After the film “Waking The Mammoth,” archaeologists and writers weighed in on the evidence and stories related to early Native American connection to now extinct megafauna.
“Imagine walking outside right now and encountering giant sloth, mammoths, saber tooth cats, musk ox and several kinds of camels,” said archaeologist Jonathan Till.
That is what the scene would have been for the First Americans 10,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene era.
A potential key piece of evidence is a section of rock art discovered near Bluff, Utah in the 1990s that appears to depict a woolly mammoth. The petroglyph image is interpreted by some as having the tusks, body dimensions, and distinct proboscis trunk similar to a mammoth.
The discovery has led archaeologists to reexamine the life and times of Native Americans 10,000 years ago and earlier, but the physical evidence is hard to come by.
“In the Four Corners, we talk a lot about what happened the last 4,000 years, but to try to go back further is tough,” Till said.
Advances in tree-ring data could provide some clues as the technology pushes toward revealing tree-ring data from the end of the Pleistocene, he said.
It is clear that modern humans overlapped with the mega fauna era. How much that era overlapped with the earliest humans in North America is still being debated.
The mega animals were largely gone by about 10,000 years ago, either from over hunting, climate change, or combination of the two.
It is relatively recent that scientists have framed the question when humans arrived in North America, said archaeologist Mark Varien.
Research began in earnest in 1908 when an ancient bone bed near Folsom, New Mexico revealed an extinct form of bison embedded with a Folsom projectile point.
“It was the first time we realized humans were here the same time as megafauna,” Varian said.
Then in 1933 in Clovis, New Mexico, an ancient Clovis spear point dating from 13,000 years ago was found in direct association with a pile of ancient mammoth bones.
“That took the field forward, and new methods came about to study paleo-Indian archeology,” Varian said.
Clovis people have long been considered the first people to live North America, but now more researchers believe people were here before that, he said.
There are not a lot of well preserved mammoth sites on the Colorado Plateau to study, said Fort Lewis College geology professor Ray Kenny.
Ancient mammoth dung is more common, such as a pile found in Utah dating to 11,200 years ago, he said. Examining the waste can reveal diet and local climate conditions of the era.
Archaeologists Winston Hurst said he is skeptical of whether the rock art depicts a mammoth.
“I’m agnostic about whether it is real or not,” he said. “I want to believe because that would be so cool.”
Author Craig Childs encouraged the audience to contemplate humans living here far earlier than can be proven.
The commonly-held belief that humans arrived here only across the Bering Straight land bridge 14,000 years ago is beginning to fall apart in the face of modern research methods, such genetic analysis of ancient peoples.
“They could have come across earlier,” he said. “Somebody poked out across the ice. How many went out into the unknown?”
Child noted that 18,000 years ago the Earth warmed, beating back the ice and creating a corridor along the coastlines for the First Americans to migrate here.
“They were used to portaging around things, like the remnants of the last ice age,” Childs said.
Added filmmaker Larry Ruiz, “There are a lot of great mysteries to ponder tonight.”