Wednesday, February 23, 2011

real old lafayette

the Mayfield Point
(photo by Brad Mayfield)

As with many towns I'm sure, here around Lafayette, Louisiana we use the term “Old Lafayette” to describe present-day folks who embody the best qualities that our town is traditionally known for, which for Lafayette includes things like a dogged cheerfulness about life – even in adversity, a tolerance for others, a perpetual readiness to help others be they strangers or kin; and lastly, a perpetual readiness to celebrate – which here means we know how to cook the best kind of stuff, make the best kind of music, and dance the best kind of dances – summarized by an oft-heard Old Lafayette saying, “We know what's good, chere!”

In these days of fear and the paranoid reality that it tends to create, “Old Lafayette encounters have become more than a breath of fresh air; more like a much-needed shot of oxygen. But I digress . . .

Anyway, imagine, then, the faces of the two eleven-year-old playmates who happened to stumble across a tool used right in their “Old Lafayette” backyard – only the tool's owner's “Old Lafayette” existed 10,000-12,000 years ago. Uh-huh. Now that's Old Lafayette, ya'll.

The Mayfield Backyard; Bayou Vermilion Flowing in Background
(photo by Brad Mayfield)

That's precisely what happened to Jenny Mayfield and Tammy Byers back in the spring of 1974 in Jenny's backyard along the Bayou Vermilion. Bending down to look at the washed-over roots of an old hickory tree, Tammy found a Clovis point; a spearhead used by North America's first human inhabitants who arrived in “Lafayette” back at the end of the Ice Age.

Excitedly, they rushed rushed in the house hollering for Jenny's dad, Ben, to see it. “Duly impressed,” as Jenny put it, Ben followed the girls out to the spot where they had found it. According to Ben, he could see “its resting place was very clearly marked by a sunken impression, surrounded by a layer of moss and dirt, on top of a large root.”

Halfway Down the Bluff, 10-12,000 year-old Red River Strata is Exposed
(photo by Brad Mayfield)

The Mayfield house sits on a twenty-five-foot bluff overlooking the Vermilion Bayou, which widens to more of a river as it flows through southern Lafayette en route to its terminus in Vermilion Bay. Ben said the spearpoint was located at a place of an abrupt change in slope, which probably marks the “second bottom” of the bayou – the point to which floodwaters swell on a seasonal basis.

Oddly, Ben Mayfield mentions that the original hickory tree where the girls found the spearpoint was toppled by Hurricane Lily in 2004, at which time he aged the tree via ring-count. It was only 100 years old! So, this tree, as a chance-seedling happened germinate near the Clovis point, eventually bringing it up with its roots? That's what it sounds like, as I can't imagine flowing floodwaters powerful enough to carry that spearhead very far. Bayou Vermilion's flow is flat/wide/slow – even in the floodiest of times.

Ben further states that the spearpoint was found in a soil strata of “ochre-colored clay,” correlating to a time when the ancient/Pleistocene Red River ran through the course taken by present-day Bayou Vermilion.

Keep in mind that at different times during the Pleistocene/Holocene periods (1,000,000 – 5,000 years B.P.), both the ancient Red and Mississippi Rivers ran through the present-day channels of the Atchafalaya River, Bayous Teche and Vermilion, and westward across the Mermentau River Basin and into the Calcasieu and Sabine River system at the Louisiana-Texas border.

The Pleistocene, known as the “Ice Age,” was actually comprised of about ten successive 100,00-year Ice Age cycles whereby the Arctic Circle would basically migrate south into the present-day northern U.S., tying up massive amounts of water into ice and causing sea level to drop 100-300' .

These periods of glaciation were followed by interglacial periods whereby the ice to our north would melt, creating equally massive rivers of meltwater coursing southward into the Gulf of Mexico. These ancient rivers shifted around with each successive interglacial period, acting like bulldozers in pushing rock, sand, and mud southward and then wiggling east-west like the end of an untended hose, fanning the sediment to create our present-day river deltas.

It is said that at the very end of the Pleistoncene and beginning of the Holocene – about 5,000 years ago – the Mississippi River was flowing right here through south-central Louisiana. Its western bank was what we know today as the “Coteau Ridge” in St. Landry and Lafayette parishes, and the “Terrace” (pron. "Teh-ROSS" roll that "r" ya'll . . .) further south in St. Martin and Iberia parishes. At that time, it was carrying nineteen times the volume of water compared to the present-day flow of the Mississippi River.

By the early 1990s, local archeologist Thomas Marckese had gotten wind of the Mayfield Point, and wrote it up in Volume 19 No. 3 of the Louisiana Archeological Society Newsletter. In his paper, Marckese provides very good background to the Clovis People story in Louisiana. Keep in mind that Louisiana's oldest known Native American settlement is at Poverty Point in the extreme northeastern portion of the state. That site dates back about 1,000 years, and is considered among the oldest Native American settlements in the U.S. Contrast that fact with the Clovis period, which dates back 11,950-10,770 years B.P., according to Marckese.

