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When Bones Read Like Books


We picked this dispatch as today's "Best."
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The feet of a Columbian mammoth
Dateline: 11,350 B.C.E. A Columbian mammoth clambers through meadows of lush grasses and clumps of pine trees toward a fresh-water pond. He stands 12 feet at the shoulder and weighs 2.5 tons. His tusks are nearly 13 feet long. He has already eaten 200 pounds of grass today; now he wants to wash it down with a dozen gallons of water.

As he approaches the pond, he takes note of the other animals. There is an 18-foot ground sloth, a saber-tooth cat, and a herd of straight-horned bison. Nothing he can't handle. So he wades on in, takes a big gulp and sprays it at the sloth, just for fun. But all of a sudden -- fffwomp! Something pierces his thick hide. He cries out in pain, and it happens again. Fffwomp! He turns in time to see a group of trunkless, hornless creatures standing on the bank of the pond, flinging pieces of wood with sharp little points at him. Aiya! It's those crazy Clovis people! Who do they think they are, messing with the mighty mammoth? He tries to charge them, but realizes they are everywhere, whooping and hollering, jumping up and down. His anger turns to fear as they surround him and then corral him out of the pond toward a tree. He looks up just in time to see a boulder fall from the branches. He sees stars, and then blackness.

That's me holding an enormous mammoth molar!
The Clovis people are jubilant. They drag the mammoth's enormous carcass away from the pond and get to work, carefully cutting through his hide with jagged pieces of stone. They will not waste a single part of him. His meat will be food; his hide will be clothing; his tusks will be tools and jewelry. His sinew will be braided and used as rope. And, most significantly, his bones will forever bear the scars that tell the story not only of his demise, but also of his conquerors' rise.

Dateline: 1929 A.D. Fourteen-year-old Ridgely Whiteman and a bunch of his buddies roam around a thick patch of wiry grasses. Suddenly they spy a "point," or spearhead, protruding from the earth. They carefully remove it, then see another, and another. After a heated debate about which point is oldest, Ridgely sends one to the Smithsonian Institute along with a piece of bone. Years later, he will be credited with discovering the site of the oldest known culture in North America: the Clovis people of Blackwater Draw, New Mexico.

Daphne and I gaze over the stomping grounds of the Clovis people
Dateline: 2000 A.D. Joanne Dickenson reports to work. She is the resident archaeologist and curator at the Clovis Type Site, a 48-foot by 72-foot metal building that houses some 11,000 years of history -- only a fraction of which has been uncovered. She carries with her a toolkit that includes a trowel, a paintbrush, dental picks , and wooden sticks. She will survey the half dozen layers of time in the earth (the Clovis, the Folsom, the Agate Basin, the Portales Complex, and the Archaic) before selecting the space she'll explore that day. She will sit in one spot for hours, meticulously brushing away the flecks of dirt from the bones of bison and other creatures buried beneath the earth. Then she will record all the data she collects, analyze it, and write about it with hopes of someday publishing it so people can have a better understanding of their earliest ancestors.

Joanne Dickenson surveys 11,000 years of history
But today, her excavation will be interrupted by a couple of curious U.S. Trekkers who have driven all the way to Blackwater Draw from Albuquerque to catch a glimpse of their earliest recorded ancestors. We're chock-full of questions about our archeological history, and between Mrs. Dickenson and Matt Hillsman, the curator for the Blackwater Draw Museum, we get a few hesitant explanations, but no hard-and-fast answers. Archaeologists, as we learned, are wary of absolutes.

First things first: Who are these Clovis people? When did they live and what did they do? Well, as far as archaeologists can tell, the Clovis appeared on the scene sometime around 11,600 to 11,300 B.C. They probably lived in small family groups of three to five couples, plus elders and children. Men were most likely the large game hunters, while women gathered fruits and nuts. Family groups may have joined other clans for special hunts or ceremonies from time to time. While none of their own bones have been found in Blackwater Draw, we know the Clovis existed because they left behind their distinctive fluted points. In 1963, for instance, archeologists discovered one of these points sticking in the rib cage of a mammoth that had probably wandered into the area to drink from the famed water hole. In addition to finding many tools and weapons, archaeologists have also discovered scratches on animal bones that indicate butchery by human hands.

Mrs. Dickenson meticulously cleans a bone
Many of the animals which once roamed this area of New Mexico are now extinct, including the mammoth, saber-tooth cat, four-tusk mastodon, dire wolf and giant sloth. According to Mr. Hillsman, these creatures had several forces working against them, one being a drastic change in climate. Geological evidence indicates that the pond dried up about 7,000 years ago, and the ecology of the area gradually turned from forest into prairie and then desert. While humans could dig wells by hand when the water supply dwindled, the animals simply went thirsty. Lacking the ability to adapt like the humans -- and survive their attacks -- they slowly died out. Once the animals were gone, the people wandered off in search of food, and Blackwater Draw was abandoned.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Archaeologists now work to piece together our earliest history from the weapons and tools these ancient people left behind. Mr. Hillsman compares it to putting together a puzzle. "Why do you put a puzzle together? To make a picture. Archaeologists do the exact same thing, only we have to find the pieces of the puzzle first, and then we have to clean them and analyze them before we can fit them together and find out what life was really like way back then."

Bones, bones and more bones!
As Daphne and I leave Blackwater Draw, we can't help but wonder what other pieces to the puzzle of life lurk beneath the earth. The answers to our very existence might be buried just a few inches beneath our feet!

We also marvel over the fact that our human race managed to survive the harsh climatic changes because of one thing: our ability to adapt. The Columbian mammoth could have squashed the Clovis and their many descendants with his big toe, but he had to outwit them first -- and he never could. Even in the earliest of times, brains triumphed over brawn!


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Nick - Checking out the "battle royale" over the first humans
Teddy - The debates from the dinosaur age rage on
Becky - A sticky, gooey mammoth in Los Angeles, California?
Team - Where did all these people come from, anyway?
Team - Think Dinosaurs are Scary? Try Greenhouse Gasses!