Relative Size and Other Important Tidbits

TitanesWhen we think of Pleistocene fauna, we usually think big.  The above image was assembled by Roberto Díaz Sibaja on his wonderful blog Palaeos, la historia de la vida en la tierra.  I love the fact that he has created, for many of his animal-size related posts, a real scale that nearly all of us can relate to; a human and a Volkswagen Beetle.  Look closely at his human silhouette and you can see some attitude hidden there.

M trogontheriiNot an archaeology blog but a broader and probably smarter view of the biological world through paleontology and evolution.  He covers so many facets of the natural world including many fossil animals from dinosaurs to modern camelids.

B latifronsThis is just a small example of one of his posts, but one I find myself referring to when trying to illustrate scale.

A agustidensHe treats his blog entries in a manner I wish I had the time and energy to create, using links and (god forbid) actual references.  A truly unique way to write on the internet.

D shoshonensisClick the link below and prepare to learn about our interesting past.

Logo 1 corregidohttp://palaeos-blog.blogspot.com/

Field School Update

Lots of remarkable progress has been made using the field school students in and out of the South Bank Building.  The bonebed has yielded a few surprises and given up more excellent paleontological specimens.  More information to come, but here are a few photos to entice.

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An Excursion to Water Canyon

A tardy post.

Several weeks back I, along with David Kilby, was fortunate to be asked to come help with an excavation in  central New Mexico. The project was the brainchild of Robert Dello-Russo from the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies.  Since funding is always an issue with this type of research, this was very much a volunteer-based project, bringing in archaeological professionals and skilled avocationals  from around the state.

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A feeder arroyo in water canyon looking west.

The project area is west of Socorro, New Mexico between two mountain ranges.  There is a surprising amount of energetic water that comes from the mountains to the west, moving enormous amounts of sediment, and sometimes very large cobbles and pebbles.  This has created a sort of fan that covers the very old Paleoindian and paleontological deposits and is overlaid with several meters of fine silt.

The Black Mat visible in the arroyo.

The Black Mat as visible in the arroyo.

Evidence of a much wetter environment abounds in the arroyo cuts where black mats are revealed in the profiles.  The area has produced Paleoindian tools, projectiles, and bone in the previous two seasons of work.

How to move 500 cu m of dirt in 3 days

How to move 500 cu m of dirt in 3 days (Chris Merriman (L) and Ethan Ortega (R)).

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Overburden removed to expose the Black Mat and associated bonebed.

With only a couple weeks to remove 3.5-4 meters of overburden, a heavy excavator and backhoe were required to uncover the site.  This was done quickly and with remarkable precision as seen below.

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Excavation units begin to expose the bonebed.

Once the black mat was reached (or nearly so), mechanical excavation ceased and 1 x 1 meter hand units were begun.

Stacey Bennett and Chris Merriman starting to uncover the bison innominate in Unit 5-1.

Stacey Bennett and Chris Merriman starting to uncover the bison innominate in Unit 5-1.

DSC_0453Bone was soon reached in the later Paleoindian level and intensive mapping began.

DSC_0456DSC_0458DSC_0461DSC_0467DSC_0474DSC_0478Old bonebeds are notoriously slow and difficult to excavate but remarkable progress was made over the short two-week window.

DSC_0504A common problem with bison kills is proving that they are, in fact, kills.  To do this, something has to point toward human intervention.  Luckily this occurred, in the form of a projectile point, visible in the above photo near the left edge of the above excavation photo.

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Above is a close-up field photo of the fine Eden Point it turned out to be.  Fortunately, it even fits the expected dates for the strata where it was found.

DSC_0515I was glad to be part of this exciting investigation and hope to make it back to this remarkable site in the near future.  More information can be found HERE http://www.nmarchaeology.org/water-canyon.html.

(Look for more photos to follow as my co-conspirators pass them on.)

Rancho La Brea Photo Album

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Wandering scholars discover the Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits.

Recent travels allowed for a quick visit to the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits.  Now in their one hundredth year of excavation, the site has yielded over 600 species to date with a NISP of over 3.5 million (not counting over 200 bacteria).  It’s a remarkable place and I feel privileged to to have been given an excellent tour by Dr John Harris and Curator Gary Takeuchi.  Tar still bubbles and oozes and excavations continue, thanks in part to continuing growth of this highly urbanized area.

