Tracking America's ice-age pioneers

  • The fossil skeleton of a saber-toothed cat. In his latest book, author Doug Peacock wonders whether prehistoric human life holds lessons for the future.

 

In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: A Renegade Naturalist Considers Global Warming, the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene
Douglas Peacock
200 pages, paperback:
$15.
AK Press/
Counterpunch, 2013.

Doug Peacock, author of Grizzly Years and Walking It Off, once walked point as a polar bear guard on an Arctic expedition, armed with only a homemade spear. He still loves large predators and new territory, and in his latest outing asks us to accompany him on "the Greatest Adventure" ever – the peopling of the New World. Roughly 20,000 years ago, scouts on a ridge in Beringia got their first glimpse of the "unending wild country that encompassed two continents uninhabited by humans." Five thousand years later, at the very end of the Pleistocene, the climate changed, oceans rose, and the Bering Land Bridge flooded. The formerly ice-barred interior of the Americas opened, allowing passage south. "I can't think of a richer, wilder, more perilous time to live," Peacock writes.

There are parallels as well as vast differences between that time and ours, Peacock says. He is curious about how Homo sapiens perceives risk and how our species might survive and adapt to climate change, dealing with our own saber-toothed foe in the bush. The "bold migrations" of the past, he concedes, are "impossible in the 21st century" as a solution. But that original migration still offers us "challenging illustrations of courage and caution."

Blending archaeology and paleontology with memories of childhood arrowhead hunting, and evoking a keen sense of place, Peacock explores some of the colonists' likely waypoints: Siberia's tiger-tracked Amba River, the Yukon's Bluefish Caves (one held a mammoth bone spear point), a 13,000-year-old burial site on the Yellowstone (yielding "ten five-gallon buckets of artifacts"), 10,000-year-old human teeth in British Columbia, and Baja California's 8,000-year-old shell middens.

The book suffers from some sloppy editing and repetition, but Peacock's accounts of archaeological finds ring with the excitement of discovery. His descriptions of dire wolves, lions on steroids and leggy, short-faced bears–"monsters of the plains" – can raise the hairs on the back of your neck. "We evolved to deal with the predator," he writes. And therein could lie the rub: "In comparison, present day 'global warming' seems distant, harmlessly incremental or something that happens to remote strangers." Still, Peacock seems confident that a species that overcame flesh-and-blood threats like dire wolves can somehow manage to confront this latter-day, more nebulous foe.

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