THE HISCOCK SITE



by James M. Chandler


"In 1984, while recovering bones from an ancient spring at the Hiscock site, Laub first thought one was from a cervid (deer-like) animal because of its size. Examination of its structure in the lab revealed it was from a bird, perhaps a large vulture. He sent it to David Steadman, then with the New York State Museum, who identified it as the humerus of a California condor. Both men were excited by the discovery, since fossil condor remains had previously been found only along the Gulf Coast and along the Pacific Coast into northern California. Two additional bones found in the next two years confirmed the presence of the condor in Ice Age New York."

PARAGRAPH SIX, BELOW



What is the Hiscock site? Dick Laub of the Buffalo Museum of Science will tell you what it isn't. "It's not just a mastodon site," he says, "not just an archaeology site and not just a paleontology site." It's all these things, and much more. Its geological structure and sediments are a permanent record of environmental events like droughts and wildfires. They also have much to tell us about the nature and degree of climatic change in the Great Lakes region during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition.

Soggy Origins

The sediments of the Hiscock site are archives of animal remains. The bones of many individuals are worn and broken and mixed together, as Dr. Laub puts it, "like pick-up sticks on a table." The richness of the skeletal remains and the confused state in which they are found are the result of its location, close to present Lake Ontario. When bones started accumulating at the end of the Ice Age, the Laurentide Ice Sheet had retreated scarcely 200 miles north, leaving behind lush periglacial woodlands rich in caribou and other boreal animals now associated with central Canada. According to Laub, a natural geographical barrier of ponds and wetlands ran east-west for 90 miles, from within the present Ontario peninsula nearly to where Rochester sits today. A 2-mile-wide corridor that penetrated the barrier became a natural migratory route that appears to have attracted animals--and the people that followed them. The geology and paleogeography of the region added to its appeal; the bedrock may have contributed minerals to the sediment that drew animals. Happily, the Hiscock site lay on the margin of the corridor.

Since the Museum started systematic excavation in 1983, the bones of more than 60 animal species have been identified. Although there is reliable stratigraphy in some parts of the 52-acre site, there is evidence of much mixing--literally--especially in the Pleistocene horizon. There were a number of spring-fed pools. "Bones presumably settled vertically to the lower layer of the soupy mixture," says Laub, "and were mixed by trampling, water movement, scavenging, and human manipulation." Bones from the Pleistocene and Holocene horizons are rarely found articulated; radiocarbon dating is a big help in disentangling the jumbled remains. Today Laub has more than 60 C-14 dates; the oldest is 11,450 50 RCYBP on a caribou antler.

The Hiscock site is also a storehouse of fossil plants and pollen, from which scientists can infer the change in vegetation cover over time. Preserved environmental information is a permanent record of droughts, changing water tables, fire, and varying erosion rates.

Bones Are The Majority Of The Finds

By far the most abundant fossil remains of Pleistocene fauna recovered at the Hiscock site are those of mastodon. The Museum can account for at least 10 mastodons, juvenile and mature, male and female. The site has produced 13 complete tusks. Research done at the Museum has added considerably to our knowledge of these megafauna. Examination of their gastrointestinal and fecal contents reveals that their diet included conifer twigs, especially spruce. Reconstruction of their jaw structure and musculature tells us how they chewed--not, as you might think, like an elephant, but like a cow or sheep, from side to side.

Among the animal species identified by their remains are the varieties familiar to every paleontologist, including stag-moose and giant beaver (only a tooth so far). There was a surprise, too. In 1984, while recovering bones from an ancient spring at the Hiscock site, Laub first thought one was from a cervid (deer-like) animal because of its size. Examination of its structure in the lab revealed it was from a bird, perhaps a large vulture. He sent it to David Steadman, then with the New York State Museum, who identified it as the humerus of a California condor. Both men were excited by the discovery, since fossil condor remains had previously been found only along the Gulf Coast and along the Pacific Coast into northern California. Two additional bones found in the next two years confirmed the presence of the condor in Ice Age New York. The condor, we now know, was a very tough bird that was adapted to a wider range of climates than previously thought. The article on the occurrence of the condor at the Hiscock site by Dr. Steadman and co-author Dr. Norton Miller that appeared in Quaternary Research (vol. 28, 1987) states that its reduced range (today it is found only in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California), rather than being the result of climate change, may be due instead to the diminished supply of large carcasses at the end of the Ice Age.

Human Evidence

The Clovis culture left its signature at the Hiscock site: five fluted bifaces and a fragment of a trianguloid endscraper. Interestingly, one of the bifaces bears traces of bovid blood. Since no bovid remains have been identified at the site, this suggests the tool might have been used to butcher a musk ox or bison elsewhere in the migration of the band. Excavations have also turned up an Ice Age bead made of gray sandstone, pierced first on one side, then on the other to complete the lumen, and classic examples of early-Archaic projectile points from the Holocene horizon.

Even more interesting than stone artifacts are bone tools that have been found in the Pleistocene and Holocene horizons. The most noteworthy example, found during a dig in 1991, is a worked mastodon bone. It lay within a radius of 13 m (about 42 ft) of two fluted artifacts and a broken endscraper in the same sedimentary layer. Laub's suspicion that it was a bone tool was confirmed by John Tomenchuk of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, a specialist in use-wear analysis. Dr. Tomenchuk had even better news. Not only had the tool been shaped by human hands, it had been fashioned from the rib bone of a mastodon--green bone, which suggests that the bone had only recently been removed from the animal's body, or perhaps that conditions at the site retarded bone decomposition. AMS dating of the bone put its age at 10,990 100 RCYBP. We now have convincing evidence that humans were contemporaneous with mastodons in the Great Lakes area and that they exploited the animals for materials and possibly for food.


RETURN TO:
EVIDENCE OF THE GIANT BIRDS



THUNDERBIRD SITE LIST

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THE MAMMOTH TRUMPET
Volume 16, Number 4, page 18
September 2001


How to contact the principal of this article:

Richard Laub
Geology Division, Buffalo Museum of Science
1030 Humboldt Parkway
Buffalo, NY 14211-1293

e-mail: rlaub@sciencebuff.org