VIEW ON NATURE:  Before Virginia

By Stephen Wendt


When we think of early Virginia, we think back to the first English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.  But what was Nature like before then…way before then?

Bison, elk, red wolves, and cougars wandered our forests and meadows when the Europeans came. But it didn’t take long for the settling invaders to exterminate them for their plentiful meat, and to protect their livestock. Wolf bounties, first offered in 1632, were paid to colonists in cash, tobacco, wine and corn, and to Native Americans with blankets and trinkets. Today, red wolves are the most endangered U.S. mammal.

But what wildlife did Paleo-Native Americans’ face when they first came to Virginia 15,000 years ago?  They were nomadic hunters, fishers and food gathers. And boy did they have huge mammals to hunt: the elephant ancestor mammoths and mastodons, giant ground sloths, huge short-faced bears, and 1,000-pound woodland musk-oxen. How do we know this?  From fossil evidence found near the southwestern town of Saltville, VA where prehistoric animals and confederate soldiers alike flocked for the salt.

One of the first reports of strange fossils came from Dr. Arthur Campbell to Thomas Jefferson in 1782. Jefferson commented on the bones of this new, unknown animal goliath (the giant ground sloth) at the 1797 American Philosophical Society meeting in Philadelphia. 

The mystery bones became an instant sensation as this giant sloth was scientifically named Megalonyx jeffersonii, after our third president who later instructed Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for such beasts on their scientific/commercial expedition across the expanse of what later became the U.S.

At 1,000 pounds and 10 feet tall, the ice-age sloth towered over humans.  It was a vegetarian with long hair and hind feet like ours, walking on its heels and toe bones with good mobility and upward balance with the aid of its thick muscular tail.  Using its height and strong three-toed front limbs, these gentle giants pulled down tree branches to browse, and fended off enemies with their 8-inch hooked claws. 

The short-faced bear with their own 8-inch claws preyed on the giant sloth; it was certainly big enough, weighing over 2,000 pounds and standing 12 feet tall as the largest land mammal carnivore that ever existed. Just imagine all the courage and folklore that revolved around the Paleo-hunter clans stalking those dangerous bruins!

So what caused the demise of all of our dominant animals?  Facts, clues and well-placed theories indicate hunting pressure and climate change.  Radiocarbon dating tells us these large long-standing animals disappeared around 11,000 years ago, relatively soon after humans hunters moved in. Scarred fossilized mastodon bones from Saltville indicated human butchering and cooking. Our slow giant ground sloth disappeared while its cousins on remote islands with no humans lived on thousands of years longer. And recent scientific work is revealing climate change at the end of the last ice age as having a growing impact on the forests, vegetation, and declining mega fauna in Virginia. It certainly makes one think about what we are doing to our earth today. 


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(Copyright © 2011 Annandale Chamber of Commerce. All rights reserved.)  This article first appeared in January 2017 ENDEAVOR News Magazine, and may not be reproduced without the written permission of the magazine.



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