Bones present the learning opportunity of an (Ice) age
What do you do with a pile of Ice Age bones? First, get very, very excited. The recent discovery of Pleistocene mammoths, mastodons, bisons and sloths at Snowmass Village’s Ziegler Reservoir is undoubtedly one of the most important paleontological events of the new century.The finds are like a series of snapshots of life in the Snowmass Village area, a “Who’s Who” of critters ranging from prehistoric bisons with 7-foot horns, to 8-ton mammoths standing 15-feet tall, to tiger salamanders like those we might find in a local stock pond today.A group of Colorado Mountain College students, faculty and staff visited the site, which is owned by the Snowmass Village Water and Sanitation District. What we saw there made me feel like a kid again. Remember when you were so excited about learning something that you couldn’t wait to learn more? Every child has picked up a bone and wondered what kind of creature it came from. Imagine finding a bone from an animal that lived more than 40,000 years ago. Realizing that the bone’s original owner, a massive mammoth, mastodon or sloth, may have walked through what is now your backyard tends to ignite the imagination. No wonder the Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s staff and volunteers excavating the site were so thrilled.The Colorado Mountain College group was able to visit the actual dig site and see some of the fossils in place. We watched as Dr. Steven Holen, the museum’s lead archaeologist, picked up a rib from a young mammoth and examined it intently. As an archaeologist I was hoping he saw cut marks made by some really, really early Snowmass Village visitor, but he carefully explained that the marks probably came from some scavenger or predator. Environmental change and adaptation are fascinating topics, especially when you throw humans into the mix. What would it be like to hunt a 2-ton mammoth with a chunk of stone on a stick? Many valley residents must have been asking that question. More than 2,000 excited visitors drove to Snowmass Village and waited for more than three hours for a chance to see a few of the bones.The amount of information that can be gained from this site is enormous. The Pleistocene environment of the area can be reconstructed from analyzing in-washed pollen, preserved wood and ancient bones. The Ice Age material preserved at the Ziegler Reservoir site gives us an almost video-like sequence of high-elevation environmental change. From a scientific point of view, the site undoubtedly ranks among the most important in the West.Now the Ziegler Ice Age dig site is closed down for the winter. The Denver Museum of Nature & Science archaeologists and paleontologists are sorting the bones and writing papers about their finds, Colorado Mountain College students and their instructors are imagining the learning possibilities, and the excitement continues to grow. I can’t wait for next summer – who knows what we’ll find?Sandy Jackson teaches anthropology/ archaeology courses at Colorado Mountain College in Spring Valley and via distance learning.
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Visual Journalist Chelsea Self can be reached at 970-384-9108 or firstname.lastname@example.org