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.