Earlier this summer, we heard a report about one of the richest North American discoveries of fossils from Ice Age mammals found right here in Ohio. Sheriden Cave near Findlay, Ohio has yielded not only the bones of these extinct animals, but a cache of ancient hunting tools left by one of the first groups of people to cross the Bering Land Bridge to the New World. Archaeologists and paleontologists are still working to interpret these finds and their significance in the massive extinctions that took place at the end of the last glacial period. But now the question is how to preserve and interpret this site for future generations. From Sheriden Cave, 90.3 WCPN's Karen Schaefer reports.
Karen Schaefer- One night at the turn of the last century, a family named Sheriden heard a loud thump behind the house on their farm near Findlay. In the morning they saw that a small sinkhole had opened in the yard. They quickly filled it in, little knowing what lay waiting to be discovered 60 feet below the surface.
Keith Hendricks- They bought these the day I was born, but it's become part of the family blood.
KS- One hundred years later, Sheriden Cave is finally yielding up its secrets. Keith Hendricks is the present owner. He operates a commercial tour business through the small caves that underlie the property. Keith says in 1989, he and his father Dick began a long-dreamed of project - digging out the sinkhole known as Sheriden Pit.
KH- We took and started to dig this out in 1989 in the fall and opened it up in 1990 in the spring. We took a big backhoe and started digging down. We started finding in the back section some bones. First my father took these out, had these in his trunk and was looking at them and didn't know exactly what they were. They were shaped like a hog's skull and he thought they were some version of a hog.
Greg MacDonald- For Ohio, this is probably the most spectacular site from the state.
KS- But it didn't take long for the bones to be recognized for what they really were. Dr. Greg MacDonald was then a paleontologist with the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History. He's now Coordinator of Paleontological Programs for the National Park Service in Denver. MacDonald confirmed that the bones were actually fossils of an extinct pig-like mammal called a peccary that lived near the edge of the North American glaciers nearly 13,000 years ago.
GM- When most people think of fossils, they think of things replaced by minerals, like petrified wood. What's remarkable about this is that when you cut into the bone to take a sample, say, for carbon-14 dating, it smells like fresh bone, it's just like animals that died yesterday.
KS- The sealed deposits of the cave yielded a wealth of extinct mammals rarely seen on his continent. In all, 70 species of animals were found, from the giant flat-faced bears and stag moose to tiny shrews and voles. MacDonald says it's these smaller mammals that may be the most significant.
GM- It's very, very rich in the small animals, which tend to be more environmentally sensitive and provide more information. It's got a lot of mice and shrews and small animals that really tell us a lot more about the changing environment at the end of the Ice Age and the melting of the glaciers and how the plants and animals were responding to this environmental change.
KS- Environmental changes came rapidly at the end of the last Ice Age, transforming a broken mosaic of ecosystems into vast stretches of plain, prairie and boreal forest. Into this changing landscape came the first people in North America, moving across the Bering land bridge and spreading across the continent. At Sheriden, Paleo Indians left a small cache of bone and stone tools that may represent only a single visit to the cave. Nonetheless geoarchaeologist Ken Tankersley says that visit could be significant. Tankersley has been working to date the cave sediments under a 5-year grant from the National Science Foundation.
Ken Tankersley- Right there. You can put your hand on the end of the Ice Age right there. Where you're sitting is at a spot that evidence, when these sediments were being deposited, there were species becoming extinct. Why? Climate, disease, and then you've got human factors, overkill, human predation. The evidence here suggests that there was human predation on species that were already in trouble as a result of environmental change. But there's a selfish interest in looking at what's in this cave, because we're living at a time of mass extinctions right now.
KS- Interpretation of the discoveries at Sheriden Cave continues, as does dating of the of the cave sediments. But a new problem has arisen. Once sealed by thousands of cubic yards of dirt, Sheriden is now open to the elements and is once again an active cave. Researchers would like to preserve the site, but temperature and humidity controls are expensive. Over the years, the Hendricks family has spent tens of thousands of dollars of their own on excavation and support. There's no money for an interpretive center that would give visitors a better understanding of the cave's significance.
KT- Keith's desperate need is for a good philanthropist who understands the importance, if they would be willing to realize that this is not only a unique site in the state of Ohio, in the Great Lakes region, but Eastern North America, North America. I think $2 million would go a long way.
KS- In the meantime, the site's importance has been recognized outside the scientific community. Tomorrow the Ohio Bicentennial Commission of the Ohio Historical Society will dedicate an historical marker for Sheriden Cave. And Hendricks, Tankersley and others will continue to look for ways to preserve the site for future generations. At Sheriden Cave, I'm Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN News.