A ghostlike image of a mammoth appears among the hustle and bustle of downtown Las Vegas. It lumbers through traffic, as the city fades away, through time, back 14,000 years. This time travel is courtesy of the BBC series Prehistoric America: A Journey Through the Ice Age and Beyond, now available from BBC Video on DVD ($44.95/set) and VHS ($39.95/set). This excellent series uses a rich fossil record to reconstruct the North American landscape as the first settlers might have seen it, from the ice fields of Beringia to the deserts of Death Valley.
Computer animation and digital effects bring to life not just mammoths (above) but saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, short-faced bears, glyptodonts, and a plethora of smaller animals in a lush Ice Age mosaic. Discoveries from sites across America are the basis for the reconstructions. Remarkable finds include a 30-foot-deep deposit of football-size mammoth feces in a cave on the Arizona-Utah border, the bones of more than 2,000 saber-toothed cats from the tar pits of La Brea, California, and a human hair found among remains of extinct species beneath the streets of Woodburn, Oregon.
Native American actors portraying their late Ice Age predecessors not only humanize the story, they bring it to life. We watch as they gather shellfish, hunt camels, scavenge fresh mammoth carcasses, and sit around the campfire telling stories--no doubt tales about the amazing creatures that then populated the breathtaking landscape of North America.
Kenneth B. Tankersley is an anthropologist at Northern Kentucky University and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History
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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America