The Great Ones

 

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

 

Outside my window shaggy shadows move among the firs. An immense shape assembles and disassembles in the wind.

Fourteen thousand years ago, mastodons and mammoths roamed North America, grazed alongside the buffalo. Paleolithic peoples followed the woolly giants across the Bering Bridge to lands as game-rich as the Serengeti. Projectile points can be found embedded in the bones of their prey.

But now the great ones are nearly everywhere gone.

Time twists as I stare out the window at the huge ghost facing me. A giant form conjured from a smear of rhododendrons and shadows lifts his trunk into the wind, changes back into a bush beast with flowers in his stomach, and is extinct once again.

 

Near a small, bog-rich pond, a pussy willow rattles pearl-gray catkins in the driving sleet. Ice coats the bare branches of a soopolallie growing at the water’s edge, frozen red berries clinging to their stems. Upslope from the pond, in a brushy part of the tundra, a herd of elk seeks shelter from the spring squall. Higher still, the mountains are sheathed in glacial ice.

The temperature drops and the sky clears. When night falls curtains of light shimmer in the north, an aurora rippling in solar winds. Oxygen atoms bombarded by geomagnetic storms turn the whole hemisphere red. Glazed with the colors of fire, the pond flickers and burns throughout the night.

A muskrat surfaces and swims towards her burrow. The legs of a frog dangle and twitch from her mouth. The wake behind her broad tail sends ripples through the aurora’s reflection shimmering on the pond’s surface. The ripples pass through a black, four-legged silhouette in the middle of the pond. Looming over his own night shadow, an old mastodon bull curls his trunk into his mouth and releases cold clear water down his throat.

All day, during the icy storm, the mastodon browsed on sage, spirea, rosehips, frosted buttercups, wormwood and sedge as the wind left ice crystals in his eyelashes. He trudged across a marshland through sticky, hydrated clay, each footstep making a loud, sucking sound. Sunshine and snow, both opalescent, washed over him in waves.

All day long on the tall-grass prairie, through blowing clouds of sunshine and snow, he saw herds of equus and pricus, horses and bison, standing with heads lowered, their backs to the stinging wind. He saw a shaggy outline sweeping the tall grass clear with her curled tusks. Barely visible, a small calf nuzzled the fur between her front legs and suckled from a hidden breast.

Recognizing her high domed cranium and sloping profile, the mastodon did not cross the prairie to meet her, though he has seen her foraging at this place before. She is a mammoth and not of his low-browed kind.

At a gravel bar he crossed a crystalline river formed from glacial outmelt. A goose feather spiraled down from a migrating flock. His pace was slow and he often stopped, his trunk resting on the ground. An Arctic fox circled in behind him, veered away when he wheeled and held his huge tusks high.

Finally, in the middle of the night, he reached the pond and waded in.

Now he drinks and eats listlessly, pulls out hippuris, water plants with long tails and sweet green stems. The sky is clear, cold, and the blood-red aurora flames and dances over his head, wildfire in the sky. Cattails chatter in the wind.

He staggers toward the bank of the pond and into boggy mud – rich, black, and carnivorous. He touches his side, where the hole-that-hurts still bleeds. Mired, he closes his eyes, sways, falls.

Near dawn the two-legged hunters find him on his side, half in water, half out. They build a fire and settle to their work.

 

Fourteen thousand years later, in the summer of 1977, near the town of Sequim in Washington State, Emanuel Manis decided he wanted a duck pond in his front yard. His backhoe brought up a couple of blackish curved logs. His wife Clare thought they might be tusks and started making phone calls, eventually contacting Washington State University. The resulting excavation lasted eight years and attracted 50,000 visitors to the Manis farm.

In the loam of an ancient pond the archaeological dig found a mastodon. The left side of the skeleton was intact, all the bones in their correct anatomical position. The bones of the uppermost side, the right side, were scattered upslope from the pond and the mastodon’s shattered skull faced backwards, as if staring at its own remains. Many bones had scratches, indentations, rectangular gouges and sharp-edged cut marks – the type of fracturing done in large-scale butchering, butchery less like gutting a fish and more like chopping up a tree.

But the star of the excavation, the reason so many people journeyed to the Manis Mastodon site, was a fragment of rib that had a bone spear point embedded in it.

The first direct evidence that humans hunted mastodons.

Originally researchers thought the spear point was made of elk bone, but later analysis confirmed it was fashioned from another mastodon. It was sturdy enough to penetrate thick hide, ten inches of muscle, and three-fourths of an inch into the rib. The rib was healing, so the mastodon may have died of infection, old age, or many more wounds that did not show on his bones.

