Scientists last month declared that a lost species of humans may have lived and hunted mastodon elephants in California 130,000 years ago. Among the people consulted, at least by the New York Times science writer on the story, was Rolfe Mandel, an anthropologist from the University of Kansas.
Mandel’s verdict on California so far: “It sounds intriguing, and it’s stirred up a lot of debate in the scientific community. But I have yet to talk to one person who buys it.”
The accepted scientific time line so far says humans moved into the Americas about 15,000 years ago.
Meanwhile, Mandel, who teaches at KU and serves also as interim director of the Kansas Geological Survey, is building on what already has been verified, here in Kansas and elsewhere.
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It’s a great story, he said. He dug up parts of it himself, near the tiny town of Kanorado, Kan., in a cutbank in far northwestern Kansas, alongside I-70, only minutes from the Colorado border.
Here’s what the Kanorado site has told us so far about our state, he said:
▪ Ancestors of Native Americans hunted elephants in Kansas 13,000 years ago. That’s thousands of years before Columbus arrived in 1492, thousands before the Vikings landed in Newfoundland. It’s thousands of years before people in the Middle East invented agriculture.
▪ The Kanorado dig is the oldest site found in the Midwest.
▪ The ancient Indians were as brave and resourceful as any people ever. They threw spears at elephants and at the giant bison of the time, who weighed hundreds of pounds more than the bison of today.
They lived probably in family bands of no more than eight to 10, which means children and women likely acted as herders, waving hide blankets, driving great beasts toward hunters hidden in cover.
The first Kansans likely looked thin, tough and weather-beaten, he said. They walked hundreds of miles a year, following herds.
▪ They loved beauty.
How does Mandel know? Because many flakes of flint they left at Kanorado do not come from Kansas.
The flakes they left behind were those they knocked off the blades of spear points and knife blades as they sharpened them. The flakes came from high-quality flint quarries found in three sites – all hundreds of miles from Kanorado: from the Texas Panhandle, from central Colorado and from Wyoming.
“What that means is that these people were not afraid to walk hundreds of miles to get quality material, and carry a lot of heavy stone material with them,” he said.
The flint from those quarries looks almost translucent when thinned into a flat spear or knife blade. Points made from that material look like fine jewelry.
The ancient first Kansans walked to Texas and Wyoming and Colorado (and back) because they liked to turn the stone of tools into works of art.