Wanna talk about old? These folks were so “old” that they didn't make pottery -- hadn't been invented yet in this neck of the woods -- and lived many thousands of years before even the bow and arrow were conceived. They had no true settlements. They were nomads, chasing big mammals like mammoth, ground sloth, camel, and bison down with spears, which they threw with the aid of an atlatl or throwing stick. In the New World, Clovis point finds have been found from the Great Lakes southward through Central and South America to Equador.

In his paper Marckese mentions that the Mayfield Point is constructed from a fine, “waxy” grey flint, probably originating in present-day central Texas. Conventional archeology believes that locally, Clovis people headquartered there, probably following bison herds into present-day Louisiana on a seasonal basis. Marckese mentioned additional Clovis finds in Louisiana, stretching diagonally from northwestern Louisiana southeastward into south-central Louisiana, with local finds from Lawtell and Grand Coteau, (St. Landry parish), the present-day Lafayette airport (Lafayette parish), down on Cote Blanche Island (Iberia parish) – and now the Mayfield backyard in Lafayette – forming a line along the ancient Red River as it coursed all the way south into the Gulf of Mexico at the end of the Pleistocene.

The Louisiana Coast ca. 18,000(?) Years Ago
Pardon the Red Marks...

In this map that I lifted from Atlas of Louisiana – A Guide for Students (Milton Newton, Jr. 1972), you see a depiction of the shoreline of present-day “Louisiana” at some point toward the end of the Pleistocene (for some reason, 18,000 B.P. Sticks in my mind, though I can't find the actual date). Note how far past our present-day shoreline it goes, creeping well onto the continental shelf. Note the depiction of rivers corresponding to 150-mile southward extensions of our present day Teche, Vermilion, Mermentau, Calcasieu, and Sabine river systems.

And what of the terrain of all this additionally exposed late-Pleistoncene land? Not forested, but rather cool/moist prairie – similar to what we see through much of central and western Canada today. So Real Old Lafayette is where the buffalo once roamed – and mammoths, and giant ground sloths, and camels . . . and Clovis people. As Marckese stated, present-day south-central Louisiana, being the late-Pleistocene recipient of massive amounts of northern meltwater and sediment, made for a very fertile and diverse biotic community – certainly attractive then, in both climate and ecology, to early human hunters.

Turns out that Lafayette has been a happening place at least 218 centuries before the first Frenchman ever set foot here with his black iron pot and fiddle. . .

Friday, February 11, 2011

more on "salt birds"

sunset over Louisiana's outer continental shelf
(photo by Edward Watson)

“People” said that my last post ('sittin' in the pass of the bay') ended too abruptly. Probably so. I just 1) didn't have anything more to say on the subject at the time, and 2) am still reveling at the “look ma no editor” aspect of blogging. It is a refreshing thing, especially for those who write for a living....

Anyway, Dave Patton recently sent me a coupla more offshore bird photos; and Edward Watson sent in a beaut as well....all of which inspired this post.

Ring-billed of Louisiana's most common winter seabird species

Whenever you go out on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico with Dave Patton, there's an unspoken promise that you'll eventually end up chumming for seabirds. For many years, very little was known about Louisiana's offshore seabird population. It was a simple case of too few ornithologically-inclined people going offshore. Prior to 1970, biologist Jake Valentine (what a name, what a guy) was among the “too few” going out to do census work. By the mid-1970s, regular survey work began throughout the state's coastal barrier island system; and by the 1990s quasi-regular, far-offshore survey trips were happening.

big ol' barrel-chested Pomarine Jaeger (i think)
([unidentified] photo by Dave Patton)

Closer in to shore, several easy-to-view-but-rarely-viewed bird species spend substantial amounts of time along the Louisiana coast. Of these, Dave likes to look for the Jaegers best. “Jaeger” is German for “hunter”........ but perhaps “Meisterdieb” (German for “master thief”) would be a better name for these birds. Gull-like in most aspects, the Jaegers posses a swifter, more falcon-like flight style, which they use to great advantage in committing regular mid-air robberies of fish-laden gulls and terns. It's not like Jaegers steal food on occasion; that's what they do for a living.

Parasitic Jaeger
(photo by Dave Patton)

Three species of Jaeger are native to North America: Long-tailed Jaeger, Parasitic Jaeger, and Pomarine Jaeger. All of them nest up in the Arctic Circle, and all of them can be occasionally spotted throughout larger lakes and reserviors over most of the U.S. during fall/winter/spring migration periods. The best places to find them, though, are the nearshore waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico.

young Black-legged Kittiwake wheels toward the chum
(Photo by Dave Patton)

The Black-legged Kittiwake is another far-north breeder that turns up throughout most of the U.S. during migration periods. I use the term “turns up,” but in truth relatively few observers get to record Kittiwakes and/or Jaegers in the lower 48. Percentage-wise, the odds of running across one of these species during migration are substantially low.... unless you 1) own a boat or happen to know someone who owns a boat, 2) have a pretty good idea of what you're looking for, when to look for it, and where to look for it.

Here in Louisiana, that translates to nearshore Gulf waters, fall/winter/spring, with Dave Patton. And don't forget your fishin' pole.