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.

Wild Horses

Everyone knows that horses evolved in North America, then spread out to Asia, and thence (thence?) to Europe and Africa.

And everybody knows that horses then became extinct in the New World, and that there were no horses here until the Spaniards brought them back, with Columbus, and succeeding expeditions.

Right?

Well, yeah, kinda.

See, the part where I was wrong, and you may be too, is that I thought horses had gone extinct here millions, or at least hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Oops.  Wrong.  Not true.

Because there were horses here, in North America, up until about twelve thousand years ago.  They weren’t extinct millennia ago – they were here even as the first people were coming into the Continent.

Cool, right?

But now they are extinct.  Gone.  The mustangs out west, and the ponies of Chincoteague are not truly wild, but instead are feral – horse who live in the wild, are not domesticated, but are, nonetheless, descended from domestic horses.

No, we are talking about truly wild horses.

The wild horse is Equus ferus.  All domesticated horses descend from them.  Domesticated horses are known, taxonomically, as Equus ferus caballus.   Horses have been domesticated for thousands of years, and all kinds of different breeds have been developed.  But as far as is known, no-one on North America twelve, fifteen thousand years ago had domesticated any of the horses living here at the time.  There were no different breeds.

So what were the horses here, then, like?

There are two species of wild horse – wild, not feral – which may bear on this point.

The first is Przewalski’s Horse.

wild-horse_758_600x450

Przewalski’s Horse was, until recently, extinct in the wild; it’s line preserved only in captive populations, in zoos.  In 1992, however, a small population was reintroduced to its former habitat in Mongolia, and it is successfully reproducing there.  But Prezwaleski’s Horse, though an intriguing candidate for a modern analogue to the extinct North American horse, is probably not what we want.  Although it can mate, and produce viable offspring with modern horses, it has extra chromosomes.  So, for that reason we rule it out as the basis for our model.

The second truly wild horse was the Tarpan, regrettably, now extinct.  But it died out in historic times, and quite recently at that – the last known specimen died in 1090.

And it is the tarpan, we believe, which is the progenitor of the modern domesticated horses.

The tarpan lived in Europe, and on the plains of Russia, and Mongolia.  But it is reasonable to surmise that the horse found in North America looked like the tarpan.

The tarpan stood about 56 inches high at the shoulders, and probably had a falling mane, rather than a mane that stood upright.  It was commonly dun colored, but other colors were seen.  It legs may have been darker than its body.

resizedimage550370-Steppe-Tarpan

This illustration is by Alkiviadis Geskos, and may bee seen at  the Large Herbivore Network, http://www.lhnet.org/steppe-tarpan/

There have been several attempts to breed domestic horses “back,” so that they look and behave like the wild tarpan.  Superficially, they may appear similar, but they are domesticated horses, not truly tarpans.

The tarpan and Przewalski’s Horse were painted in the caves at Lascaux, Pech Merle, and other places.  What those artists saw, is, I think, what you would have seen had you been able to gaze out on the plains of North America twelve thousand years ago.

And there’s an interesting article about the accuracy of the cave paintings in depicting the horses of that time, at

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/11/cave-painting-colors/

titled:  “Cave Paintings Showed True Colors of Stone Age Horses,”  from which this illustration is taken

horse-cave-paintings-pnas

But really, wouldn’t it have been interesting to see bands of wild horses running across the prairies of North America twelve thousand years ago?

I’ve decided to serialize my novel – The Clovis Mission.  So here is the first installment.  I”d appreciate your thoughts, comments and criticisms.

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.

Summers

 It’s funny, the things you remember.  I remember I was wearing my new teal shirt.  Teal.

I was working in my office late one afternoon, preparing notes for next week’s classes when I got the call.  It was Dean Mendelsohn, who asked if I could meet with him and two gentlemen from the Government.  “Sure,” I said, “when?”

“They’re here, now,” he said.  I’ve known Nate since I came to the University, and he sounded the same as ever.  Cool, imperturbable, patrician.  “I’m on my way.”  I said.

