Walking in the Footsteps of Loren Eiseley: Scientific Discoveries in Western Nebraska

South Party group, from left to right: Bert Schultz, Mylan Stout, Emery Blue, Robert Long, Loren Eiseley, Eugene Vanderpool, and Frank Crabill. (University of Pennsylvania Archives)

By Brandon Nelson

Loren Eiseley contributed to the scientific discoveries in western Nebraska like no other. From the years he spent digging for traces of the past in the Panhandle’s unforgiving expanses to the graceful recounting of his findings through the use of his inimitable writing and poetry styles, the Lincoln, Nebraska-born bone hunter and naturalist helped to place western Nebraska on the paleontological map.

As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, Eiseley embarked on a series of paleontological digs in the 1930s in support of the school’s natural history museum. He and his fellow diggers canvassed the Cornhusker State’s western reaches, launching excavations in the gaps and canyons near the famed Chimney Rock in Morrill County, Signal Butte in Scotts Bluff County, and quarries east of Harrisburg, northwest of Crawford, and north of Harrison.

At the time, few outside of the paleontology profession knew these eroded areas contained the world’s finest Tertiary fossil beds. The work of Eiseley and his companions yielded unprecedented finds. The team discovered the bones of ancient mammoths, camels, and rhinoceroses, as well as pieces of Paleo-Indian history. Eiseley later noted that most of the knowledge of the successive American faunae is derived from excavations in those sterile, sun-washed regions.

The land offered up a wellspring of inspiration in addition to fossils. Eiseley grew up on the Great Plains and was, as he put it, drawn irresistibly to the rougher margins of the Wildcat Hills and badlands. In the same way Charles Dickens was haunted by “the cold, wet, shelterless streets of London” and Henry David Thoreau was entranced by the canopy of the country’s eastern forests, the region became Eiseley’s muse and the setting for his future writings.

“Robert Louis Stevenson once remarked that some landscapes cry out for a story,” Eiseley states in his preface to the poem “The Innocent Assassins.” “As a young man engaged in such work, my mind was imprinted by the visible evidence of time and change of enormous magnitude… Finally, through some strange mental osmosis these extinct, fragmented creatures merged with and became part of my own identity.”

This painting of two “saber-toothed tigers” (Nimravus brachyops), locked together, never to fight again, is based on a twenty-five-million-year-old fossil found near Bayard, Nebraska, in 1932. Eiseley helped find the fossil, and he describes this discovery in his book, The Innocent Assassins. The painting and fossil cast can be seen at the Wildcat Hills Nature Center near Gering, Nebraska. (Note: Description includes information from web research and Eiseley multimedia on www.eiseley.org; funding for painting by Ray Boice through the Oregon Trail Community Foundation, Scottsbluff, Nebraska.) (Jan Vriesen)

Eiseley, who later acquired his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and served as head of the Department of Anthropology, penned his now renowned essays and poetry in the years following the digs. Noted science fiction author Ray Bradbury urged Eiseley to write a book. He would go on to write several, but this initial encouragement led Eiseley to coalesce a collection of essays into The Immense Journey in 1957, a book The New York Times later listed among the fifty most influential books of the twentieth century.

In his writing, Eiseley uses narrative, parable, and exposition to contemplate his observations as well as meditate on more arcane matters, including mankind’s purpose, man’s relationship with his environment, and the universe’s endless cycle of creation and destruction.

“The Slit,” the essay that begins The Immense Journey, carries the reader to Scotts Bluff County’s timeless prairies to witness a discovery of a fossil that invites Eiseley to consider his own origins. While horseback riding alongside the rugged buttes and escarpments about ten miles from the modern-day Wildcat Hills Nature Center, Eiseley comes upon a body-width crack in the sandstone canyon walls. He dismounts, sets to exploring the Slit, and soon finds himself staring into the empty eye sockets of an animal skull.

His mind wanders as he chips away at the sandstone to free the timeworn skull. “The creature had never lived to see a man, and I, what was it I was never going to see?” He mulls over the question and daydreams of answers. Traveling back sixty million years to the Paleocene epoch and forth to the reign of modern primates, Eiseley weighs the meaning of man’s existence on time’s grand scale. He busies his hands with digging and concludes that the journey itself is more important than where it begins or ends. “Do not look for the purpose,” he says. “Think of the way we came and be a little proud.”