Three charcoal beds, one on top of the other, were unearthed near the pond, evidence of the oldest human occupation yet found in the Americas. During a later phase of the excavation, twelve separate layers of human habitation were discovered, ranging from 7,000 to 14,000 years ago.

The site was occupied again and again by people hunting and butchering other large mammals, such as bison, that gathered at the ancient pond. The partial remains of two more mastodons were excavated. Radiocarbon dating determined that their bones – which also had the square-cut marks of butchering – were even older than those of the mastodon originally discovered. In 1996, the remains of a mammoth were found near the site. The two elephant species lived there together, 14,000 years ago.

Emanuel and Clare Manis were more than generous. They built a fence, arranged parking, allowed researchers to construct a laboratory and storage sheds, gave tours and turned their barn into a theater for audio slide shows. And to the skeptics at the time who questioned whether or not humans hunted mastodons, Clare Manis had a short, curt reply. “What, did an elk explode?”

After the excavations were finished in 1985, the ancient pond was reburied to protect the bones that remained. The site officially became part of the National Registry of Historic Places in 1978. “Manny” Manis died in 2000; Clare Manis Hatler eventually remarried. In 2002, the land was donated to an archaeological conservancy.

Not long ago I visited the museum in Sequim, near the site of the Manis farm. Some of the mastodon’s bones remain there, caged behind glass, chop marks clearly visible from the butchering. A huge tank holds the tusks underwater so they won’t dry out and become brittle. On a shelf nearby is a rib bone labeled “Please touch me.” It’s highly polished by the thousands of hands that have done so. And just as thousands of hands obeyed the impulse to caress its delicate, yellowed length, so did mine.

I missed him by only 14,000 years, an eyelash of time.

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

photograph by Cheryl Merrill

11 responses

  1. Profound, beautiful and sad. I am glad to have found your writing

    1. And I’m glad to have found your site.

  2. Sukanya Ramanujan | Reply

    What a beautiful post!

    1. Thank you so much Sukanya!

  3. Hi, that was a wonderful read. A mix of truth and a great imagination.

    1. Hey, Ravi, thanks. The imagination part is actually based on a lot of reading of scientific papers, plus the forensic style of work that many wonderful folks do at digs.

  4. Wow. I’m sharing this excellent writing with my friend Laura Tidwell, who teaches marine science at Orcas High School.
    Thank you. This piece helps me to understand time, life, & our tiny place in it.

    1. Hi Carol. Where is Orcas High School? On Orcas Island? Thanks for your kind words and sharing my work!

      1. Yup. Orcas Island, blissful paradise. Critters and Homo Sapiens share turf. 40 species of birds visit our feeders, share the bathing facilities. Allan Hummers winter over, greeting me at my morning refill job with clicks and zooms, intelligent eyes bright.

        50 sq. miles of valleys farms lakes ocean mountains village: diverse and bonded community.
        Thank you for your hard work and sumptuous writing. I share your posts with my friend in NC, who grew up in Kenya, 80 years ago. We are bonded by our love of and respect for
        life and the love of animals.
        I also have a friend who works with sniffer dogs– who are making inroads on ivory smugglers! Small world.
        Keep on keepin on.
        Come visit Orcas.

        Carol

      2. Thanks so much for the invitation. When my husband was still flying, we took our Cessna to Orcas. Lovely place. We live in Port Townsend, so it was just a hop. You know, I’d love to contact your friend about her/his work with sniffer dogs, if that’s possible. I’ve done a lot of research, as you might imagine, on ivory. Thanks for sharing with your friend who grew up in Kenya. I’ll bet it was a totally different country then. And, of course, if you’re ever in PT, let’s meet for coffee or tea!

      3. I really enjoy PT.. the bookstores alone are reason enough to visit; now I have two good reasons! I will definitely give you a heads-up if/when we head your way. we’re fascinated by the Olympics, the rain forest, all that. And I want to know more about First Nations. so it’s on our to do list, for sure. Thanks for the invite.

        INFO:
        Working dogs:
        Alice Whitelaw
        406-539-2893
        http://www.WD4C.org
        facebook: working dogs for conservation/Montana
        52 Eustis Rd
        Three Forks, Montana 59752

        or POB 280
        Bozeman Montana

        and my friend, Dawn Beal, a very young 90 years old, lives in Oak Island NC: 139 NE 14th St, zip 28465
        1-910-278-6938
        She would love to talk with you, about elephants, Kenya….whatever. She is a Brit, an accomplished international businesswoman, fabulous cook, and Corgi fancier. My best friend for 34 years. She’s very concerned about the status of elephants. She grew up as an only child on her mothers coffee plantation, knew Isak Dinesen, Father was a physician…ask her about him, you’ll be fascinated.

        ENjoy–as I will your continued writings and photos.

        I wish you a delightful and accomplished 2016.

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