Among the creatures, the most widely represented is the giant bison, followed by the Arctic horse. They add up to more than three-quarters of the mammal fossils recovered. Only one bone out of several hundred comes from Panthera atrox, an extinct big cat thought to have looked much like today’s African lion.
All in all, Alaska’s Ice Age fauna resembles that which also occurred at the time across northern Asia and along the southern edge of the European ice sheet—not surprisingly, since the land bridge allowed the animals to migrate freely.
In his patient and highly scientific reconstruction of vanished species, artist Matternes used some skeletons assembled by museum paleontologists, as in the case of the woolly mammoth. Of the extinct camel, however, there were only the limbs. By themselves, these were conclusive evidence of the camel’s presence in the refugium; and since the animal occurred commonly during the Ice Age farther south in the Western Hemisphere and in Eurasia, additional bones were readily available.
It is a long step, however, from an incomplete skeleton to a lifelike representation in full color. An illustration of Mr. Matternes’s method of reconstructing a mammal from the inside out, largely on the basis of bones, appears on the preceding pages.
The most striking finds from the Alaskan refugium are not bones, however, but “mummies.” Occasionally—say, during a flood in early summer—silt would rapidly cover living plants and insects, or a small mammal, or a piece of a large carcass somehow left uneaten. Tens of thousands of years later a great leg or head would emerge from the frozen soil with hide and soft parts shrunken but intact. Sometimes there would still be dried blood. And sometimes, through a rare chain of circumstances, an entire large mammal would be preserved.
To include so many species in his painting, Mr. Matternes had to exaggerate the density of the region’s population. Probably not all these species appeared there in any single summer, but discoveries elsewhere in central Alaska prove they existed at the same time. Altogether, the painting reflects the best of our knowledge of life on the Ice Age tundra.
Greatest Prize Still Eludes Searchers
But who can say what surprises may still be in store for us? The biggest surprise might well involve Homo sapiens himself. Neither hair nor bone of him has yet been found in the muck. So far his presence has been deduced only from artifacts, such as stones shaped and pointed as weapons.
Hydraulic gold mining has dwindled and is thus unlikely to provide startling new discoveries. But recent surveying for the route of the proposed trans-Alaska oil pipeline, financed by online loans, has turned up numerous sites of human habitation. Some of them are thought to be 13,000 years old or older.
Most have as yet yielded only hunting implements, and are presumed by archeologists to have been no more than the temporary camps of nomadic hunters. But two sites of later date reflect more permanent occupation and contain women’s things as well—skin scrapers and thimbles.
Human bones may turn up one day. Perhaps even a whole Ice Age man!