Bone hunting in Scotts Bluff County uncovered coyotes, horses, and Paleo-Indian artifacts, including dart points and tools, which revealed ways man hunted prehistoric bison. Instead of pursuing the animals on horses, hunters rigged clever traps to capture and slay the bison. Nature illustrator Kelly Taylor portrays these techniques in the Scottsbluff Quarry Bison Kill, a depiction of a large-scale hunt occurring approximately fourteen thousand years ago.

Eiseley didn’t limit his thoughts to essays. With the “The Innocent Assassins,” he explains in verse the time he and his companions unearthed the fossil of two saber-toothed tigers locked in a life-death struggle in the Black Hank Canyon south of Bayard. The twenty-five-million-year-old fossil was found during the expedition in Morrill County, which also yielded remnants of ancient mammoths, rhinoceroses, and other creatures in Redington Gap and Bridgeport Quarry.

Map from The Loren Eiseley Reader (Infusionmedia/Abbatia Press and the Loren Eiseley Society)

The poem delineates Eiseley’s beloved badlands, where the university’s dig team discovered the fossil and the menacing qualities of the ancient cat bones. “We dug until the full length of the striking saber showed beautiful as Toledo steel, the fine serrations still present along the blade, a masterpiece of murderous art conceived by those same forces that heaved mountains up from the flat bottoms of Cretaceous seas.”

Eiseley marvels at how such a refined killing machine could become extinct, while man, a creature born without talons or fangs, could live on. He also expresses sadness for mankind, who is no stranger to the antique trades of killing and self-destruction, and suggests that early man’s envy of the saber-tooth’s power inspired him to create similarly shaped weapons out of flint and other earthen elements.

“We are all atavists and yet sometimes we seem wrapped in wild innocence like sabertooths, as if we still might seek a road unchosen yet, another dream,” Eiseley states.

Eiseley furthers his thoughts on man’s deep connection to his past in “The Last Neanderthal,” where he meets what he imagines to be a haunting throwback to an earlier time. During a Wildcat Hills fossil dig, Eiseley meets a thickset girl whose features resembled the extinct Neanderthal. “We are those who eliminated her long ago,” he says of the dig team. “It is an old scene endlessly reenacted. Only the chipped stones and the dead games are lacking.”

The meeting leads Eiseley to ponder the idea that evolution is still happening. The energy-hoarding modern man could be hurtling unknowingly toward an uncontrolled future, possibly orchestrating his own demise. Eiseley somewhat likens it to the way Neanderthals could not grasp how the rise of Homo sapiens signaled the end of their kind. “Without knowledge of the past, the way into the thickets of the future is desperate and unclear,” he says.

While an adept storyteller, Eiseley is also a time traveler. His universal messages transcend time.

The Scottsbluff Quarry Bison Kill painting by paleontological artist Kelly Taylor, working with consultants George Ziemens, archeologist, and Dr. George Engelmann, paleontologist, depicts a time twelve thousand to fourteen thousand years ago when Paleo-Indians set traps for bison and may have used the atlatl to kill them. Research by Schultz and Eiseley discovered Paleo-Indian artifacts and fossil remains of prehistoric bison (Bison occidentalis). Because there were no horses in North America at this time to use to pursue bison, traps were likely prepared. According to The Cellars of Time (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, 1995), “Hunters used the increased leverage provided by the atlatl to give added velocity and range to their weapons. This spear-thrower was virtually abandoned after development of the bow and arrow.” Ziemens notes in Paleontological Evidence for the Antiquity of the Scottsbluff Bison Quarry and Its Associated Artifacts (Blackwell Publishing, 1935) that “The use of the atlatl is possible even probable but we don’t know for sure as no atlatl have been found that date to that time period.” (Ray Boice)

For example, “The Bird and the Machine” articulates Eiseley’s reluctance to embrace certain modern advancements by intertwining the future with an encounter he had years ago with a sparrow hawk. “It’s life I believe in, not machines,” he states as he pours over news articles telling of new machines that may soon be able to build themselves.