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Chuck and George with Dr John Harris and Gary Takeuchi

Although most of the tar seeps are closed off for safety, a couple can be accessed with a guide.  The surface is just as deceptive as it is described and is often covered with leaves and dirt.  The tar can also be deceptively solid feeling until the incredible stickiness locks your feet to the tar.  Dr Harris provided a great example by having us poke the tar with a wooden lath.  Even though it is solid enough to resist the lath for more than a top inch or two, it is extremely difficult to pull it back out again and it’s easy to imagine a hooved animal becoming mired almost instantly to await it’s demise by large cat or wolf or even thirst.

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You just gotta poke it with a stick…

For reasons that aren’t completely clear, there are an extremely high number of predators and scavengers in the mix, implying that many carnivores may be tempted by a struggling animal but the more cautious grazers were likely scared away by their thrashing comrades.  The upshot of this is an enormous number of coyotes, wolves, saber-toothed cats, short-faced bears, and American lions as well as the full gamut of vulture-like birds filling these pits and seeps.  Below I am holding the humerus of a Smilodon fatalis, a prevalent creature at the Tar Pits.

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Examining a freshly excavated smilodon humerus (upper arm of saber-toothed cat).

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Examining the mounted saber-toothed cats.

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And of course, a mammoth.

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A couple of mastodon.

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Just a glimpse of the over 3.5 million specimens housed at the Page.

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We had a wonderful tour of the “fish-bowl” lab by Shelly Cox.  Here we examine the newly cleaned mammoth tusk.

Tusks grow like tree-rings and tell scientists a lot about the environment the creature lived in by proxy.  A section of this particular specimen has been removed for analysis already.

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Cranium of a very familiar looking mammoth. Although not found inundated in tar, there is still enough in the sediment that it is oozing from the cleaned skull.

For anyone interested in Ice Age fauna, the Page Museum is a definite “must see” stop on the journey through life.

Pagemammoth

Click the mammoth to see more from the Page Museum at http://www.tarpits.org.

Ice Age Predators from the Early Paleoindian Period

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Image from the Dire Wolf Project (http://www.direwolfproject.com/home.html).

We don’t find many predators in our assemblages on the Southern High Plains.  When we do, it is generally a tooth, a single toe bone, or a few bits.  Predators weren’t hunted in droves and likely wander off to die alone so they don’t end up in the cultural assemblage.  However…

There are some interesting finds coming from UNLV lately.  Las Vegas wash has produced many fossil animals, but, just as in many other ancient sites, it’s the predators that are the rare ones.

“The Pleistocene predators are starting to pile up in the fossil-rich hills at the northern edge of the valley.

Less than a month after a California team found evidence of a saber-tooth cat in the Upper Las Vegas Wash, UNLV researchers announced the discovery of a 1½-inch long foot bone from what they believe was a dire wolf that stalked the valley between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago.”  Read the article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal here.

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There is more information about the saber-tooth cats in this short article in the RGJ.  Another interesting find that I want to know more from.  With so much great information coming out through the scientific community, and the exponential nature of the data, it’s sad to think of all the time and energy focused away from this good stuff and onto the wacky pseudo-science floating across the television and internet.

Smilodon fatalis.  Image from the Indiana Geological Surevey (click image for more information).

Smilodon fatalis. Image from the Indiana Geological Survey (click image for more information).

Photo of the Week 9/16/2011

Illustration of a worked mammoth tusk excavated and on display at the Blackwater Draw site.

Archaeologically speaking, finding the raw material (mammoth ivory), or finding finished tools (ivory rods, shaft wrenches…), is far more common than finding ivory  in the process of being modified.  The stone tool marks on this artifact are quite distinctive and clearly visible to the naked eye.  Read more about this interesting artifact in the 1990 article written by Jeffrey Saunders et al.  Dr. Saunders is responsible for most of the identification and stabilization of the faunal remains excavated during the 1960s.  He is currently a curator at the Illinois State Museum and his work is displayed with pride at the BWD site’s visitor center.

Saunders, J.J., C. Vance Haynes, Jr., Dennis Stanford, and George A. Agogino
1990   A Mammoth-Ivory Semi-fabricate from Blackwater Locality No. 1, New Mexico.  American Antiquity 55:112-119.

Blackwater Draw Bibliography