His office was two floors below mine.  I wasn’t particularly hurried.  I had worked with officials from the National Forest Service in the past, examining archeological sites, so, although I thought it was unusual that they’d just shown up, instead of calling, I didn’t think it was likely to be anything out of the ordinary.  So I walked down the stairs, and into Nate’s office, and got surprised.

Nate introduced me to Dr. Kramer, and Dr. White.  They took it from there.  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.”

I agreed.  As a paleo-ecologist, I was, of course, familiar with Dr. Carver’s work, and so I knew of his investigation into 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 sat down.  Nate started chewing on that goddamned pipe of his.  Unlit, of course – no smoking on campus. 

“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.”

“Oh, okay.  But why me?  Why not just send a chopper, 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 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.

Sitting there, I wondered what Mom would have thought?  Dead now, for over three years.  I missed her, when I thought of her, but as time had passed, I thought of her less and less.  I guess it’s good that memories fade, because no one could maintain such intensity of grief forever.  Could they? Still, I think –  I know – she would have been proud.  And worried.  Wear a raincoat.  Look both ways before you cross the river.  Sheesh.

And what would my father have thought, whoever the hell he was?  They’d been divorced when I was two, and he had pretty much disappeared.  I think I got a birthday card once, when I turned eight, but that was it.  That’s weird, isn’t it?  Why wouldn’t a father want to know his own son?  If I ever got married and had a kid, I’d make damn sure he (or she) knew he had a dad.

Yeah, well, if.  Wasn’t going to be with Jeanine, that’s for sure.  After six months, I was better, hardly missed her at all – not more than twice an hour.  Well, I hope she’s happy with the dentist or endodontist or whatever the hell he is.  Sure I do.

 “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. . ..”

“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.

The American Lion

 

Once there were lions.  Once lions roamed this country.  Here, where we are, lions hunted, and ate, mated, drowsed through the long afternoons, roared as the moon rose.  Lions.

Specifically, the now-extinct American Lion (panthera leo atrox).

800px-Panthera_leo_atrox_Sergiodlarosa

There has some controversy about the taxonomy of the American Lion;  about just where it fits in; about its relationship to modern lions, tigers, and other big cats.  For a while, it was thought that it might have been more closely related to the jaguar, but now, the prevalent view is that it is most closely related to the lion of today, and to the now extinct European cave lion (panthera leo spelaea).

So we are talking about real lions.  Only bigger.  Like so many of the animals back then, twelve, fifteen thousand years ago, the American lion was bigger than its modern counterpart.  20 -25% bigger.   It might have weighed as much as seven hundred pounds, and been seven feet long – excluding its tail.  Its legs were proportionally longer, and its bite was considerably stronger than modern lions.

That is one hell of a predator.

But it wasn’t the only apex predator roaming around back then.  In North America, there were four top predators, all at the same time:  The great short-faced bear; Smilodon; Dire Wolves, and the American Lion.  In modern Africa, lions and hyenas are competitors and adversaries.  But here, there were not only two teams of rivals, but four.

So how, exactly did that work?  Were they competitors, chasing the same game?  They certainly could have been – each was fully capable of taking down a horse, or bison, a camel, an elk.  Or did they preferentially take different animals?  The Lion taking horses, for example, while Smilodon took bison.  And what if they met?

If the American Lion was close kin to the modern lion (as seems likely), then we can suppose that its behavior was similar too.  So it probably hunted in prides; males probably fought each other for access to females.

The La Brea tar pits have produced incredible amounts of animal fossils – lots and lots of dire wolves; many Smilodon.  But not too many lions.   And most of them were males.

Why?  Perhaps lions were too intelligent to be drawn into danger (the sticky asphalt morass) by the cries of entrapped prey animals.  Perhaps only solitary males were hungry enough, desperate enough to venture in.  Maybe lions were simply rare.

And yet, their remains have been found nationwide.  There really were lions roaming here.

In historic times, there were enormous herds of buffalo (which, yes, I know should be called bison). There were (and are) elk, and deer.  Those would be suitable prey for any of them – The great short-faced bear; Smilodon; Dire Wolves, and the American Lion.

So what the hell happened?  Why did the American Lion, like the others, go extinct?

Climate change?  Hunting pressure by humans moving into the Continent?  Some disease?

