As a kid, wandering the woods near his home in northern Michigan, Doug Peacock discovered the ancient grave of a stillborn child, marked with red ochre and buried with arrowheads. The discovery “spoke of an older, more compelling world I wanted somehow to become a part of.”
In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: A Renegade Naturalist Considers Global Warming, the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene takes readers into that world as the Livingston writer and naturalist probes his lifelong fascination with prehistory. That interest is piqued further when he finds out about another gravesite, this time near his Montana home and containing the “the oldest skeleton ever found in the Americas” – the body of a one-and-a-half-year-old child.
The skeleton and the large cache of tools date back to the Clovis culture, a time 13,000 to 15,000 years ago when megafauna rumbled across North America, stalked by bold hunters with their distinctive stone-tipped spears.
Peacock discusses the discovery, called the Anzick site, offering his interpretation of what it means about the peopling of the Americas, and how they developed the skills and tools necessary to survive “the terrifying array of Pleistocene predators.”
But far from focusing solely on the archaeological conundrums raised by the Livingston site (and there are many), Peacock crafts a bridge between the fate of our ancestors, hunting mammoths in a wild, unpredictable landscape, and ourselves.
Clovis people walked the Earth at a time, “like today of convulsive climate change,” an age of rising temperatures, melting glaciers and massive extinctions. “Are there lessons in the story of early Americans adapting to a changing climate in an uninhabited human landscape, prowled by large cats and gigantic bears?” He believes there are.
Peacock employs “a dusty degree in geology,” graduate study in anthropology, a background in archeology and the natural sciences, and a lifetime of adventure in the wilderness to imagine the journey of our predecessors. Even though his tale ends with the mass extinctions of giant predators and the sudden disappearance of Clovis people, Peacock suggests that humans might learn enough from the ancient mammoth hunters to “get it right a second time.” Let’s hope so.
Peacock is also the author of In the Presence of Grizzlies (with Andrea Peacock), Walking It Off, Baja! and Grizzly Years.
– Kristi Niemeyer