Ice Age Forensics by Dale Guthrie - Read Online
Ice Age Forensics
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Summary

Frozen mammals of the Ice Age, preserved for millennia in the tundra, have been a source of fascination and mystery since their first discovery over two centuries ago. The 1979 find of a frozen, extinct steppe bison in an Alaskan gold mine allowed paleontologist Dale Guthrie to undertake the first scientific excavation of an Ice Age mummy in North America and to test theories about these enigmatic frozen fauna. In this brilliant remaking of the death of a wooly bison over 36,000 years ago, we’re given a glimpse of what life was like during the Pleistocene Epoch. From torn fragments and patches of deep-frozen skin and insights gleaned from studies of Montana bison, African lions, and Iberian cave art, Ice Age Forensics presents the story of the huge carcass Guthrie calls “Blue Babe”—and the excitement surrounding its reconstruction.
Published: University of Chicago Press an imprint of UChicagoPress on
ISBN: 9780226147109
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Ice Age Forensics - Dale Guthrie

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PREFACE

There are stories throughout the north woods about a giant of a man, Paul Bunyan, who roamed the forests and accomplished heroic feats with his outsized broadax. Paul’s companion was an immense blue ox he called Blue Babe. The unearthing in 1979 of a giant Pleistocene bovine carcass, coated with blue vivianite crystals, near Fairbanks, Alaska, recalled the image of Babe buried somewhere in the northern forests, and so from the first we called the mummy Blue Babe.

Were the Bunyan tales a bit more credible, were we living in a time when stories told to children about giants were not so clearly fanciful, the discovery of Blue Babe would have been sure proof of Bunyan and his exploits. Occasional finds of frozen mummies probably substantiated beliefs held by earlier peoples: that a strange community of large creatures existed beneath the northern forests, living entirely underground except when they mistakenly surfaced along a stream bank, for that was where their bodies and bones were found emerging from the mud.

The context of our modern explanations, the story we tell our children of woolly mammoths and great ice ages, is fairly recent. In fact we are still in the formative stages of developing our understanding about the Pleistocene animals, vegetation, landforms and climate that once occurred in the north. While Paul and Babe may be myths, there was a time when real giants did roam the earth. When people first developed the technology to move into the north, as ice of the last glaciation was retreating, they hunted such giants: woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses, and a big woolly bison like the one described here.

We have solid evidence, however, that this bison lived before people colonized North America. Blue Babe walked the Fairbanks hills about 36,000 years ago. In Europe Neanderthal families were still lounging on bison robes beside their fires, eating bison that closely resembled Blue Babe.

Although as a paleontologist I think and talk about things happening tens of thousands of years ago, it is hard for me to imagine the depth of time we measure by 36,000 years. If we were to walk through a geological time scale back to when Blue Babe lived, we would pass the peak of the Roman Empire at 2,000 years ago in the first few strides. At 3,000 years the first pottery occurs in the New World and Tutankhamen has been buried for two hundred years. At 6,000 years ago there are no real urban centers, only tribal villages. Around 9,000 years ago the first domestic plants and livestock occur; prior to that, people all over the world were hunters and gatherers. At 11,000 years ago we find that Pleistocene species of large mammals, like ground sloths and mammoths, still lived in North America. At 13,000 years ago large ice masses remained from the last glaciation. At 18,000 years the world was locked in the midst of a full glacial climate; Hudson Bay was the center of a giant ice mass, over a mile thick, which extended south to central Illinois. Land that is now the American Great Lakes warped downward under the enormous weight of continental ice. This tremendous ice mass flowed imperceptibly southward, grinding the landscape into a flat plane as far south as Missouri. The earth’s crust under those areas is still slowly rebounding upward, recovering from its heavy glacial load.

The vegetation of the north was quite different