Las Vegas Sun

April 25, 2019

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Southern Nevadans work to save state’s historic roots

In those rare times when Las Vegas looks back instead of forward, 50 years is considered ancient history.

But archaeologists know better. Southern Nevada has thousands of years of history hidden away in caves and buried beneath the trappings of human habitation.

Mark Harrington was Southern Nevada's archaeological trailblazer.

Harrington led a small band of scientists to explore Gypsum Cave, 16 miles east of Las Vegas, in 1930.

Old-timers told Harrington that the cave was full of dry seaweed, left after a pool of water dried up.

"I knew that stuff was dung and not water plants," Harrington wrote in a scientific paper. "But of what animal?"

The mountain of dung hidden in the limestone cave puzzled those early scientists.

No modern animal could produce that amount, that was for sure. And the creature wasn't a meat-eater, since it produced too much fiber. It lived at least 10,000 years ago, the time of the last Ice Age.

"At last I remembered the ground sloths, great lumbering stupid creatures of the Pleistocene Period, browsers on trees and bushes and probably habitants of caves," Harrington wrote.

Southern California's Southwest Museum, operated by Harrington, sent a wave of explorers to Gypsum Cave in January 1930, arriving in a heavy snowstorm that slowed settlement into camp for a week.

The expedition's secretary, Bertha Parker Pallan, discovered the skull of a strange animal on Jan. 30, after craning her neck around two boulders deep inside the cave.

Harrington's instincts were correct: It was a ground sloth, species Nothrotherium shastense Sinclair. And the California Institute of Technology joined the hunt to help date the fossil.

While sloths left behind bones and claws, humans later found shelter in the cave. Harrington's subsequent expeditions discovered bones, charcoal, basket fragments, flints and ornaments (jewelry was made from gypsum crystals).

Today, Harrington is gone but his work is not forgotten.

A group of Nevadans plans to re-create the discovery of Gypsum Cave next weekend in memory of Harrington's work.

Carpenters Union Local 1780 helped build a replica of the camp and portable displays for the artifacts and photos that will be displayed during the two-day event at the cave on the east side of Sunrise Mountain.

Lectures by Community College of Southern Nevada professors and other experts, guided trail hikes, Native American storytelling, music, overnight camping and barbecues will round out the venture.

Former state Sen. Tom Hickey, president of Citizens for Active Management of Sunrise Mountain (CAM), believes the eastern side of the Las Vegas Valley deserves as much attention as the protected Spring Mountains and Red Rock Canyon to the west.

Hickey hopes the public's interest will rise to protect Gypsum Cave and the eastern edges of Las Vegas.

Hickey is leading the effort to protect 40,400 acres of federal land around Sunrise Mountain.

The acreage stretching from Lake Mead to Sunrise Mountain is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency also helping to explore the area and protect it.

Someday Hickey would like to bring the sloth bones and human artifacts discovered by Harrington back home to Southern Nevada from their shelves in Southern California.

"Our goal is to preserve this and do more work on dating it," said Helen Mortenson, vice president of the Sunrise Mountain group.

The carbon-dated fossils need to be analyzed again to see if the dates are accurate, she said.

Those who want to participate in the Harrington event can call the college's Continuing Education Division at 651-5790.