by Les Cole

I had visions, when I first planned this article, of it stretching off to infinity and my dragging in a whole series of little-known and less-important, irrelevant albeit uninteresting facts related rather indirectly to paleopathology. These facts cause me to face, as usual, the problem of what-to-call-it. I think of it in my own mind as "ancient living." Let's see. "Ancient" would be "paleo" and "living" - hmm, this comes out to be "paleozoic" which also happens to be one of the major subdivisions of geologic time. "Paleobios" would be handy except that it is an ecological term. Try simply "ancient living."

However, be that as it may, The Editor casually mentioned one day that Hell would have to freeze before he'd run anything on this subject over four pages. So if this seems to trail off in the middle, you'll know why.

I find, embarrassingly enough, that I seem to have lost my references to the subject. Let me apologise and point out that you'll have to take my word for much of what follows.

"Paleopathology" is, itself, one of those little-known studies. As far as I know, no courses are given in it, no texts are devoted solely to it, and no one studies it very seriously. (I expect to hear from thousands of paleopathologists the country over in tomorrow's mail). Pathology, as you all know, is the study of diseases, the effects diseases have on organisms, and the cures of those diseases. Paleopathology covers this definition in relation to fossil forms-except, of course, for a certain inability to cure the disease. As you can see, it is fairly specialized, requiring a detailed knowledge in two fields, and the wonder is that the subject exists at all.

Perhaps the example of the Mammoth should be cited here. Since you are all intelligent and have read Ley (pause for laughter from the rear of the room), I won't go too deeply into the story. The Mammoth was found in the early part of the century frozen within some ice in Siberia.1 He was about 20,000 years old and dead. (At the time it wasn't Siberia: however, the Committee on Names was working on the problem.) Apparently, he'd been returning from a luncheon engagement-he was still chewing-when he fell into a crevice in the ice which covered the landscape at the time. Now, the existence of the beast is a paleontological phenomenon; so is the fact that he broke his legs and some ribs when he fell. The quick-freeze preserved much of the soft parts, and in his stomach was found food which had not yet been digested. The micro-organisms in the stomach and the food would be the province of the paleopathologist. I've never read exactly what it was the Mammoth was chomping when he died, beyond the nebulous statement that it was "some vegetation." This is one of the ancient living facts I'd like to know about.

Next, I guess I'd better justify that subtitle. There is a relatively unexplored area of California which masquerades under the name of Los Angeles.2 Within the confines of Los Angeles 3 is a department store called The May Company. Forget about The May Company; it has no bearing on this. 4 However, in a park in the adjoining lot nearly due east 5of The May Company are the La Brea Tar Pits.

These pits were formed during the Pleistocene when oil seeped into them, and the volatiles in the oil evaporated. Thus, the pits were filled with tar which then collected water following a rain. 6 During the course of time, great, stupid animals wandered down into the pits to get a drink of water. 7Among these animals were sheep, vulture, sabre-tooth tiger, mastodon, and tourist, and eventually they would find himself trapped in the sticky tar. 8 Upon finding themselves trapped, they would lie down and die, and their bones have been conveniently preserved for study.

Among the specimens of Smilodon californicus (the local variety of sabre-tooth which lived in California during the Pleistocene), many have been found with recognized dental cavities. Other animals within the La Brea fauna have been found with this condition also, but Smilodon had such nice big canines that the cavities are more readily identified as such. Some of the canines were more than half rotted away from oral infections. In fact, things were in such a bad state 9 there is some justification for the belief that when Smilodon said to the local dentist,"My teeth are killing me," he wasn't just kidding. Locally, caries may have been responsible for for the removal of S. californicus from the geologic record. The animal was inefficient. Rather than killing by biting, as present day cats do, he used his teeth as choppers, moving his head and upper jaw downward in one motion. So, in addition to the body infections which must have been set up as a result of the dental infection, the loss of his canines must have seriously hampered his food-gathering ability.

In Rhodesia, South Africa, in an old lead mine, they found a specimen of fossil man. 10 His skull was coated with zinc, but this didn't interest the paleopathologists. 11 What they were interested in was the unmistakable evidence oof abscessed teeth and mastoiditis, and if all of that happened contemporaneously, the poor guy really must have died in pain.

I have seen the evidence for the abscessed teeth in pictures of the Rhodesian skull. There are neat little holes-look almost as though they'd been drilled-which penetrate the upper jaw. The infection must have reached advanced stages.

