Horses, Camels, and Finding Some Long Lost Fossils

The Book of Mormon mentions Nephites and Jaredites with a wide variety of domesticated animals including horses, and camels among others. There is a wide consensus among modern scholars that, although most of the animals mentioned in the Book of Mormon used to thrive in the Americas, they became extinct roughly 10,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene era.

Scientists use the term “Megafauna” to describe these animals. Some of the most direct evidence of these animals comes from the La Brae tar pits, named after the former rancho called “La Brae” in what is now Los Angeles. This particular archaeological site is so important to North American Megafauna studies that they use the term “Rancholabrean” to describe the time period that these megafauna lived.

There are archaeological sites in North America with clear evidence that humans interacted with these large animals in the distant past, but there is no clear evidence of human interaction with Rancholabrean megafauna during Book of Mormon times.

William C. Massey is known as one of the earliest professionals to have done ethnographical field work in Baja California. His works are still quoted often and regarded as significant contributions to our understanding of Baja prehistory.

Among his works is an article published in the Southwest Journal of Anthropology in 1947 in which he states:

“For several miles to the west of the locality where the Arroyo de Comondu [a site in the central peninsula] leaves its canyon, there is a plain of silts dissected by washes. From the faunal remains-bison, camel, and horse-which have been collected in this fossil location,it is known that in Pleistocene times it was a marsh. No artifacts have been found in place with these Pleistocene faunal remains, but the presence of longitudinally split bison bones, and reported camel and horse bones with burned ends suggest the work of contemporaneous humans.”

Unfortunately, just a few years later Massey writes in another publication that, although those fossils did exist, he could no longer produce them for further analysis. There are several modern publications that reference this claim, wishing that the evidence of it could be found so that further testing can be performed to verify Massey’s claims, but nobody had ever been able to figure out what happened to the fossils after Massey’s report in 1947.

I decided to take up this issue a couple of years ago to see if I could try to track down those fossils. In the footnote of the 1947 article’s paragraph quoted above, Massey states the following: “Our remains were identified through the kindness of Dr R. A. Stirton.”, meaning Reuben Arthur Stirton, the fourth director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology.

I did an online search of the museum’s catalog and found some collections credited to Massey, but none of them seemed to fit the description from the article. Then, while going through the search results I happened to click on a collection attributed to “A. Alexander” from 1948 which includes “DIST TIBIA,SCAPULA FRAG, HUMERUS, METACARPAL” from a Rancholabrean Bison and which was collected from “Comondu Arroyo 1” in Baja California Sur. A few more clicks and I found myself looking at the catalog record for Massey’s horse and bison fossils as well.

I should pause here and correct some history. Massey, a professional archaeologist, did not collect the fossils that he reported on in 1947. Some research into Annie Alexander’s papers at UCMP includes a folder of correspondence labeled “Massey, William C. and Ellen” from 1947-1949. It turns out that Annie Alexander (a woman who was a fascinating, rough, wealthy paleontologist in the early 20th century) celebrated her 80th birthday in Baja California. She funded the expedition and it was her that ultimately deposited the fossils in the museum. Also, the wording in Massey’s 1947 article does not actually claim that he found the fossils himself. It is pretty clear that he was reporting on fossils that Annie Alexander discovered. She deposited them in the museum in 1948, but died two years later and it appears that Massey never learned what she had done with them so they were lost to history until I contacted the curator of the museum and told her the same story. She replied:

“Dear Mr. Anderson, You are a top-notch historical sleuth!” (sorry…I can’t help but quote her on that). She goes on to confirm that the fossils are still being curated at the museum and has since taken photos of them which are available online:

http://ucmpdb.berkeley.edu/cgi/ucmp_query2?admin=&table=ucmp2&where-loc_ID_num=V4806

Evidence of human interaction with the fossils seems unclear from the photos, but we’re holding out hope that it can be confirmed with further study.

Camel Fossils reported by William Massey in 1947.  Actually collected by Annie Alexander.

Camel Fossils reported by William Massey in 1947. Actually collected by Annie Alexander.

Of course, even if the fossils do show evidence of human interaction like Massey described, that interaction could have happened 10,000 years ago…not necessarily during Book of Mormon times. What we need is for a professional to take up this cause and examine the bones and try to extract a date from them. A C14 date might be obtained from bone calogen if the fossils are from Book of Mormon times or from trace amounts of carbon if the bones were actually burnt like Massey reported.

Anyone out there willing to take up the cause? The results would be scientifically valuable, whether or not they end up substantiating the accounts in the Book of Mormon.

-Beau Anderson

Leave a Reply