Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

February 27, 2013

Ancient Indiana

Ben Morris
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — Indiana has an exceptionally rich archaeological heritage, thanks to the efforts of numerous dedicated professionals and amateur archaeologists alike.

To date nearly 50,000 archaeological sites have been recorded in the state, according to the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology (DHPA).

Recent archaeological evidence indicates that small bands of hunters were making forays into the area we now call Indiana at the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago, and quite likely much earlier. Archaeologists call these hunters Paleo-Indians. The prefix paleo comes from the Greek adjective “paleos” meaning old.

The environment toward the end of the last Ice Age was a good deal colder than it is today. Pollen samples recovered from the mud and debris at the bottom of ancient ponds and other water places indicate that much of Indiana during this time was covered by large stands of spruce and pine forests. The land between these forests was open steppe-like grasslands. These grassy areas attracted herds of the grazing mammals such as the mammoth. A mature mammoth could reach a height of 13 feet at the shoulder, which is three feet higher than a basketball rim, and weigh equal to about 140 grown men.

Other large mammals that roamed the state during the waning days of the Ice Age include the vicious-looking saber-toothed cat (Smilodon fatalis), with its six to seven-inch long incisors (cutting teeth). Also in the area were Ice Age heavyweights such as the American mastodon (Mammut Americanum) and giant ground sloth (Paramylodn harlani). The skeletal remains of an American mastodon, I am told, inspired students and the Indiana-Purdue University campus in Fort Wayne to name the athletic team the “Mastodons.”

Some time ago, I visited the Joseph Moore Museum on the campus of the Earlham College in Richmond. I had gone there because I had been told that they had a mammoth skeleton. Even though the mammoth turned out to be a mastodon, I was not in the least disappointed. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the museum also possessed the skeletal remains of a giant ground sloth.

I had never seen a giant ground sloth up close and personal. They were truly awesome animals. I also discovered that Earlham College museum has the world’s most complete skeleton of a giant beaver (Cvastooroides ohiensis). In life, these magnificent rodents were seven to eight feet long and could weight as much as 250 to 300 pounds, which is roughtly the size of a black bear. The Earlham speciman, I recall, had front incisors that were about seven inches long. The giant beaver went extinct about 10,000 years ago.

The museum also has the skeleton of another Ice Age animal that once prowled Indiana. The saber-toothed cat. Admission to the museum is free, but I suggest that you phone ahead to make sure someone will be available to show you around. Their number is 765-983-1303 or you can email them at www.earlam.edu/jmm.

Ben Morris, MA, RPA is an archaeological and historical columnist for the Daily News. He can be reached at 812-932-0298 or bjmorris1935@gmail.com.