Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Clovis hunters

When Clovis Indians hunted giant animals

        The Clovis were and early people who left campsites and artifacts showing they were here as early as 12,000 years ago. That means that they overlapped with a very rich collection of marvelous animals that are now extinct. Their hunting parties must have been extraordinary adventures. For a brief period at the end of the Pleistocene ice age, the lives of humans and mastodons, dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, horses and camels intertwined.
        Some years ago, I was introduced to the fact that huge mammals once resided in North America. It was only recently, however, when I visited the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, that I began to fully appreciate that my home state of Missouri was also once home to some of these same giants.

A reproduction of a Mastodon

        Several thousand years ago the giant sloth in Missouri could reach 20 feet in height standing on its hind legs. That made the eight-foot sloth in California small by comparison. When hungry, the giant sloth could push over a tree to get its lunch. Can you image what it must have been like to hunt such a creature? In addition, Missouri had animals not found in the California tar pits: giant armadillos, mush oxen, tapirs and peccaries (pig-like animals).
        The best nearby site for seeing a full-sized replica of a mastodon is at the Mastodon State Historical Site, 20 miles south of St. Louis on Interstate 55. The museum holds a large collection of bones, tusks and human artifacts from the Kimmswick Bone Beds, which are located a brief walk from the museum.
        On occasion the museum hosts special events such as a flint knapping demonstration on when artisans will create stone tools and skin deer hides. Visitors also get a chance to throw spears and engage in other activities of early humans.
        Not only did Native Americans kill and butcher mastodons at the Kimmswick Site, they also crafted stone weapons and tools there. These Paleolithic people, we now call the Clovis people, were excellent artisans and skilled big-game hunters.
        Some years ago at an Elderhostel called "Clan of the Cave Bear" at Colorado State University, I visited a site where early hunters had killed a mammoth. Our instructor explained that they would have used throwing sticks to launch their spears hard enough to penetrate the great beast’s thick skin. Clearly, it would have taken many spears to bring down such a giant.
        Thirteen thousand years ago, the Missouri area was much cooler and wetter than it is today, with many swamps and ponds. The forests were made up of evergreens, providing an ideal diet for mastodons.
        Mastodons were a bit smaller than mammoths. They had straighter tusks, longer bodies and were covered with coarse, reddish-brown hair. They preferred woodlands, while mammoths preferred grasslands.
        In 1799, the French anatomist Cuvier realized that bones that had been discovered earlier were those of an elephant-like animal he named "mastodon." Thomas Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to find out if mastodons still existed in the West.
        In 1840, a Dr. Albert Koch collected enough bones to build a skeleton that he displayed in a museum near the present site of the St. Louis Arch. The phrase "I saw the elephant," which means "I saw something amazing," was perhaps coined by pioneers who visited Koch’s museum as they passed through St. Louis on their way west.
        Visitors can see a life-scene depicting a Clovis campsite as it may have appeared at Mastodon State Park 11,000 years ago. The Indians, who moved about in search of game, are shown performing common tasks associated with the prehistoric culture.

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