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The Biggest Game in Texas

By Thad Sitton

Scientists are still arguing about what happened to the giant mammals that once roamed Texas.

Around 11,200 years ago, a group of people clustered around a campfire at upper Buttermilk Creek in what is now Bell County, Texas. As they moved back and forth in the flickering firelight, familiar sounds that were about to disappear forever drifted in from the night: the trumpeting of gigantic elephants stirring restlessly in the dark and the territorial roars of nocturnal hunting cats.

Archaeologists evolved a theory that the Clovis culture, and the slightly later Folsom culture, were cultures of specialized, nomadic big-game hunters.

Other creatures wandering the night landscape made little noise, or were heard much less often, but the people around the campfire must have known they were out there. Somewhere in their thoughts and fears must have been the short-faced bear, a super predator twice the size of a grizzly that ran faster than a horse. Occasionally, a sound any modern hunter might identify also drifted in on the wind: the night song of coyotes. Like the humans around the campfire and the white-tailed deer, Canis latrans would survive. But not the great mammals of the end of the ice age — the so-called “Pleistocene megafauna.” In 11,200 B.P. (before the present) a catastrophic extinction of huge North American mammals was already underway.

Some archaeologists blame the group of people around the campfire for pushing the remaining species over the edge with hunting pressure. These were the Clovis people, named for their highly refined stone hunting points, which first were found by archaeologists in the early 1930s near Clovis, N.M. Another name for them is Paleo-Indians, for many archaeologists believe they were ancestors of the people whom European settlers found when they came to the Americas. The Clovis people appear to have lived in North America for only about 500 years. Could a group of people armed with hunting spears and an acute knowledge of the animals they hunted have extinguished all of these magnificent and dangerous animals in such a brief period of time? Or did something akin to modern-day wildlife loss take place, caused primarily by the disappearance and change of habitat?

The answers are being pieced together gradually from the animal bones and stone weapons left around ancient campfires such as this one.

A Land of Giants

During the last great ice age, many mammals had evolved in America that were to disappear. Horses and camels roamed the land. They had evolved in the Americas, then later spread across the intermittent Bering land bridge to Eurasia. Moving from Asia, giant long-horned bison, much larger than the modern form, had colonized North America long before, and in the Pleistocene era, which stretches back more than 1.5 million years, they traveled the land in immense herds. Big bulls might stand 71⁄2 feet at the shoulder and weigh 3,500 pounds. Huge, cold-adapted tapirs swam the ancestral streams of Texas rivers, as did round-tailed beavers the size of black bears with front teeth as big as ax blades.

Ground sloths, ranging in size from bears to small elephants, lumbered about. They had evolved from small, tree-climbing sloths similar to modern South American species. Harlan’s ground sloth stood over 6 feet tall and weighed 3,500 pounds, but adult males of the genus Megatherium reached 20 feet and weighed three tons. Megatherium dung still fills certain western caves many feet deep.

Beavers, sloths, elephants – many animals grew larger than similar modern species. Plant-eaters presumably increased in size as an adaptation to the ice age climate and the flesh-eaters enlarged, better to kill and eat the plant-eaters. The flat-headed peccary, for example, reached the size of a European wild boar. The Columbian mammoth roamed Texas, the adults perhaps immune from attack by all predators except humans. Standing between 11 feet and 13 feet high at the shoulder, the this mammoth was the largest creature to walk North America since the dinosaurs.

For a long time we knew the Clovis people and other Paleo-Indians only by their kill and butchering sites.

Then there were the flesh eaters out there in the dark, grown huge to prey on other giants. Scientists still quarrel about the exact dates of extinctions of these beasts, but there may have been an American lion akin to the African species, only twice as big, and a gigantic jaguar. Smilodon, the famous saber-toothed cat preserved by the thousands in California’s La Brea tar pits, has been found at many Texas sites. It had strong limbs and a heavy muscular build, making it much more bulky than modern cats. Like the bobcat, the saber-tooth had a short, stubby tail, and paleontologists speculate that it lay in wait to pounce on its prey instead of chasing, as modern lions do. It dispatched its victim by a bite to the throat with its huge, interlocking canine teeth. Dire wolves, shorter and heavier than modern timber wolves, with strong jaws and thick, bone-crushing teeth, hunted in packs.

Wolves, lions and saber-tooth cats doubtless got out of the way of one beast, the short-faced bear, a creature one scientist termed “the most powerful predator of the American Pleistocene.” Arctodus, also called “the great bear” or “the bulldog bear,” towered up to 7 feet at the shoulder and nearly 12 feet when it stood up, which it often did, judging from the structure of its pelvis. Twice the size of a grizzly, half again larger than a modern polar bear, Arctodus weighed up to 2,000 pounds and was built differently from either of these two large surviving bears.

