The Story Behind the Story

The Spirit and the Skull is an odd little book. There's humor, but none of the wild farce people got used to in the Mad Dog & Englihman series. And more supernatural aspects than Poisoned Pen prefers. So I'm a little surprised they're going to publish it. Barbara Peters' reaction sums it up, "... such an unorthodox book as yours is one to publish."

I spent twenty years in school, not counting kindergarten and the wasted semester while I decided to drop out of Arizona's anthropology PhD program. I worked on three major archaeology projects.

One was a field school to train students at Wichita State. We learned techniques, but didn't actually find the site until our last day in the field. Lots of failed test pits. As useful archaeology, it was a wasted summer. We were working a little wheat field along the looping Walnut River just south of Augusta, KS. The site's official name was 14BU501, but those of us working there preferred to call it the "Across the River from the Augusta City Dump Site." Fortunately, Kansas winds seldom blow north to south in the summer. The wheat field was strewn with stone tools, broken pottery, broken animal bones, and other Indian detritus. That little field had been plowed for most of a century, distributing what the plow exposed all over the place.

The occupation site turned out to be in the far southwest corner of the field--or at least a garbage midden proved to be there. Needless to say, we failed to excavate anything of significance before we had to backfill that last trench and pack up for the end of summer school.

The next summer I went to Alaska and the location that inspired The Spirit and the Skull. It wasn't an especially successful archaeological project, either. Three years before, the principal investigator (another form of PI) and one graduate student had surveyed the area, finding crude, heavily patinated stone tools along an unnamed stream just south of May Lake, Alaska. The PI named the stream Sedna Creek after the Eskimo goddess of the animals -- a relatively modern version of the Earth Mother. There were several other drainages in the area. None yielded similar tools. But, nearby, the PI and his student discovered a mammoth tusk that had obviously been cut -- chopped in half -- by humans.

The Sedna Creek tools were so crude that many archaeological authorities claimed they were eoliths -- naturally produced flakes that had been created by geologic action. Not everyone saw it that way because a number of sites had begun to appear throughout the Americas that seemed to predate Clovis, then the politically correct first Americans. Sedna Creek was one of several of those sites in the Arctic, possible evidence the first undocumented aliens entering the New World were pre-Clovis -- maybe by ten-thousand years or more.

Our crew found more of those primitive tools. We excavated what remained of the mammoth tusk, and discovered a mammoth tooth beside it. We thought the rest of the big guy had to be just below the permafrost and spent the summer digging a few inches of muck out from under our finds after bailing permafrost melt from our trench. Toward the end of summer, we were bailing about three feet of water, something that took much longer than scooping the freshly melted muck after we finally got to it. We found nothing. No site, no mammoth.

Back on Sedna Creek, we managed to determine the artifacts were washing out of a terrace above the stream and that the terrace had been formed when a much larger stream, Fortress Creek, flowed through the area during glacial times. Fortress Creek long ago broke through a low shale saddle between Fortress Mountain and the unnamed series of peaks and ridges that caused Sedna Creek to flow west before turning north to join the overflow from May Lake and head for the Arctic Ocean.

Bottom line, permafrost archaeology is much like plow zone archaeology. You can't trust surface finds because the ice churns the earth even better than a plow, especially since it churns so much deeper. All this gets very complicated. The active permafrost which does the most churning is the top layer that can vary from a few inches to more than a dozen feet, sometimes right next to each other. The inactive permafrost, which can still be geologically active, is thousands of feet thick. Or more. So, that summer was less useful in proving who got here first, than giving our field crew the experience of living in an unspoiled environment -- a land not so very different than when those first humans crossed it on their way to peopling two continents.

We found the North Slope of the Brooks Range an astounding place. Beautiful rolling grassland studded with dramatic ridges, mountains, and lakes. All of it cut by countless drainages, great and small, rushing summer melt waters north to the Arctic Ocean. No trees, or hardly any. We were north of the tree line where only an occasional sheltered tree beat the odds for a few years. The exceptions were dwarf willows that topped out around ten to fifteen feet and grew in great groves paralleling stream beds. No people.

We were 143 miles north of the Arctic Circle and a 44 mile crow flight from the nearest year-round occupied village (Eskimo) in Anaktuvuk Pass. We did have company, though. Grizzlies, wolves, wolverine, fox, ground squirrels, moose, and caribou (in their tens or hundreds of thousands when they began the fall migration). For the first time in my life I understood the wonder with which pioneers must have encountered the buffalo herds that blackened the Great Plains. And then there were the mosquitoes -- in their millions. Thick enough to make breathing difficult when the wind wasn't blowing.

