There is a new piece at the Heart of America Science Resource Center. It is a floor to ceiling mural in the Ice Age Room. Check it out in the panoramic photograph above.
The mural was created by Joe Taylor, who has his own museum, the Mt. Blanco Fossil Museum in Crosbyton, Texas. As you can see, the mural blends right into the room. The room gives the impression of a cave and the mural shows us some of what is going on inside the cave as well as a view outside of it.
Now, you may be wondering, if this is a view of the Ice Age, where is all of the ice? Well, while the Ice Age was notable for having a lot of ice, that was mostly confined to higher latitudes (that is, the far north and the far south). Here in North America, the ice reached its furthest southern extent in the northern parts of Kansas. In Kansas, everything south of the ice would have been a prairie, probably not too different from what it is now, except for a wider range of creatures.
On the extreme left of the mural, we see a view of the inside of the cave. There are several people here. Most of them are looking at the activity at the front of the cave, but the man in the back is in the middle of cave paintings. In addition to the paintings, notice the carvings in the foreground on the left. All of this art shows us that humans during the Ice Age were just like us, in the sense that they also expressed themselves with artistic talent and creations.
Also noticeable in this scene are a few skulls. The man in the back is standing on a mammoth skull. To his right isthe skull of the long-horned bison (Bison latifrons), also called the giant bison. As its names suggest, it would have looked much like the living bison, but was larger and has much longer horns. In the foreground, we have a couple skulls. One of these has noticeably long fangs. This is a saber-toothed cat skull. While the classic saber-toothed cat is Smilodon, there were actually several types of saber-toothed cats. Here in Kansas, Homotherium was more common than Smilodon. It was not quite as large as Smilodon and had shorter teeth (Homotherium is sometimes called a dirk-toothed cat, since a dirk is shorter than a saber). In addition, Homotherium had a noticeably sloped back, similar to a hyena. It is thought that Homotherium may have been an endurance runner, following migrating herds of prey long distances across the prairie.
In the next section of the panel, we see a few men attacking a mammoth. We will get to them in a minute. For now, note the animals in the back. First, we see a small herd of horses. While horses are a familiar sight in Kansas today, all modern horses in the Americas are imports: their ancestors originally arrived with Europeans. However, during the Ice Age, there were horses that were actually native to North America.
Nest, on the left, we see a couple of lions. These are American lions (Panthera atrox). A little bit bigger than Smilodon, these fearsome cats were some of the largest predators to stalk North America during the Ice Age.
Now to the hunters. At first glance, it appears that they are wielding spears. You can call the projectiles spears, if you like. They are sometimes also called darts. There is, however, another component to their weapons: the atlatl, also called a spear-thrower. See the man in the foreground?
He has just launched his spear, but he still has something in his hand. The thing in his hand is the atlatl. The hook on the end of it would have been stuck into the base of the spear. The spear would then lie along the length of the atlatl. When thrown, the thrower would fling the spear using the atlatl. The atlatl essentially would act as an extension of the arm, giving a longer throwing arm, allowing the spear to be thrown with a greater force. As this design shows, the people living during the Ice Age were not simple folk: they may have has scarcer resources than we have today, but they came up with ingenious designs using the materials they had at hand.
In the next part of the scene, we see the object of the hunter’s attention: a mammoth. This mammoth is a Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi). While the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) is the icon of the Ice Age, the Columbian mammoth was the mammoth most commonly found in southern regions of the United States, including Kansas. Since it did not live in the tundra, the Columbian mammoth had little or no hair. Also, it was larger than the woolly mammoth, which was “only” the size of the modern African elephant, both of which have a maximum size of about 11 feet tall at the shoulder. The Columbian mammoth was about 13 feet tall at the shoulder.
In the last part of the cave scene, we see three people tanning a piece of leather. Again, the fact that these sorts of activities were carried out shows us that people we not simple and primitive: they had skills and talents. Their biggest limitation would have been availability of resources, and since they hunted prey for food, it only makes sense to use the hides to make leather to make clothing, coverings of tents, and for other purposes.
Speaking of the Ice Age and mammoths, I wanted to close with one more thing. A while back, we mentioned the new mammoth sign at the front of the Museum.
This sign is based on the image of a woolly mammoth. The sign is about fifteen feet tall from the base of its feet to the top of its head. This would put it close to thirteen feet tall at the should. Thus, even though the sign is based on a woolly mammoth, its size is actually close to that of the Columbian mammoth. So, if you want to see how big a Columbian mammoth can get, stop by the Heart of America Science Resource Center sometime.
Thoughts from Steven