A couple studies have shown that the animals appeared to be well-fed – i.e. not starving, just before they became extinct.  So, the mystery remains:

Once lions walked and stalked here, and now they are gone.

Here’s a link to an informative site:  http://library.sandiegozoo.org/factsheets/_extinct/lion_american/lion_american.htm*** 

Here are two short excerpts from my novel, dealing with American Lions:

 

I don’t know what the hell happened.  Maybe Devereaux was unbelievably passive-aggressive.  Maybe he didn’t give a fuck.  Maybe he fell asleep.  It was his second watch of the night, anyway.

 I was in my tent, tossing, trying to get to sleep.  Kinda half-awake.  And I heard the horses snorting, stamping, whinnying.  Devereaux yelling ‘Hey!  Hey!’ Then, two quick shots.

Snarling.

“Hey! Dammit!  Lasher, help!”

Gunshots. 

I ran out of my tent in my boxers, carrying my rifle, struggling to put my night vision goggles on. Lasher was already out.  He had his goggles on and his boots, too.  And his rifle.  We ran toward the horses. 

In the eerie greenish glow of the goggles, I could see the horses milling frantically, Devereaux at the edge, yelling, and firing. And dimly, beyond him, I could see lions, large, thickly muscled gray shapes, surrounding the downed mare.  It was obviously too late.  One leg was still kicking a little, but she was surrounded, engulfed by the lions.  There were five or six all around her, eating.  Snapping and snarling at each other, jostling for position. Noisy, harsh, brutal.

“Christ, Devereaux,” Lasher said, “stop shooting.  It’s too late.  Don’t waste the ammo.”

From time to time several pairs of green eyes would lift and regard us for a moment.  Not curious, not threatened, not particularly threatening. Simply noting that we were there.

Off to one side, I could see a lioness standing, head down, panting.  Part of her belly was black.  It took me a minute to figure out that she was wounded – gutshot.  The blood appeared black in the goggles.  I raised my rifle, aimed carefully, and put her down.   Lasher turned to me and nodded, once.

“Well, let’s get ‘em!” Devereaux whispered urgently.  “Fuckers! Let’s take them down!”

“What for?” I whispered back.  “They already got her.”

Yeah, but they’ll come for the other horses, next.”

“No they won’t – that’s enough meat right there for all of them.” 

Unbelievable – we’re having a debate in the middle of the night, twenty five or thirty feet away from a welter of feeding lions.

“All, right, let’s go,” Lasher said. “Devereaux, Summers, you guys pack up the tents, I’ll move the horses over to the other side of the camp, and we‘ll load up and move down the road a ways.”

For all of my avowed confidence that the lions were done hunting for the night, it was still creepy, moving around in the dark, (still with the goggles on) packing everything up.  I moved fast, real fast, just this side of panicky.  And then, of course, your mind goes into overdrive, and I started thinking not only of the lions, but of what else might – even now – come bounding or padding out of the darkness to take me.  A wolf; or a whole pack.  A bear.  Smilodon, stalking and creeping.  Teeth and claws and death in the night.

Even moving as fast as I could, packing up took several minutes. The stupid goddam goggles kept slipping around, but I didn’t want to take time to re-tighten the straps. 

Lasher came around with the horses, and we loaded up as quickly and quietly as we could. And got out of there.

We rode for a mile or so, by my estimate, and then Lasher said “Hold up, a minute. We got two choices – we can stop here for the rest of the night, or press on and try to make the mountains later today.”

That choice was easy.  “Let’s keep going,” I said.

“Damn straight.” Devereaux.

“All right.  We’ll get up into the hills, anyway, and find water.  Let’s go.”

In the dark as we rode, I asked Devereaux what had happened – back there – with the lions.

“Jesus, I don’t know.   I had the goggles on and saw one, walking toward the horses, in that crouched down, hurrying way they get.  So I yelled, but it didn’t stop.  So I shot – two times –  but I missed.  But the lion stopped.  But then three more came from the other side.  They charged out and grabbed her.  That’s when I really started shooting and calling for help.”

“The bastards are too dumb to be afraid of us.”