The short-faced bear was tall, rangy, long-legged and designed for speed — sort of a monstrous “bear-cheetah,” evolved for running down prey by speed of foot. Unlike modern bears, which are omnivorous and often forage on plants and berries, Arctodus possessed the skull and teeth of a true meat-eater; its dentition closely resembles that of a lion. Arctodus had huge nasal passages, the better to inhale great volumes of oxygen during the chase. Its paws turned directly forward, the better to run fast, and were quite unlike those of the pigeon-toed grizzly. At the end of the short-faced bear’s paws were long, lethal claws.

The Clovis Hunters

Scientific descriptions of this formidable predator have proven fascinating to the general public. In a prize-winning essay about the paleo-history of Cass County, Texas, three high school science students theorized about encounters between people and the short-faced bear.

“Imagine the scenario of man being hunted instead of being the hunter,” they wrote. “How about being tracked by the biggest, fastest, most agile predator to walk the face of North America? Your defense consists of a bunch of hand-held sticks with pointed rocks attached to one end.”

Since no conclusive evidence of human-bear confrontations has been found, the students’ scenario is highly speculative, but humans, like short-faced bears, are formidable beings. Years ago I observed an archaeologist demonstrate the effectiveness of “hand-held sticks with pointed rocks” on an archery target. He had trained himself by long practice to throw light, stone-tipped spears with a hand-held spear thrower or atlatl, and one after another he thumped feathered missiles with great force into the bull’s-eye at 30 yards.

If there were bear-man confrontations, probably each side took casualties. Dating from about 11,100 B.P., the Lubbock Lake butchering site near the city of that name contained a few foot bones of the short-faced bear, with possible cutting marks that suggest that bears, like mammoths, had been butchered.

For a long time we knew the Clovis people and other Paleo-Indians only by their kill and butchering sites. Our knowledge was one-dimensional — so much so that archaeologists evolved a theory that the Clovis culture, and the slightly later Folsom culture, were cultures of specialized, nomadic big-game hunters. Large, finely chipped Clovis points date back to approximately 12,000 B.P. and sometimes were found associated with mammoth bones. Archaeologists have found smaller, fluted-based, Folsom points associated with the butchered remains of large extinct bison.

Mammoth-hunting techniques are less certain, the archaeological records more ambiguous. People almost certainly scavenged recently dead mammoths and mastodons, and finished off and butchered self-trapped, bogged-down, sick or injured ones. But just how, or how much they hunted entirely healthy animals isn’t certain. Archaeologist Eileen Johnson, who helped excavate the Lubbock Lake site, has written that the Clovis people probably used their knowledge of mammoth herd behavior to confront, contain and kill small family units of three to five animals at Texas sites near Lubbock and in the Panhandle town of Miami.

If they did, they were risking their lives.

Hunters or Climate?

Until the mid-1990s, most archaeologists believed that specialized Clovis mammoth hunters were the first people in the New World. According to the “ice-free corridor” theory about the peopling of the Americas, humans entered the New World across the Bering land bridge, then spread south to populate North America after an ice-free corridor opened east of the Rocky Mountain glaciers and west of the great continental ice sheet. This happened sometime around 12,000 B.P., give or take a thousand years, and only at that date did a way open into North America. According to this scenario, as Clovis people spread south and east they made the most of a vast, virgin wilderness full of big game animals that were easy to kill because they had never known human hunters before.

Did the hunters indulge themselves too much, slaughtering far beyond need? Scientist Paul S. Martin added a dark twist to the Clovis story with his compelling theories of “Paleolithic overkill.” Of a certainty, three major changes took place at about the time the Clovis people stood around the Texas campfire in 11,200 B.P.: human hunting populations increased and spread, the ice age climate warmed up and dried out and — for reasons not yet fully understood — most remaining species of large Pleistocene mammals continued their swift slide toward extinction.

Martin and his followers placed the blame for extinction of the later species not upon climate-induced habitat change but squarely upon the “prehistoric blitzkrieg” launched across North America by human hunters. The deadly Clovis point did it. Pleistocene extinction patterns “track human movements,” Martin asserted.

