By Graham Duggan  

Most archeologists agree that human beings reached North America 14,000 years ago, crossing a land bridge that existed between eastern Russia and modern-day Alaska. However, a new Nature of Things documentary, Ice Bridge, outlines the theory of two rogue archeologists who believe that people may have arrived here thousands of years earlier and from a very different place.

Archeologists Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley propose that people from western Eurasia (now called Europe), known as ‘Solutreans’, travelled here by crossing the Atlantic Ocean, following the giant ice shelf that covered the northern Atlantic during the ice age 20,000 years ago.

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If so, they would have encountered a strange cast of ferocious predators and giant herbivores who lived here during the Ice Age.

A ‘grizzly bear on stilts’

In prehistoric North America, the short-faced bear (Arctodus simus) ruled the land. It was one of the biggest and most powerful predators the world has seen, weighing an immense 900 kilograms and standing 2 metres at the shoulder. They had slender limbs compared to the heavily-built bears we see today and stood tall, reaching 4 metres when reared up — more like a grizzly bear on stilts.

We don’t know if these bears were ferocious hunters, chasing down their prey at 40 km/h, or far-ranging scavengers that followed the faint scent of a carcass using their acute sense of smell. Nevertheless, the short-faced bear would have been a towering, frightening beast.

Lions roamed the land

Although the bears in ice age North America were the biggest and most powerful carnivores, they had some stiff competition. Twenty thousand years ago, lions roamed the entire planet. The American cave lion (Panthera atrox) called this continent home and was one of the largest known cats, almost 25 per cent bigger than the lions we see in Africa and India today.

It stood 1.2 metres at the shoulder and weighed up to 420 kilograms. Paleolithic art of similar lions found on cave walls in France and Russia show that the prehistoric cats had a faintly striped coat and no mane, unlike modern lions.

Scientists think they could have lived in prides, working together to hunt and raise young. Prey in the ice age was plentiful; horses, deer, and camels roamed the land in great numbers.

Sizeable sloths

When a giant fossilized claw was discovered in West Virginia in the late 1700s, there was great excitement over what extinct animal it could have belonged to. Before becoming president, Thomas Jefferson was head of the American Philosophical Society and certain that the claw was the remnant of a monstrous predator. He asked for the explorers Lewis and Clark to keep a look out for giant lions while they travelled west across the country.

That claw didn’t belong to a fearsome meat eater, but to a massive, cumbersome sloth (Megalonyx jeffersonii). Not cute and endearing like present-day sloths in South America, these sloths were one of the strangest animals of the ice age. They weighed as much, or more, than the short-faced bear at 1 tonne and stood  3 metres tall, growing to the size of an ox. These giants were slow and awkward moving.

Although these sloths looked fearsome, they fed on leaves and twigs of the northern forests and posed no threat to possible human newcomers.

Mighty Mastadons

These giant woolly pachyderms were still wandering the North American continent when humans arrived over the Bering Sea land bridge and were certainly here when the Solutreans are thought to have arrived on the eastern shores.

At first glance, mastodons (Mammut americanum) are very similar to mammoths, with thick fur and large tusks. But they were shorter and stockier, and their tusks straighter than the exaggerated curved tusks sported by their mammoth cousins.

Mastodons were homegrown elephants that evolved in North America 3.5 million years ago. They were true travellers, ranging from the Alaskan arctic all the way south to Honduras and feeding on branches, shrubs and small trees. 

Perfectly adapted to the cold conditions of the north, mastodons had short ears and tails to help conserve heat and a thick coat of fur. Hardy and tough, they were built to withstand the cold temperatures of the north and fend off ice age predators.

Dire wolves

The popular show ‘Game of Thrones’ brought the fictional ‘direwolf’ to the screen, depicting them as intimidating beasts. But humans living in ice age North America had to deal with the real thing.

Dire wolves (Canis dirus) were a canine species that hunted the plains and forests. They were similar to modern grey wolves, but heavier, with bigger heads, jaws and teeth giving them a strong bite, ideal for killing large prey like camels, horses, and bison. Some experts think they would take down a small mastodon from time to time.

The dire wolves hunted in packs, but they weren’t long-distance runners like modern-day grey wolves. Because of their size, they ambushed their prey, working together to bring down an animal once they had a hold of it. 

It's thought that dire wolves evolved in South America and ventured north, while today’s grey wolves migrated from Asia, so the two species are not closely related.

Unfortunately, the shifting climate at the end of the ice age, combined with the competition with humans for food, led to the demise of the dire wolf and many other ancient predators about 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. 

But other, more plucky animals managed to hold on a bit longer.

Great auk

The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) was a bird that dominated the North Atlantic during the ice age and into modern times. Great auks stood over 80 centimetres tall and lived on the open ocean, except when gathered in massive colonies on land during the breeding season. 

It was flightless, but a great swimmer, with black and white markings that resemble penguins. In fact, the auk is a member of the razorbill family, and not a penguin at all, but when sailors came across black and white flightless birds in the southern oceans, they called them by the scientific name given to the auks — Pinguinus.

Archeologists who believe that Solutrean humans came across the Atlantic from western Eurasia (what is now Europe) propose that the great auk was a lifeline that could have made their trip possible. Travelling for months across the ice and sea, humans hunted the auks for food and a source of oil as they bridged the distance between continents.  

While the auks outlasted other ice age species, humans ultimately caused their extinction. Europeans slaughtered them in great numbers, first for their meat and then for the birds' fat and downy feathers. The last known living pair were killed in 1844 in Iceland.

Watch Ice Bridge on The Nature of Things to learn more about ice age North America and a hypothesis that could change the story of human history.

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