“No, they’re not too dumb,” I said.  “It’s just that they’ve never encountered humans before.  They haven’t learned to associate gunshots with death.  So they don’t fear us, you’re right, but not because they’re too dumb.  We’re just outside any of their experience.”

“Yeah, well, I still think we should’ve killed those bastards.  Jesus.”

End of conversation.  Devereaux had not been asleep, or passive aggressive.  Just overwhelmed by the coordinated attack of a pride of lions.

 

 

 

One day, riding across a basin, through grass that grew to our horses’ bellies, we saw a pride of lions take down a camel. The hunting seemed similar to that of modern African Lions.  The pride, all females, startled a herd of grazing camels, and then chased down a hugely pregnant female.  Shortly after she was down, a pair of male lions came trotting up quite briskly, and then, at the last second charged into the lionesses already gathered tightly around the carcass, and usurped the kill.  Seen in daylight, in action, these lions were awesome.  They seemed much bigger than modern African lions, huge, and strong, and so very quick.   I know from fossil reconstructions that they are estimated to have only been twenty percent larger than modern lions, but I’m telling you, these lions looked enormous. The males snarled and swiped at the females they had displaced, females who were trying to get back and eat.  The cacophony of growls, snarls and snaps was fearsome.  Not all of the lionesses were trying to fight their way back to the kill, however.  Some of the displaced females saw us, and began to stalk us.  The camel’s panicked flight had brought the pride nearer to us, and our path had brought us close enough to the kill, that the lions thought we presented them with another opportunity.  They weren’t charging us – yet; instead they displayed that nervous half-crouched low stalking creep that we’ve all seen on the nature shows.  Three of them, large, lean and hungry, approaching us from about four o’clock.  In this convention, 12:00 o’clock is directly ahead of us, and the other hours of the clock face represent the approximate direction from which the animals (or any other attack) were coming.

Lasher said, “Devereaux, take the [pack and spare] horses and move up – slowly.  Don’t run them; don’t trot; just keep ‘em bunched together.  Summers, you get up front, too, and stay right behind the horses. I’ll drop back and scare ‘em off.”

Yeah, well, good luck with that.  You aren’t going to be able to scare them off – they don’t know us or fear us.  They see horses within the kill zone, and they are hungry.  They don’t know that the sound of a shot equals danger. They see food.

“Watch the front and flanks,” Lasher said.  He pulled up and let us pass him.  Both Devereaux and I had our rifles out, and were looking, looking, looking, every which way, for lions to come exploding up out of the grass, or from the trees.

Behind me, I heard Lasher’s horse snort, and Lasher talking to it in a low, soothing voice.  “Hold on, girl. That’s it. That’s a good girl.  Hold on here.”  That sort of talk.  I glanced back briefly, and saw he was sitting on his horse, not moving forward toward the lions, nor back to rejoin us.  Just sitting astride his horse, rifle held up, and ready.

We kept moving steadily. The wind, what there was of it, was into our faces, so I guess the horses didn’t smell the lions. In any event they remained calm, as we walked them forward.

I looked back again, and saw Lasher now, thirty or forty feet behind us, still sitting his horse. Now his rifle was down and aimed at one of the lionesses.  Still he had not fired. 

We kept moving.  Devereaux detoured around a little grove of tree, and kept us out in a more open meadow, where at least we could see (I hoped) anything sneaking up on us.  Another thirty feet, fifty feet, eye still scanning everywhere.  Hot bright sun, midges or some kind of insect, swarming and swooping over the grass heads.  Very quiet, but for the creaking of the saddles, and some bird song.

Still no shots fired.

“BAM!  BAM!”  Two shots, in quick succession. And another, “BAM!”

Shit.  I jumped.  I saw Devereaux jump a little, too.  I looked back.  Lasher was still sitting, still holding his rifle aimed at a target I could not see.  After a minute, he turned his horse, and trotted up to us.

“Okay,” he said. “They won’t bother us no more. Let’s move out.”

“What happened?” I asked’

“Well, I heard somewhere that if you don’t run before them, don’t give ‘em something to chase, that lions most probably won’t attack.  So I tried that.”

“Yeah, but what happened?”