We encountered eerie things, too. Windless foggy nights when we could hear voices. Not what they were saying. Or even whether they were speaking English. But voices in the mist when there shouldn't have been any. Voices, at times when none of the bush pilots or suppliers knew of anyone closer than that Eskimo village. The land felt timeless. Like you could step out of your tent and cross the nearest ridge and run into a band of prehistoric big game hunters stalking mammoths. Twenty-four hours of sunlight for most of the summer, then spectacular sky-filling displays of the aurora -- south of us. And one night, a piercing laser-like green light that flashed into existence in the Brooks range and, for a moment, seemed to reach deep into space. To this day, none of us have any idea what that was about.

My Arctic experiences took place in the summer of 1967 while the Six Day War revised Middle Eastern borders and established a Palestinian problem yet to be solved, and boys my age shed blood in Vietnam to prevent the fall of incomprehensible dominos. That's a long time ago, but hardly an instant in the spread of humans out of Africa to now crowd nearly every continent.

And yet the Arctic I knew is dramatically changed. To reach May Lake, we had to fly 180 miles from Fairbanks to Bettles Field, load a float plane, and fly another 140 miles from Bettles.

Now, there's a highway from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. We could drive as far as Toolik Field Station, only 85 miles from our destination. Of course that still leaves a long, difficult hike or a much shorter float plane ride. But there's no question that the Arctic I knew has already changed. Native peoples living know that. Eskimos don't only have far more words for snow than we, they have as many words for ice. They describe the state of sea and lake ice, it's hardness, thickness, surface, and safety.

But the ice is changing. It disappears earlier in the spring and comes later in the fall. More often, it disguises places too thin to support a man's weight. In summers, it's more likely to pull far away from coastlines, causing sever storm-wave damage to villages. Some of them are considering moving inland, away from the ocean's resources that have traditionally supported their way of life. Native refrigerators, deep pits hacked into the permafrost and covered to prevent additional melting, are melting anyway. There's still frost on the perishable foods stored down there, but there's moisture, too. Meat can no longer be stored indefinitely.

Is this evidence of global warming, climate change, or just part of Mother Nature's cyclic warming and cooling trends? I believe climate change is a perpetual fact, something the earth has always dealt with and will continue to face until it no longer exists. But there's a new factor in climate change -- us. When I was born, the earth's population was about 2.2 billion. According to the global population clock, we're at 7.2 billion now (as of February 2014). That means we've more than tripled in one incomplete lifetime.

Is it possible that heating, cooling, feeding, supplying the needs for that additional 5 billion people has no impact on climate? It's my opinion, and that of most scientists, that we're contributing to global warming. Whether the earth or our sun has a means of reversing that trend remains to be seen. If the trend continues, it's not likely to be kind to our species if we persist in increasing our numbers and our consumption of finite resources.

This odd little book is about all that. About where we came from and where we're going. It may seem to glorify a distant time and place, but that's not the purpose. After all, the original immigrants into the New World presided over the destruction of its mega fauna, and, over eons, redesigned the Americas to fit their purposes. There was a difference between the Indians and the Europeans, however. Not that Indians never overpopulated their environment or didn't fail to manage resources properly.

But, overall, by concentrating on the good of the group rather than the accumulation of wealth, by focusing on people instead of capital, they managed to occupy their continents with a gentler touch. They were hardly perfect, but there's every reason to believe our early 21st century world might be closer to a sustainable lifestyle if the Europeans had taken home a plague of diseases rather than bringing one. That the Conquistadors overwhelmed America's high cultures had less to do with technological superiority than the luck of importing plagues that, together with warfare and enslavement, may have wiped out 95% of the pre-contact Indian population -- 1/5th of the world's population -- by the first third of the 17th century. But, if that had happened, I wouldn't be here to tell this tale and you wouldn't be here to read it.

My third significant field season followed at et-Tabun cave on Mt. Carmel at the eastern end of the Mediterranean the following summer. The deposits there contained human debris stretching from sheep herders in historic times to a Neanderthal burial and stone hand axes and scrapers of residents back to 500,000 B.P. But that's another story....

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The Spirit and the Skull by J.M. Hayes

The Spirit and the Skull

by J.M. Hayes

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