tell on the one bull.  He slipped sideways a little.  The other bull was relentless.  He kept pushing forward, slamming his trunk against the other’s, twisting his tusks furiously, trying to find another opening.  And again, he slipped the guard of the other.  This time, though, his tusk drove deep into the chest of the injured bull.  With that, the injured bull had had enough. He backed away, and started to turn, to flee.  But the victor would not stop.  He slammed forward again, into the side of the other bull.  Both tusks drove into the bull’s side, and he staggered, but did not fall.  When the victor backed out, the injured bull moved off at the fastest walk he could.  The victor lumbered after him for twenty yards or so, and then finally relented.  He stood for a moment, breathing heavily, then raised his trunk and bugled another loud cry.  The injured bull walked past the females and disappeared in the woods beyond them.

Fossil evidence shows that mastodons fought, but seeing this battle  – so shockingly raw, and sudden, and real- was a far cry from fossil ribs showing healed fractures.

That’s me, on the horse there.  This is what I saw, twelve thousand years ago, in my ride across country, from where St. Louis now stands, to Arizona.