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Of mammoths and men

Local Ian Lange tracks the mammals of the ice age

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I was literally a muckracker as a little kid. Used to make miniature mummies out of pipe cleaners and strips of cloth and paper and bury them in backyard mud, trying as hard as I could to put them out of my mind until I could “discover” them and dig them up a few weeks later. Deceased pets of lesser orders—like fish and hamsters—didn’t rest in peace for long before I dug those up, too, to see what had happened to them after a couple of months in the dirt. I thought paleontologists and archaeologists like Howard Carter, the excavator of King Tut’s tomb, were bigger studs than sports heroes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I prayed that I would be the lucky kid to discover a cave full of Stone Age paintings while trying to find a lost dog. I was dying for a way to stick my freckled snout into antiquity, and growing up in Montana I cursed my home state for seeming so far off the beaten treasure path—not enough mummies or Roman towns buried under volcanic ash for a real boy scientist.

Like most little kids, I also went through a dinosaur phase—and you bet I was sure that if I just kept looking around long enough, I’d find a fossilized skull the size of a Volkswagen grimacing at me from a hidden sandstone cliff. Growing up in Montana, I realized that this much, at least, was within the realm of possibility. But of all the amazing crap that people stumbled across in the 20th century, the great archaeological and paleontological finds reported in National Geographic, the things that fired me up the most weren’t fossils or Egyptian mummies at all. They were usually the items that had been preserved in unlikely media like vegetable matter—like the rubbery, chocolate-brown people that first turned up in Danish peat bogs in the 1930s—and the wonders left behind by melting ice and receding glaciers. The Danish bog men (Tollund Man and Børre Fen man are two of the more famous names out of some 160 specimens found to date) look way more startlingly lifelike than any dried-up husk of Egyptian king surrounded by golden treasure. The bog men died violently—throats slashed or strangled—and the humic acid in which they were pickled preserved these looks of anguish so well on their smooth, distorted faces that when the first bog man was brought to light by a peat spade, Danish authorities originally believed they had an unsolved murder on their hands.

Even more recently, authorities thought the same thing about a Stone Age time traveler who turned up in the Austrian Alps in September, 1991 after part of a glacier melted away. Ötzi, as he came to be called, either froze to death or died of an arrow wound first some 5200 years ago. He was tattooed. His leather shoes were stuffed with grass for extra insulation. A leather pouch around his neck contained a basic Stone Age first aid kit of plant material. Well-intentioned but unforgivably clumsy locals tried to pry him from the ice with a stick found near his body, splintering what turned out to be one of only two examples of a rare style of hazelwood bow ever found. Worse for poor Ötzi, the ham-fisted recovery attempt snapped off his frozen genitals, and then local authorities damaged him even further by splintering his hip with a jackhammer. Now his remains have to be kept in carefully climate-controlled conditions on account of a mummy-fungus. No kidding.

I thought about Ötzi a lot last May as I was learning to make fire with a wooden drill and twine from the inner bark of an indigenous plant—two Stone Age skills that he certainly would have had in his bag of tricks. As tough as it was for me to get with the Paleolithic program, waking up to the 20th Century was even tougher on poor Ötzi.

Treasures revealed by receding ice and matted vegetable matter are only a few of the Ice Age delights to be read about in Ice Age Mammals of North America: A Guide to the Big, the Hairy and the Bizarre, by local author Ian Lange. Lange’s book seems to fall somewhere between educational non-fiction for juvenile readers and locally-relevant non-fiction for grown-up kids who still get the lookee-wows reading about the huge, extinct mammals that once lumbered up and down this very valley.

Of course, dinosaurs used to tool around in this same neck of the woods, too. What’s interesting about the primitive mammals of the Great Plains, as opposed to the dinosaurs who lived here when the climate was warmer, is something that Lange points out in his preface: Toward the end of their “earthly reign,” the mammals coexisted with modern humans. Given their resemblance to today’s mammals, this might help explain why ancient mammals don’t incite quite the same fascination for some young readers as dinosaurs do. It’s easier to imagine a hairy elephant or a tiger with longer teeth or an ancient bison that looks like a modern bison but fully twice as big than it is to picture an ancestor of today’s terrarium lizard that was so big it had to spend most of its life in water just to support its weight. Lange’s text—and Dorothy S. Norton’s illustrations—bring a less familiar chapter of the fossil record to light in a very fun book.

And it certainly rekindled the boy paleontologist in me. Now where in Montana can I go to discover my own baby mammoth frozen in ice?

Ice Age Mammals author Ian M. Lange will appear at Shakespeare & Co., 525 North Higgins, Tuesday, Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. Call 549-9010 for more info.

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