Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Well, it's been a little while since I've made an update. We had relatives in town for Thanksgiving, and frankly, also, my blog's kinda a frivolous thing. It's hard to spend mental effort and energy on frivolous things when you're worried about things like your job, your company and even your whole industry going up in smoke.

But I've managed to do a little bit, at least. I checked out BBC's Prehistoric America on DVD from my public library. I've actually had that title before, but for some reason only watched the four episodes on the first disk and didn't see the other two on the second disk. The first episode that I hadn't seen, "American Serengeti" was probably my favorite. I'm a big fan of the almost Africa-like North American Pleistocene megafauna, which I think I've mentioned here before. Frankly, I feel kinda gypped about the animals that have lived historically (and currently) in North America when we had several varieties of elephant, lions, saber-tooths, five kinds of wild horse, two kinds of wild bison, four or five kinds of pronghorn, cheetah-like cats and more just a few thousand years ago. The show was kinda cheap about it: they intercut scenes of an actual cheetah running in Africa with scenes of pronghorns running in North America, and didn't say that the American "cheetah" wasn't actually a true cheetah at all, even though it would have been built very similarly. One of the two species of Miracinonyx was very similar morphologically to the cheetah (Acinonyx) but the other species was midway between a cheetah and a puma. And neither were all that closely related to an actual cheetah, they'd be obviously a different animal if we saw them side by side. The American "cheetah" was less closely related to the actual cheetah than a tiger is to a leopard, and those are easy enough to tell apart.

My favorite animal from the Pleistocene megafauna of North America is the American elephant, though. Better known as the Columbian mammoth, the Imperial mammoth and sometimes even the Jeffersonian mammoth, I believe that's its only a historical accident that we call them mammoths. If mammoth bones hadn't been discovered and identified in Europe first (they were one of the key points Baron Georges Cuvier used to outline and defend the theory of extinction) things might have gone very differently. Mammoths are as closely related to African and Asian elephants as African and Asian elephants are to each other. Maybe even closer to Asian elephants, actually. The non-wooly variety, the Columbian, Imperial or Jeffersonian elephant, would probably also be relatively hairless and gray-skinned, like extant elephants. It's not hard to make the case that if it had survived long enough to have been seen by Europeans, it certainly would simply have been called the American elephant. The wooly mammoth might also be the wooly elephant.

There's a curious passage in the Book of Mormon about them, actually. I know, I know, plenty of my (one or two) readers don't think the Book of Mormon is important or anything, but I think this passage is curious no matter what you believe about it. The Book of Mormon purports to be, regardless of what you believe, the record of ancient people in North America that was found and translated by Joseph Smith in the early 1800s. One such nation, the Jaredites as they were known to later people, kinda existed independently of the rest of the narrative, and their records were in turn found by the Nephites (the main "protagonist" culture of the Book of Mormon narrative) when their last king was found wandering all alone in the "land northwards." They had apparently engaged in a genocidal civil war so epic in scale that their entire civilization collapsed. Some Book of Mormon scholars point to trace evidence of lingering Jaredite linguistic influence in one branch of the Nephite people, which frankly makes more sense than actual complete and total military annihilation of the entire populace, but that's neither here nor there. The Jaredite history, which is summarized very quickly near the end of the Book of Mormon and recast by the Book of Mormon compilers as more of a cautionary morality tale than an actual detailed history lesson, has a rough date of 3100-580 B.C. give or take a couple of centuries on the beginning date. The passage in question is fairly simple: "And they [the Jaredites] also had horses, and asses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms; all of which were useful unto man, and more especially the elephants and cureloms and cumoms." Nobody's sure what is meant by cureloms and cumoms, although there are plenty of candidates for North American megafauna that we know of that Joseph Smith wouldn't have, but the horses, asses and elephants are problematic, since in Joseph Smith's time, it was well known that none of those three were native to North America, and horses only came with the Spanish. However, during the Pleistocene, there were five varieties of "horse" including animals that would be very horse-like, animals that would be fairly zebra like (no comment on the stripes or not; these are known from skeletons) and animals very like wild ass and/or onager. And the Columbian mammoth is a good candidate for the elephant.

Although much of the Pleistocene megafauna's notional extinction date is roughly 8,000 B.C. although a few samples suggest that they may have hung on longer than previously believed. In Tennessee, one specimen of a Columbian mammoth was fairly reliably dated to about 5,800 B.C. That certainly puts it within spitting range of the Jaredites, especially if you assume that the scanty nature of fossil finds makes reliable end-dates very difficult to pin down. One find can push it into younger territory by fairly large margins.

Mostly, though, I don't bring this up for any reason other than I think it'd be really cool to have complex, metropolitan civilizations that lived in Pleistocene North America, domesticated mammoths (and probably other animals as well) and were generally a visual treat to look at. How cool is that? The passage referenced above just got me going on that. The sword & sorcery setting that I've been kicking around for a few weeks is also based on pretty much that exact same premise, and I like it more and more as I dig around to refresh my memory of the North American pleistocene megafauna.

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