“Well, they stopped and started looking me over.  They wanted that horse, that was for sure, but they couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t running.  And I expect my smell was unusual, and gave them something to think about.  So anyway, you could see they was thinking about what to do –whether to try to catch another dinner, or just go back to that camel, before it’s all gone.  And then one of ‘em took a couple quick steps forward, like she was thinking she’d rather eat horse.  So I put two quick shots down into the ground right under her feet.  Tried to spray some dirt and gravel up in her face.  And then she stopped and looked like she was going to change her mind and eat some camel.  So I fired again, to encourage her.  And the three of them left.  We still better keep our eyes peeled, though.”

“Yeah,” Devereaux said, “but why didn’t you just shoot them?  I mean, Jesus.”

“Well, I’ll tell you,” Lasher said. “I thought about it, but I don’t like shooting anything unless I have to.  And even more important, we still gotta think about them boys behind us.  I hope we’ve given ‘em the slip, but I’m not counting on that. And if they’re still trying to track us, finding three lions that been shot would let ‘em know for sure that they’re on the right track.  So I woulda shot ‘em if I had to, but I’d rather not.  And it worked out okay.”

 

Wait – This is not an elephant!

Q.  When is an elephant not an elephant?

A.  When it’s a mastodon.

The American Mastodon.  Its remains have been found from Alaska to Florida, New York to California.  Fishermen find their teeth when their nets dredge the ocean bottoms one hundred miles offshore, suggesting that their range was even greater when ocean levels were lower than at present.

Mastodons might have seemed, at first glance, like elephants.  Like modern elephants, they had trunks, and tusks.  But although they were in the same order as elephants, they were in a different genus – Mammut.  Their build differed from modern elephants – they had shorter legs, longer bodies, and were more heavily muscled.  They stood between 7 ½ and 10 feet tall at the shoulders, and weighed up to 10,000 pounds. There is fossil evidence of sexual dimorphism – males were larger, on average, than females.

Mastodon

Image from Oliver, The American Mastodon, New England’s Extinct Giant, June 9, 2011, www. onenewengland.com

Mastodons had big tusks, up to fifteen feet long.  They were curved, but not as sharply as those of mammoths.  And they were used in combat. They were aggressive. Fossil evidence shows that the males engaged in fierce battles, presumably fighting over access to the females.

And like the woolly mammoth, the American Mastodon had a thick woolly fur coat.

American Mastodon compared to Woolly Mammoth

Masatodon v. Mammoth

Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MammothVsMastodon.jpg

File this in the “betcha didn’t know” category:  “Mastodon” means “breast-tooth,” or “nipple-tooth,” because of the cone shaped protrusions on its teeth.  These suggest that the mastodon diet was largely browse – leaves, twigs and branches from trees, shrubs and bushes.

There is some controversy about their behavior.  Many experts think they lived in herds, probably females and young, much like modern elephants.  Others’ however, think they may have been more solitary animals.

They disappeared roughly twelve thousand years ago, possibly because of climate change, aided by hunting pressure from humans entering the continent at that time.  Archeologists find skeletal remains with Clovis points embedded in them.  Mastodons were hunted.  They are extinct now.

Would have been cool to see one, though.

This are two short excerpts from my novel, The Clovis Mission:

Another valley.  We were in basin and range country, now.  Another stream, and a small lake behind a beaver damn.  Aspen growing.

And then, in the night, in my vision goggles, I saw them. Three of them, browsing on the aspen. Mastodons. Yeah, I know, I should call them Mammut. So sue me.  Much less tall than the mammoths, but built like boxcars, with a long sloping spine from the head to the tail.  No hump.  But long, and wide.  Very solid.  Long, long tusks, but straighter than those of the mammoths. Just browsing in the margin of the woods.  They, unlike the other animals we had seen recently, seemed entirely unconcerned with us. Their small piggish eyes tracked me as I rode past, and one snorted a little, but they didn’t move, either toward us or away. 

I surmise that they were m. cosoensis, not m. americanum, because there were only three of them, not a herd, and because they were browsing aspen leaves, not spruce needles.  But so little is known.  Maybe they break up into family groups during the summer.  Maybe their diet changes seasonally, and they take advantage of whatever forage is available at any given time of year.  Maybe they were an as-yet unknown subspecies. 

