Sunday, July 21, 2013

Shadows on the Trail Trilogy - I'd Walk a Mile for a Camel!

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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 www.blm.gov

       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 naturalhistoryexplorer.com 


       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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