Of gomphotheres, early American Indians, the Lazarus effect and the end of the world

Sometime during 2007, a rancher in the northern Mexican state of Sonora took a visitor to see large bones he had found in an arroyo, or creek bed. The visitor was Guadalupe Sanchez, who works for Mexico’s INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia). It turns out that the bones were not the only item that piqued Guadalupe’s interest; several stone implements were found in association with them. What makes this discovery so very special and highly interesting is the kind of animal the bones belonged to and the nature of the stone tools.

After two years of hushed up investigations, the scientists recently announced that these bones represent two juvenile gomphotheres and the tools belong to the so-called Clovis tradition, a topic which has been the subject of earlier blog entries . The focus here is not on who came first, Clovis or others (that argument has been settled anyway), but rather on the implications of the find of the Gomphothere bones together with Paleoindian tools like those of the Clovis tradition. That is what is drawing the attention of a lot of North American archaeologists these days. In a nutshell, what we have here is described as “the first documentation that there was some sort of human interaction with gomphotheres in North America.”

What in the world is a gomphothere?

WPHubeiPlatybeladonThink of gomphotheres as a type of early elephant, but a strange looking one.
Imagine an elephant-sized animal, with a trunk and tusks pointing straight forward. Then add to that picture a lower jaw with two protruding teeth and voilà, you have a pretty good idea of what our gomphothere looks like.

When were they supposed to have been around?

Considered to have been the most successful and diverse group of Elephants or Proboscideans, these animals thrived during the late Miocene (9 – 8  million years ago) and the Pliocene (5.3 – 1.8 million years ago). The traditional wisdom – up until recently – was that their North American representatives survived the longest in Florida.

Lazarus effect

With dates like these, it would appear then that the jolly pachyderms disappeared about 1.788 million years (give or take a few thousand years) before the earliest humans started walking around in North America. The recent discoveries made at “El fin del Mundo” upended this conventional wisdom. Animals considered long gone by the time of the arrival of the first Americans, now seems to have survived until that point in time. Resurrected from the dead, as one scientist intimated.

The site got its foreboding name because of its very remote location on a ranch in the Rio Sonora watershed. However, being remote is a relative term. Once the news breaks, it is no longer a secret and people will find their way to the site. That is why scientists waited for two years to announce their discovery. This gave them ample time to get a good start on the work that needs to be done.

According to Dr. Vance Holliday, a University of Arizona anthropologist, this is the first time gomphothere fossils were found together with implements made by Clovis people and because of this association, this find has major implications.

Saber-tooth Cat Skull
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ryan Somma

Instead of completely disappearing 1.8 million years ago, some Gomphotheres seem to have survived until relatively recently. Our mental image of early man in the Americas encountering and hunting mammoths and mastodon now has to include Gomphotheres as well. In addition to giant hyenas and sabertooth cats, humans also developed a taste for these creatures.

Are all the gomphotheres gone now?

Even though they survived much longer than originally suggested, gompotheres are no longer with us. However, these lumbering leviathans have been immortalized in a number of outdoor statues, as you can see here, here and here.

100 Years – 100 Objects: Hymeneae Flower in Amber

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 - meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from David Temple, the museum’s curator of paleontology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the most fascinating fossils in the Museum’s collections, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org/ – throughout the year.

minivault3 044 - hymeneae flowerThis amber gem, from the La Toca mines in the Dominican Republic, was once sticky sap from the Hymenaea protera tree. The tree produced the sap to serve as a liquid band aid, to prevent decay, and to protect against fungus or insect attack by sealing injuries to the tree. The wet resin also had the unintended effect of trapping and preserving many of the forests inhabitants. Millennia passed, the trees lived and died, the sap hardened.  Erosion washed the hardened sap into rivers, where it was buried in clastic sediments. Through plate tectonics, the rock containing the resin was uplifted into mountains, and the process that buried them during the Oligocene and Miocene periods brought them to light again 20-40 million years later.

Amber has always been prized by people. The Ancient Greeks even believed the source to be the tears of the sun.  The transformation of resin to amber is still not completely understood, but the variables of burial, time, heat and pressure combine to remove the volatile elements in the resin. Though not as old as the Baltic amber known to the Ancients, the Dominican amber is usually clearer and contains more inclusions.

This flower is from the Hymeneae tree, a species that could produce copious quantities of resin, the source of the Dominican amber.  The flower had not fully emerged when it was broken from the limb and landed in the wet, flowing resin. Though not visible in this photograph, microscopic mite-like arthropods can be seen living inside the flower as well. The fast moving resin engulfed and preserved not just individuals, but relationships between plants and animals as well.

Wander among prehistoric beasts in the Paleontology Hall, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org.