Support for a Counter-Theory

Evidence mounts, however, that people had reached the Americas a long time before the Clovis culture, the opening of the ice-free corridor and the great extinction event at the end of the Pleistocene. Using the same technologies, why didn’t these earlier hunter-gatherer cultures cause extinctions? And were the Clovis people specialized big-game killers, and only that, as Martin’s “overkill” theory tended to assume? And how had the bison, favored prey animal of the Paleo-Indian hunters for millennia, survived into historic times by the untold millions?

Ancestors of the people around that Texas campfire in 11,200 B.P. perhaps had lived in North America for thousands of years. (Another theory holds that another group entirely may have populated the Americas, and then died out before the Clovis people arrived.) Grudgingly at first, beginning in 1997 with the general recognition of pre-Clovis artifacts dated to 12,300 B.P. at a site called Monte Verde in southern Chile, most scientists accepted a greater time depth for humans in North America. Not all agree, but a pre-Clovis site at Cactus Hill, Va., has been dated to approximately 15,000 B.P.; strata at Meadowcroft Rockshelter, Pa., have been dated (not without intense dispute) from 12,000 BP to 19,000 B.P.; and the disputed lowest levels of the Monte Verde site reach an astonishing 30,000 B.P. Scientists from other disciplines supported these figures. Linguists estimate that 20,000 years may have been necessary to develop the more than 1,500 languages spoken in the ancient Americas, and biologists studying mitochondrial DNA believe that a time depth of 30,000 years is required to explain its genetic diversity of peoples.

Assuming some part of this greater time depth, scientists increasingly speculate about multiple migrations and other routes by which ancient people may have reached the Americas. Theories abound, and scholars sometimes attack each other like dire wolves and saber-toothed cats. “We are in the theoretical chaos that follows the collapse of a long-held theory,” archaeologist Michael B. Collins explains.

There may have been an American lion akin to the African species, only twice as big, and a gigantic jaguar.

Climatic Change at Work?

Collins’ own research has helped to shatter old theories about Clovis hunters. Clovis people and their successors camped for thousands of years at the Gault site on the upper reaches of Buttermilk Creek, west of Salado, Texas, on the eastern edge of the Hill Country. For two-thirds of a century, archaeologists had to content themselves with excavating a long succession of Clovis and Folsum kill sites that were temporary food processing camps with scanty cultural data. By contrast, people lived at the Gault site nearly continuously from 12,000 B.P. until about 1,000 B.P., and the earliest levels of the site offer rich data about the life-ways of Clovis hunter and gatherers.

The Gault site began to draw intense professional attention after the excavation of Clovis points in association with mammoth bones in 1998. Major excavations by a team of scholars from the University of Texas and Texas A&M University began in 1998, with Collins serving as project director. From this large, stratified site, researchers are gleaning hundreds of thousands of artifacts. The Clovis people’s complete stone tool kit is present: blades and burins and spear points and all the rest, along with evidence about how they made the tools, how they lived and the foods they ate. Parts of the tool kit crafted from bones, antlers and other organic materials did not survive in the Hill Country soil.

The people around the campfire emerge as classic hunter-gatherers, not specialized mammoth hunters as had so often been assumed. They used some tools found at Buttermilk Creek to gather wild plant foods, including four Clovis blades. Microscopic wear on these blades reveals that “among other tasks these were used for cutting grass or other plants rich in silicate.” As Collins and archaeologist Thomas Hester report: “Recent discoveries and new analytical techniques have shown that Clovis people were generalized hunters and gatherers who lived on everything from turtles and alligators to foxes and opossums, along with an occasional mammoth, bison or horse. The traditional view of Clovis culture has crumbled along with the Iron Curtain.”

So has Martin’s theory that Clovis hunters bear the primary responsibility for the late Pleistocene extinctions. Many scholars now blame rapid climate change — global warming and desertification — for the great die-off. Habitats changed drastically and the great ice age creatures could not adapt. Still others have proposed disease pathogens as the cause of the ice age extinctions.

In any case, while the Clovis people at Buttermilk Creek stood around their campfires in the centuries after 11,200 B.P., many familiar sounds coming from the dark began to be heard less frequently, as the last remaining ice age species declined toward extinction.

Perhaps this happened quickly enough so that certain close observers among the elderly noticed that the trumpetings of mammoths or the territorial roars of big cats sounded less often than in their childhoods. Finally, there was silence, with perhaps memories of the sounds and sights of the great beasts lingering in legend and oral tradition for a few centuries more. By 8,000 B.P., people still frequented camp fires at Buttermilk Creek, but they heard only what Euro- and African-American pioneers heard after their arrival in the Texas wilderness so many centuries later — the howls of gray wolves, the hooting of barred owls and the night songs of coyotes.

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