Sunday, July 21, 2013

Walk a Mile for a Camel in the SHADOWS ON THE TRAIL TRILOGY!

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      One of the most rewarding things about writing the Shadows on the Trail Trilogy was being able to do the archaeological research required to make the novel historically accurate while still having the freedom to create an exciting fictional story line. One of the now extinct Pleistocene mammals I used in the first book of the trilogy, Shadows on the Trail,  was Camelops, one of the ancestors of modern camels. A passage from the book Shadows on the Trail is below. In this passage, three hunters from the Folsom People tribe encounter the Camelops. You will have to read Shadows on the Trail to find out what happens.
Figure 1 - Artist depiction of Paleoindians attacking
Camelops with spears. Courtesy of

       Two young bull camels came to the edge of the mud hole in the bottom of the canyon. These prehistoric mammals were massive, measuring as tall as a human at their shoulder and weighing over a half of a ton each. The camels’ white fur was coarse and the animals had only partially molted, leaving large patches of long, dirty fur on their bodies. The camels’ long tails swatted at the thick clouds of flies drawn to them and the rancid mud hole. Protruding from the middle of each camel’s back was a small hump. Under better conditions, the humps would store precious fat, but the humps of these camels sagged to the side, empty of fat, a sign of the animals’ starvation.       

The larger of the two bulls stopped at the edge of the mud hole and swiveled its large slender head on its extraordinarily long neck. Its large eyes searched for movement while its tiny ears fluttered back and forth, listening for danger. The smaller bull sniffed the edge of the mud hole with its large nostrils, searching for clues of what had visited the mud hole before them. In unison, each camel took a long, ungainly step into the soft muck surrounding the mud hole. The camels then gazed about, chewing their cuds nervously. Camels were not intelligent animals, but millions of years of evolution in North America had taught them that caution allowed them to survive.  

Then, the larger bull took another step into the mud hole, his long front legs sinking deep into the mud. Not wanting to go any further into the mud hole, the larger bull stretched its long neck in an unsuccessful attempt to reach the muddy water it thirsted for.   

Hidden behind cottonwood trees near the mud hole, three hunters from a tribe called the Folsom People patiently waited for the mammals to walk further into the oozing mud. Each hunter carried several small spears and a spear thrower, a prehistoric invention from the First People that added length to the throwing arm and therefore increased the velocity of a thrown spear. Keya was the youngest of the three hunters and the most impatient. He was ready to attack the animals now. Chayton, young but still the oldest of the three hunters, touched Keya’s shoulder, an unspoken signal to be patient. A few more steps and the long legs of the camels would be stuck in the thick mud and then the hunters would attack.

The camels were thirsty and smelling the muddy water had made them temporarily forget about the dangers of sinking into the mud. The camels each took a step forward and their front legs disappeared into the mud. It was now time. Chayton quietly placed the tail end of his spear into the wooden notch of his spear thrower. He then rested the spear on his left shoulder. Keya watched Chayton closely and mimicked everything he did. The hunters were ready.  
       The family Camelidae, which includes both camels and llamas, originated in North America some time in the middle Eocene or about 44 million years ago (Wikipedia). Much of the evolution of  family Camelidae occurred in North America. For all of you 'trivia buffs', both camels and horses originated in North America and then migrated via the Bering Strait into Asia and beyond. Today, the only two places in the world that family Camelidae exist in the wild are South America (llamas) and the Gobi Desert of Mongolia (camels).    

Figure 2 - Artists' depiction of mother and baby Camelops. 
Image courtesy of 

       Camelops was one of six genera in the family Camelidae in North America and they existed on the western side of the continent while llamas existed from coast to coast. Since soft tissue is not preserved in the fossil records, scientists are not sure whether Camelops had a hump like modern day camels, or whether they looked more like their relative, the llama.

       Both Camelops and llamas were common in North America up until the end of the Pleistocene when they went extinct with other large mammals we have discussed in other postings on this blog. Just like with the other large mammals that went extinct, there is no single reason identified as to why Camelops and llamas went extinct in North America. There are numerous prehistoric sites in North America where Camelops was associated with humans, but a kill site has yet to be discovered. We know that Camelops has been found associated with Clovis People (the Folsom People's ancestors), but in my book, I had Camelops survive long enough to have an encounter with Chayton and the Folsom People.  