But, oh, what a sight.  So large, solid, rocking a little as they browsed, their trunks curling up and stripping the small branches off the aspens.  Their fur was long and shaggy, but they too, like the mammoths, were shedding their winter coats.

***

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.

The Killer

The problem is – there’s just so much we don’t know.  How were its ears set on its head?  What color was its fur?  Was it a solitary hunter, or did it hunt in packs?  For that matter, how did it use those huge sharp fangs to kill?

But – there is a lot we do know.  It was big.  And strong.  And lethal.

Smilodon.   Smilodon Fatalis.  Fatalis is Latin for “deadly.”  

It was a cat, of course, but not quite like modern lions, and tigers.  Different subfamilies.  Lions and tigers are in the subfamily pantherinae; Smilodon in the subfamily machairodontinae.  Cats in that subfamily had long canines.  Fangs.

As did Smilodon.  Hence the popular name: saber-toothed tiger, or, less commonly, saber-toothed cat.

And those teeth were lethal.  Long, serrated, and sharp.  The word “Smilodon” itself reflects this – it is derived from the Greek word for “carving knife.”

So Smilodon Fatalis = deadly carving knife.

The cat itself was big.  A big mature Smilodon could weighed up to, or even more than 500 lbs. But Smilodon was built differently than the large modern cats.  Its legs were shorter, but very powerful, anatomically shaped to brace it against struggling prey.  It had a shorter tail than modern lions or tigers.  And its neck muscles were hugely strong, presumably used to help it with the killing bite it delivered.

It needed those strong neck muscles, because, oddly, its skull was not very strong; its bite only one third as strong as that of lions  – when considering its jaw muscles alone.  But of course, they didn’t operate alone – that’s where the neck musculature came into play.

Big, thick, stocky, strong as hell, but not terribly fast.  So how did it hunt? 

Good question:  We don’t really know.  It may have been a scavenger.  But if it hunted, it was probably an ambush hunter.  It certainly wasn’t designed to outrun its prey. Analysis of its skeletal remains suggests that it preyed primarily on horses and bison, big, strong and fast animals.  So, built as it was, if it hunted them, it probably hunted from ambush, since both horses and (perhaps surprisingly) bison are very fast, and Smilodon couldn’t have outrun them. 

In all likelihood it was opportunistic – scavenging when it could, hunted when the opportunity arose.

But whether it was a solitary hunter, or hunted in packs is not known.  Some data suggest that it was a social animal, and hunted in packs, but as yet, there is no conclusive evidence either way.

And how did it use those incredible dagger teeth to kill?  Again, the answer is not wholly clear.  It seems most likely that it used its powerful legs and claws to hold prey while its immensely strong neck drove those daggers into the throat of the animal, severing windpipe and arteries alike.  But . . . maybe not.

I like to think so, though, as set forth in another excerpt of my novel, below.

Like so many other large species of animals, Smilodon became extinct about 11,00 years ago, just as the continent was being populated by another, smaller predator – homo sapiens.

 Image

THis illustration is taken from Spectrumart.net, the website of talented illustrator Sorin Bulucianu.  It’s the last thing that Ross saw.

* * *

Once we were caught in a huge thunderstorm.  The air turned green and the evening was pregnant with silence.  When the storm crashed over us, it was deafening.  We were deluged with cascades  of water, and lightning exploded all around us.  One of the horses became frantic, and somehow broke the halter and ran off.  We huddled the other horses together and sat crouched next to them.

In the dim light I thought I saw a large dark shape move silently past us.  Then – a scream, and a snarl, a deep rasping guttural cough.    When the storm let up, Lasher said, “You wait here.  I’ll go after that mare.”   So we waited.  There wasn’t much to do – we had put our slickers on, and everything else was packed, so we didn’t have to spread anything out to dry.  Lasher wasn’t gone very long.  He came back with his rifle in his hand.

“Too late.  Doesn’t matter.”  he said. “Saber-toothed cat took her.   Just over the next rise there.” 

“I’m going to go see,” I said.

“Me, too” Devereaux said.

We rode over, cautiously, down a slight slope, across the rivulet that was running at the base of it, and then up a gentle rise.  Below the crest of the hill we each got our rifles out. “Don’t shoot it unless you have,” I said to Devereaux. “I want to observe its behavior.”

