A water hole: Ashfall quarry, 10 million years ago


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By Barbara J. Skinner Lamb

Imagine Africa. Imagine the Serengeti Plain an area covered with sedges and a variety of grasses and very few trees. Then imagine a volcano erupting at least a thousand miles to the west of the water hole. The eruption was 10 times larger than the Mount St Helen’s eruption that occurred in the 1980s. The skies were dark and heavy with volcanic dust falling out of the sky

At the water hole, a herd of barrel-chested rhinos were enjoying the water, along with several other animals: Camels, horses, birds, saber-toothed deer, turtles and many other prehistoric animals. Then the volcanic dust engulfed this scene of tranquility. The ash that these animals inhaled was shaped like shards of broken glass, irritating their mouths and respiratory system and causing their deaths. The ash also caused the water hole to become slippery so the animals could not get out. Smaller animals died first, then larger animals followed. Some of the smaller animal’s bodies were crushed by the weight of the larger animals falling on them. What’s so interesting to see is complete skeletons of animals that died that week. For instance, baby rhino’ still suckling their mothers. There are chew marks on some of the bones of the animals so it is known that there were predators scavenging what they could. The predators have not been found as yet. With the new Hubbard Barn dedicated last summer, paleontologists are hoping to unearth a den of bear dogs. The walls of the new Hubbard Barn exhibit large paintings of the animals uncovered. Mark Macuson, an artist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has done a superb painting of each animal. This remarkable site is located northwest of Royal, Neb., off Highway 20.

Mike and Jane Voorhies have been long-time friends of my parents, Morris and Marie Skinner, and myself. The first time I had a chance to view the site was about 1981. There was no Rhino Barn and not much of a road, so Jane and I drove to the site, climbed a fence and walked to the site. The day was just starting to turn toward evening, so what I saw was a very large area of excavated grids (3 meters by 3 meters) sparkling in the evening light. It amazed me to see that the volcanic ash was so evident 10 million years after it fell from the sky.

In the past several years I have visited with Mike and Jane, at times delightfully hosting a Porch Concert with Jane’s Baroque Folk Performers during the summer months. Other times I’ve had the pleasure of asking Mike and Jane about Ashfall and had great answers to any question I asked. Like, what changed the Serengeti Plain to a cliff with Colson’s Creek running a few hundred feet below it? Soil samples have been analyzed; this is the story they revealed. About 10,000 to 14,000 years ago, erosion started taking place due to a late ice age event. The Niobrara River started cutting down at the same time, so did the Serengeti Plain, which created Colson’s Creek that now empties into the Niobrara River.

Ashfall has so many stories to tell. I wish I could tell more of what I know, but it would take up too much space. The best way for you to appreciate this site is to go to it or, better yet ,attend The Sand Hill Discovery Conference this next July 7, 8 and 9 in Ainsworth, Neb. Our theme this year is “Ashes In The Sand Hills.” We offer a guided tour of Ashfall as part of this summer’s conference. Ashfall is classified as a Laggenstaff quarry, very rare. There are only 30 such quarries in the world, and Nebraska has one of the very best.


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