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Valley of Bones

    One of the most fascinating places of National significance, geologically speaking, has to be Big Bone Lick near Union, Kentucky. Since historic times the place has been known to pioneers, presidents and paleontologist world-wide. Without much doubt the origin of the study of paleontology had its beginnings right here at this world known landmark. Thomas Jefferson, while in the White House had bones collected from the site and shipped back east. Some of these bones are now distributed in museums around the world.

    In Jefferson's day the question as to the origin of these giant elephant like creatures bones had not yet been deduced. The greatest scientists of the day had not reconciled the idea of bones of a known tropical animal had somehow been uncovered in a region that was clearly inhospitable to such wildlife. Yet, here they were and in large numbers. To make matters worse, many of the bones could not be identified with any known, living creature on the planet at that time. Some, including Jefferson, began to conclude that perhaps the species had indeed vanished from the earth.

    There are lots of unusual factors related to the formation of the area that preserved the bones of ancient mammoths, mastodons, bison, horses, musk ox and sloths, all of which now are extinct. It seems conditions were created by the last ice age. As the giant ice sheet that covered North America as far south as the Ohio River area the gradual melt and retreat of the mile thick ice sheet left bogs and swamps behind along with a different landscape. All the melt water run off had to go somewhere. Geologist consider that the Ohio River itself was formed as the trillions of gallons of melt water flowed away from the rapidly melting glacier. The shear weight of the ice sheet pressing down on the earth compressed the layers of rock and water trapped in them.

    The ice age mammals had been forced to move south but apparently they found suitable food sources in the cold climate near the glaciers.  Evidence for that is that is that musk ox are found in the cold north  even today and cannot live in a warmer climate. Deep down in the rock strata-thousands of feet down- below the surface of the earth then and today rocks formed from ancient seas that were once in the area hundreds of millions of years ago. Over time these sediments were gradually pushed down as more layers piled up. Somewhere down there are formations containing large amounts of salt, probably the result of the drying of a salt sea much like that of the great Salt Lake in Utah. At any rate my theory is that due to the tremendous weight and therefore compression of the rock strata, water was forced to the surface of the earth and carried along with it the salts and minerals trapped in those ancient strata.

    Large herbivorous need salt in their diet and would visit the place on a regular basis. They apparently came in such large numbers that they created a quagmire in the valley as they drank up the briny water that nature had uniquely provided under such unusual circumstances.So muddy and messy had the area become that some animals would simply get stuck in the mud and eventually died. It must have been a tormented place to see, yet the need for salt brought more and more some destined to die but most would move on in search for food.

    Time changes everything. The animals decaying bones would sink beneath the mud and eventually fossilized by the very minerals supplied by the amazing springs. Moving for several thousand years the bones along with the dirt, rocks and materials have been covered over with new dirt and rock deposits. The salt springs still survived and continue to pour out the rich salt and mineral  waters which come to the attention of some of the Native Americans that hunt and live in the region. 

    Humans have a need and requirement for salt. It didn't take long for the people of the area to discover the salt springs and would collect salt by evaporating the water and collecting the remaining salt. The whole region was dominated by the Shawnee at the time of the first European contact. It did not take long for early pioneers to locate the salt springs and begin major salt collecting enterprises. Some reports that at one time as much as 60 bushels of salt were collected a day! This was done by boiling the brine water in large kettles. As the water is boiled off the salt is left as a thick residue. The amount of wood to keep such an operation going simply boggles my mind.

    It did not take long for the pioneers to take note of the strange bones that were found washed out of the stream bank and strewn about. It would not be long that word spread back east and eventually to the inquiring mind of Thomas Jefferson. The sitting president was so mystified by the reports of the giant bones that he instructed  Meriwether  Lewis of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition to visit the site and ship back to Washington samples of the various bones. This was the beginning of a serious study of vertebrate paleontology.  No one could explain why elephant bones were found at Big Bone.

     So the name says it all. Big Bone Lick was a salt lick, like many found around the region, most probably resulting from the same ancient geological events as previously mentioned. Big Bone, well this was the place the bones of the largest mammals to ever roam North America first came to the attention of the world and eventually led to the scientific study of extinct life preserved in earth strata. The science of paleontology had its origin right here in Kentucky at Big Bone Lick.

    Today the Valley of the Bones main source of the bone finds and mineral springs are preserved as a state park. A person can walk a well maintained trail through the area that contains, no doubt, many more bones below the surface of the ground. Visitors can also see one of the salt springs that is still pumping up the briny,  sulfur smelling water. There is also a visitor, interpretive center with displays of bones from the site and information about the interesting history of the area. Don't expect to find giant mammoth bones sticking up out of the ground ready to be carried off. The surface area was picked clean decades ago. Paleontologists and archaeologists from major universities have also done extensive excavations and research over the years leading to much of the information we have today. 


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