The cat – Smilodon fatalis– was larger than I had imagined, more heavily built.  Its coat was tawny, but with faint brownish rosettes.  The horse was lying on its side, throat ripped out, but the cat was eating its entrails.  It had opened its stomach, although, having seen it, I’m still unclear about how it used its dagger teeth to do that. It was a substantial animal – easily the size of a large tiger.  Sleek, strong, heavily muscled. Even though it was lying down as it ate, I could see how massive its shoulder and forearms were.  It must have smelled us, or sensed us, because it stopped eating and looked over at us.  Except for the fangs, its head looked like the head of a bobcat or a lynx.  Tufted ears, and a ruff around its cheeks.  But those golden  eyes:  Cold, fierce, implacable.  Very, very aggressive.  Fearless. 

We watched for a minute.  Even Devereaux, usually so quick on the trigger, was stilled.  Finally, after a minute, we backed the horses down and around and returned to camp.

But here’s the thing that kept me up that night.  Where had it come from?  We’d been travelling through fairly open country – grassland, primarily; not a lot of cover.  And yet, this was the first we’d seen.  Where did it hide?  How did it hide?  Where had it appeared from when it tracked and killed our runaway mare?  Were there others? Where were they?  How common were they?  How, in that monster storm, had it tracked and killed our horse? 

For all of the other predators we’d seen – the lions, the wolves, even the bear – I had some frame of reference. Even though they were all different from the predators of today, I thought I could understand their habits, their habitats, their behaviors.  But this cat was something new, something unfamiliar.  This cat was fearsome.  That old archaic word finally came completely to life in this animal:  Fearsome.

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right.  There are other big solitary hunting cats:  The jaguar, the mountain lion, the lynx, even the bobcat.  And I know that the clouded leopard has teeth almost as long, in relation to its skull, as the sabers of Smilodon.  But still:  Here, on the open prairie, in competition with pack hunters, and killer bears, lives this big, fearsome cat.  This, to me, was an amazing sight.  I immediately wanted to spend the next several months studying it.  How did it hunt?  It was an ambush hunter, presumably.  But how did it stalk its prey?  What were its preferred prey animals?  Was it exclusively a solitary hunter?  What were its mating practices?  How many kittens did it have?  Is “kittens” even the right term for the offspring of that fearsome animal?  Okay, I hope I’ve made my point now.  I’ll stop using “fearsome.”  But it was fearsome, truly.

* * *

Shhh!  What was that?

Ross stood up, and looked around.  Had those sneaky fuckers somehow found him?  He froze, then slowly crouched and picked up one of the heavy spears he had.  Not a gun, goddammit, but better than nothing.

Slowly he stood, and looked all around.  Nothing.  No-one in sight.  But his instincts had been honed on battlefields all over the world, and he knew he’d heard something.

There – to his left, the grass moved.

He turned and crouched. 

And saw widely spaced fierce yellow eyes. Oh shit.  One of those saber-toothed tigers.  Maybe twenty five feet away.

It saw him, too.  And it didn’t turn away like it should have.  Instead, it crouched like it was getting ready to charge or spring at him. 

He turned until he was facing it directly, and then still slowly, smoothly, brought the spear up until it was facing the cat.  You want some of this, you fucker, come and get it.  It snarled.  He could see more of it now, crouched in the grass, huge shoulders flexed and ready, tail lashing the air.  And those eyes, those fierce yellow eyes.

It was only in the last fleeting fraction of second that he glimpsed movement out of the corner of his eye, before another sabertooth smashed into his side and dragged him down.  It weighed well over four hundred pounds, and was immensely strong.  Its huge paws pinioned his shoulders.  He had landed so that the spear was lying beneath him.  Desperately he tried to turn his hips to kick it, but it brought one of its hind legs up and pinned him down. 

It was in no hurry.  It paused for a moment, breathing, before looking at him and then lowering its head.  He had time to scream, once, before it drove its fangs into his throat, and sliced through his windpipe and carotid arteries.   The last thing he saw was the cat purring as it licked the blood pouring from his neck.