 Figure 3 - A paper-thin Folsom spear or dart point. This is 
projectile point type the Folsom People would have made
  and used in Shadows on the Trail
John Branney collection.
       How formidable would Camelops have been hunting it with only a spear? We will never know for sure, but their sheer size was daunting. They stood 7 feet tall (>2 meters) at the shoulder and weighed around 1800 lbs. (800 kg.), with the larger specimens reaching as much as 2600 lbs. (1200 kg.).  

       So what happens to the Camelops in Shadows on the Trail? I am not telling! You will just have to read the book to find out. 

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Shadows on the Trail - Prehistoric Horses and Native Americans

Books by John Bradford Branney

Prehistoric Horses at a Prehistoric Man Site.        

         In Post Number One of the Shadows on the Trail blog I discussed how I found a man-made Ice Age tool made from Alibates chert from Texas on a northern Colorado ranch. This Ice Age tool was the inspiration for my prehistoric adventure called Shadows on the Trail. 

        Over the past twenty-five years I have found man-made prehistoric artifacts at this northern Colorado ranch, ranging in age from the Ice Age to the historical Indian tribes that occupied the ranch. The ranch was the home for Native Americans for close to 13,000 years, but the joy of discovery is not limited to finding the artifacts from these Native Americans, the ranch also has fossilized mammal remains.

Figure 1a. Location of metatarsal
bone on modern horse 
Figure 1 - Two fossilized metatarsals found at the
prehistoric site in northern Colorado. The shorter metatarsal is
broken. The largest metatarsal is 213 mm or 8.4 inches long.
       The sandstones around the ranch contain mammal fossils dating back through most of the Tertiary Era. One of the extinct mammals that I found fossilized bones from were prehistoric horses. Figure 1 is a photograph of two metatarsals I found near each other and near the Ice Age tool discussed in this blog. The metatarsals look like they are from a similarly sized horse or they could be from the skeleton of the same horse. From my books on prehistoric mammals and because I am a vertebrate paleontologist wannabe, I determined that these bones probably belong to a Pleistocene horse called Equus calobatus, a horse that roamed the high plains of North America from approximately 1.5 to .5 million years ago, well before humans entered the continent or showed up at this prehistoric site.

Figure 2 and 2a - Cheek teeth of prehistoric horse found near
metatarsals in Figure 1. Pattern of teeth consistent with
Equus calobatus.    

        Figures 2 and 2a show the fossilized cheek teeth from a prehistoric horse that I found near the metatarsals in Figure 1. The cheek teeth and the metatarsals may or may not belong to the same horse, but my amateur sleuthing tells me the cheek teeth pattern is consistent with that of Equus calobatus, the same species I believe the metatarsals are from 

Native Americans and their Horses
       It is a common misconception that since Native Americans became world renowned horsemen, they had always had horses throughout their long reign over North America, but this is not the case. The horse species that inhabited North America during much of the Pleistocene epoch went extinct at the end of the Ice Age like many of the other mammal species we have discussed on this blog. There is no archaeological evidence that Ice Age humans had much contact with Pleistocene horses in North America, except of course as the occasional menu item.

        It wasn't until the Spaniards arrived in western North America in the 1600s that the horse was reintroduced to North America and introduced to Native Americans. So from the time Native Americans entered North America across the Bering Strait or by boat from Europe, until the Spaniards showed up with domesticated horses, the main mode of transportation for Native Americans was walking.
                                                 Figure 3 - Artist's rendition of Pleistocene horse,
                                    Equus Caballus, that may have been around during Shadows on the Trail.

         At the time Shadows on the Trail took place around 10,700 years ago, there may have still been some Pleistocene horses running around, but ultimately they went extinct along with camelops, dire wolves, wooly mammoths, ground sloths, giant armadillos, sabre-tooth cats, and many other mammal species.

       Why did Pleistocene horses go extinct? This is the same debate scientists have over other species that went extinct. It could have been climate change, vegetation change, hunting pressure from humans, a meteorite, or disease. Who knows? I have attached a link to an interesting article I found on the extinction of these horses and how bison may have influenced their extinction.

Pleistocene Horses - What Happened to Them?