Mammoth Art

While cleaning an old bone he found, an avocational fossil hunter made an incredible discovery:

Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Florida have announced the discovery of a bone fragment, approximately 13,000 years old, in Florida with an incised image of a mammoth or mastodon. This engraving is the oldest and only known example of Ice Age art to depict a proboscidean (the order of animals with trunks) in the Americas. The team’s research is published online in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The scientists are likely too cautious to make a definitive call without running DNA tests on it, but the carving is clearly that of a mammoth, not a mastodon, and a Columbian at that. Both animals had backs that sloped from shoulders to hips, but those of mammoths were much steeper; and unlike mastodons, mammoths had discernible necks, which you can also see in the image. Both Columbian mammoths and mastodons roamed ancient Florida.

Art is communication — and that long-gone artist has said “I saw this” across thirteen millennia or more. Amazing.

Photo credit Chip Clark at the Smithsonian Institution.


The end of the year seems like a fine time to phone in some updates:

Pirelli Building. In my January article for Connecticut Magazine about historically designated but otherwise derelict buildings, I reported that passers-by of the Pirelli Building in New Haven could see “shattered windows and Venetian blinds askew.” I interviewed the sales manager of IKEA New Haven, which owns the building, for the piece so he knew it was in the works. It seems to have had an effect: Since then, the windows have been repaired and the blinds removed, making the building appear less forsaken.

Megafauna Extinctions. This story in SciAm has a good summary of the latest research to pinpoint when mammoths, mastodons, and other large American Pleistocene animals went extinct. It leans toward the overkill hypothesis at the end but I think the Clovis mystery just underscores the complication of the extinction question: not only are we not sure just when various species vanished (this much shallower article, for example, lumps them all together but it’s not clear if humans ever laid eyes on American lions or sabercats), but we really don’t know when the first immigrants arrived in the New World.

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs. I’ve been using CFLs throughout my house for over two years now and my love affair with them is devolving into spiteful asides and unflattering comparisons to previous partners. The biggest sore point is their unreliable lifespans. “CFL makers claim the bulbs have lifetimes of 10,000 hours each,” but I’ve had bulbs die in a matter of weeks. This may be an issue of poor QC rather than with the technology itself but it certainly offsets any savings accrued by buying more-expensive-yet-longer-lasting CFLs over incandescents. Not to mention that CFLs’ dim glow when first switched on in cold temperaturesand by “cold,” I mean 65° F or lower — often compels me to leave lights on in rooms I’m not occupying so I can see what the hey-hey I’m doing if I go back in there. A major criticism of incandescents is that they waste much of their energy on heat rather than light, but having experienced the alternative, I’m not sure it’s a waste after all.

Photo above taken at Pleasure Beach in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Lights Go Out on Killer Comet Theory

Remember that comet that struck Canada 12,900 years ago and killed the woolly mammoths? Yeah, the thing is, about that:

The proponents of the theory said that they had found evidence of a comet impact, including magnetic microspherules, in the earth overlying 10 Clovis-age archaeological sites across North America.

University of Wyoming archaeologist Ted Surovell and several colleagues attempted to repeat the study and came up with startlingly different results.

Using the same methods, Surovell and his co-researchers were “unable to find high concentrations of magnetic particles and spherules” – even at the two sites previously studied by the original researchers

As noted previously, the comet hypothesis, while generating hubbub on the Googletubes, never explained how the strike caused megafauna extinctions. We’re left where we’ve always been: at the end of the Pleistocene, when some large animals died off, others lived on, and we have little explanation why any of it happened.

Photo courtesy of Noel Munford of the Palmerston North Astronomical Society, New Zealand (via NASA).

More Death From Above

A new study says a comet did to the mammoth what an asteroid did to the T-rex:

Space rocks that slammed into the glaciers of eastern Canada some 12,900 years ago likely helped wipe out mega-animals like woolly mammoths and possibly the continent’s first human inhabitants called the Clovis people, according to a new study that adds to evidence that a trio of factors were involved.

The new evidence comes from recently discovered nano-sized diamonds, which researchers say are the strongest clues to date for an argument that could explain the region’s die-off during the late Pleistocene epoch.

This still isn’t a silver bullet. Like the overkill hypothesis, it doesn’t explain why some American megafauna went extinct while others — bison, moose, bighorn sheep — live on to this day.

I interviewed John Harris, the chief curator at the Page Museum in Los Angeles, a few years ago for a story. He told me that Pleistocene juniper twigs pulled from the brea showed distinct evidence of carbon starvation. This suggested that plant resources were diminished, which in turn affected herbivores and their predators. “When you review the herbivores that survived you’ll note they comprise ruminants (bison, deer) and omnivores (peccaries). Horses, ground sloths and proboscideans are hind-gut fermenters that failed to survive,” Harris said. If you’ve ever walked behind a horse, you know it leaves a lot of undigested plant matter in its path. Cud-chewers digest plants more efficiently; omnivores have a greater variety of food on which they can live.

Did the atmospheric results of the comet cause carbon starvation? So far so good, but it still doesn’t explain megafauna extinctions in other parts of the world. What I really want to know is why horses went extinct in North America but survived in Eurasia. Was the comet felt here more than there?