The Brontosaur-Allosaur pair, which is mounted in the MVSEVM OF NATVRAL HISTORY in New York, is an interesting exhibit. The teeth marks on the vertebrae of the Brontosaur's spine make it fairly evident how this creature died, and the manner of death is not in the pathological province. The Ailosaur found in the same field either directly interred with his running mate or a few feet away, I forget which - is generally conceded to be the culprit. The question in my mind concerns the manner of death of the Allosaur. He must have died very shortly after he finished his meal, and why? (I refuse to make the obvious remark about his having seen a Hollywood Dinosaur Epic wherein Brontosaurs were cast with Tyrannosaurs, thus causing him to die laughing, so don't look for it here). Heartburn? Indigestion? Cancer? Whatever the cause, we'll never know it.

Specimens of trees within the Petrified Forest in Arizona show what might be considered pathological processes; however, you'd have to stretch a point. Call it more of "ancient living." Some of the trees were attacked by a peculiar little boring bug. Considering that these trees lived in the Triassic, that they were transported by flooding from their original site after death, and that they have undergone a molecule-for-molecule transformation-the wood structure was replaced by silicon dioxide-I find it remarkable that evidence of the bug still remains. The trees also suffered from lightning and consequent forest fires.

Andrews' dinosaur eggs have also, from time to time, aroused my interest. Something killed one of the baby Ceratops just as it was emerging from the egg. Who or what is a moot point.

No discussion of paleopathology would be complete without the coprolite. For those of you who don't know any better, coprolite is the name given to the droppings from fossil animals-rather, fossil droppings from fossil animals-skip it.12 Lest you ask, "Are all geologists fixated at the anal stage?," I hasten to add that much information may be gleaned from coprolites.

(Paragraph cut here by Editor)

I am going to dig that reference out someday, though; no one ever believes me when I tell them all the things deduced about a long extinct mammal from a little, old, old, piece of stone. Without painting too obvious a word picture, I'd like to pass some of the conclusions on.

Firstly, from the paleopathological point of view, two things were obvious. The critter had a stomach disease. Microscopic studies of the coprolite revealed the organism which had caused the trouble and which had become fossilized along with the coprolite. In addition, at some time in its youth, the animal had gotten into a fight and apparently come out a poor second. Its sphincter muscle had been torn, and when it healed, it was mishapen and scarred. This was evident from the form of the coprolite.

That the animal was an omnivore was established; information as to what it had eaten the day before millions of years ago was obtained as well as such knowledge as what grasses and insect life flourished in the local area.

Much more could be said about the subject-you've just had a condensation of a 40-plus page paper-but I think you can now realize some of the value of the coprolite as a paleontological tool.

Perhaps the most fascinating item of information I've ever stumbled upon with regard to the coprolite was that told to me by a paleontologist I met in 1946. He was taking his Ph.D. at Cal Tech and writing his dissertation on termite coprolites. He'd stumbled upon them quite by accident. He found them in rocks of the Oligocene epoch-rocks about 40 million years old-of Florida. They were microscopic in size and hexagonal in cross-section. owever, I guess there's nothing pathological about them-unless you consider the uselessness of the information or the shape of that cross-section.

There is one subject in the broader picture of the study of life about which I am exceedingly curious. I know this subject exists because I have seen mention of it in three different places. But I have never read anything in the field of paleopsychology anywhere. If anyone has any old references along these lines. I'd be grateful for them. Until I get them, though, I shall have to go on trying to imagine what a fossil oedipus complex looks like!


1 However, here his resemblence to The Thing ends.

2 or, more properly, "Our Lady, The Queen Of The Angels," which might explain why it is unexplored.

3 or, more properly, "LA"

4 Actually, as I remember, the bearing was N86 W of the Pitts

5 See Footnote 4

6 Remember, this was in the Pleistocene and prior to the advent of the LA C-of-C

7 Or to throw away old candy-bar wrappers; there are still lots of these in the pits today.

8 That's what the science fellers say. Nobody will ever convince me any animal could be that dumb-even a tourist.

9 I remind you again; this was before the organization of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society.

10 Homo rhodesiensis; probably better called H. neanderthalensis variety rhodesiensis which is a lousy tag to put on anyone-especially members of the LASFS.

11 However, I have no doubt that the economic geologists got a hell of an emotional charge out of it.

12 On the other hand, I once corrected an exam paper which defined till-the deposit of uncemented rock left when a glacier retreats-as the "droppings from a glacier."

Data entry and page scans provided by Judy Bemis

Data entry by Judy Bemis

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