Eiseley holds the thought and sweeps the reader back in time to Banner County, where a younger version of himself has been assigned to capture native animals for some faraway menagerie. While searching for birds, Eiseley investigates what remains of an abandoned cabin, which is eroding away as the earth reclaims the components used to build it. The structure’s rundown state conjures futuristic images of fractured concrete and corroded steel in a city occupied by birds “after the last man has run away to the hills.”

Eiseley catches one of two sparrow hawks roosting in the dilapidated building. Seeing this hawk encaged draws him to consider the differences between living beings and machines. Eiseley releases the hawk the next morning and watches it reunite with its mate far overhead. He writes, “The machine does not bleed, ache, hang for hours in the empty sky in a torment of hope to learn the fate of another machine, nor does it cry out with joy nor dance in the air with a fierce passion of a bird.”

Sites throughout the Panhandle complement Eiseley’s writing by immortalizing his work. Visitors to the Wildcat Hills Nature Center near Gering can gaze upon Jan Vriesen’s painting “The Innocent Assassins” along with replications of Eiseley’s poem and a cast of the original fossil. At Chimney Rock National Historic Site, a prominent landmark in a land steeped in history, a memorial placed by the Boy Scouts of America’s Project SOAR (Save Our American Resources) commemorates Eiseley’s exploits and the mark he left on the region.

Also, organizations and individuals are helping to bring Eiseley’s writing to new generations. With backing from several supporters, the Loren Eiseley Society has produced The Loren Eiseley Reader, a special collection of Eiseley’s poetry and prose. Consisting of fifteen essays and one poem, this sampling appears in schools and libraries across the state of Nebraska. The society also recognized Ray Boice of Omaha for his efforts to extend Eiseley’s work to a wider audience.

Nebraska state Senator John Harms used this poster, designed by the Omaha World-Herald, to support his request to the Unicameral Appropriation Committee to set aside $165,000 for the initial architectural plan to construct the addition to the Wildcat Hills Nature Center. (Ray Boice)

For more information about Eiseley’s work visit www.eiseley.org.

Image Credits: Group Photo - South Party group, from left to right: Bert Schultz, Mylan Stout, Emery Blue, Robert Long, Loren Eiseley, Eugene Vanderpool, and Frank Crabill. (University of Pennsylvania Archives). Sabertooth Illustration - This painting of two “saber-toothed tigers” (Nimravus brachyops), locked together, never to fight again, is based on a twenty-five-million-year-old fossil found near Bayard, Nebraska, in 1932. Eiseley helped find the fossil, and he describes this discovery in his book, The Innocent Assassins. The painting and fossil cast can be seen at the Wildcat Hills Nature Center near Gering, Nebraska. (Note: Description includes information from web research and Eiseley multimedia on www.eiseley.org; funding for painting by Ray Boice through the Oregon Trail Community Foundation, Scottsbluff, Nebraska.) (Jan Vriesen). Nebraska Map - Map from The Loren Eiseley Reader (Infusionmedia/Abbatia Press and the Loren Eiseley Society). Hunting Illustration - The Scottsbluff Quarry Bison Kill painting by paleontological artist Kelly Taylor, working with consultants George Ziemens, archeologist, and Dr. George Engelmann, paleontologist, depicts a time twelve thousand to fourteen thousand years ago when Paleo-Indians set traps for bison and may have used the atlatl to kill them. Research by Schultz and Eiseley discovered Paleo-Indian artifacts and fossil remains of prehistoric bison (Bison occidentalis). Because there were no horses in North America at this time to use to pursue bison, traps were likely prepared. According to The Cellars of Time (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, 1995), “Hunters used the increased leverage provided by the atlatl to give added velocity and range to their weapons. This spear-thrower was virtually abandoned after development of the bow and arrow.” Ziemens notes in Paleontological Evidence for the Antiquity of the Scottsbluff Bison Quarry and Its Associated Artifacts (Blackwell Publishing, 1935) that “The use of the atlatl is possible even probable but we don’t know for sure as no atlatl have been found that date to that time period.” (Ray Boice). Fossil Freeway - Nebraska state Senator John Harms used this poster, designed by the Omaha World-Herald, to support his request to the Unicameral Appropriation Committee to set aside $165,000 for the initial architectural plan to construct the addition to the Wildcat Hills Nature Center. (Ray Boice).

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