Mike here –
I recently visited Big Bone Lick State Historic Site (Union, Kentucky) on the way back to Ohio from a weekend in Kentucky. I’ve been meaning to visit this place for years, so I’m glad I finally had a chance to do so! Big Bone Lick is an important site for paleontology, archaeology, and US history.
Big Bone Lick SP is the site of a salt lick, or area where animals come to obtain salt and other minerals by licking the soil for salt crystals. Natural salt and sulfur springs are the source of the minerals at Big Bone Lick, and they attracted animals from all over.
In historical times, white-tailed deer and North American bison visited the lick, but much larger mammals came during the Pleistocene epoch (2.5 million to 12,000 years ago), also called the “Ice Age.” The remains of extinct mastodons, mammoths, North American horses, ground sloths, and tapirs have been found here, as well as the still living bison, musk oxen, and peccaries. Some of them became stuck in mud and died, and their preserved skeletons became the source of the “big bones!”
Paleoindians hunted the megafauna at Big Bone Lick, and left behind their tools at the site. Native Americans continued to hunt here into colonial times, and told the Europeans about the big bones found in the soil. President Jefferson ordered Merriweather Lewis and William Clark to stop here on their expedition to investigate these reports. Specimens were excavated and eventually sent to France for analysis by Georges Cuvier, an anatomist credited with developing the concept of extinction. He compared the remains of Asian Elephants, African elephants, and the “elephants” found at Big Bone Lick and determined that these remains came a type of elephant that no longer lived. He named this animal Mastodon, but these fossils had already been described under the name Mammut. The study of these remains has given this site credit for the birth place of vertebrate paleontology in the United States.
Long after the bison were extirpated (no longer present in their native habitat, but not extinct) from Kentucky, Kentuckians mined salt and opened a health resort, at which people bathed in the mineral-rich water.
I have always loved the Pleistocene megafauna, and I make a point to see these fossils whenever I can. Mastodons are tied with Moropus (a distant relative of horses and rhinos, imagine a draft horse with claws!) as my favorite fossil animal, and get so excited seeing them!
The visitor’s center has nice displays about the megafauna found at Big Bone Lick, including fossil material and reconstructions of what they may have looked like. There is information about the Paleoindians that inhabited this region and their tools. Historical information about Lewis and Clark is also included in the displays.
Behind the visitor’s center are life-size statues that represent iconic Pleistocene megafauna. Many of them are“trapped” in the sediment, and are on their way to become fossils. This was the perfect opportunity for a selfie with a mastodon!
The site is actually quite large, and features a campground and several hiking trails. I took one of these trails to see the salt/sulfur springs. I could smell the sulfur as soon as I reached this point in the trail. It was pretty awful, and it amazes me that people came to bathe in these waters for the “medicinal properties” centuries ago.
I continued along a trail which follows Big Bone Creek. Fossils and artifacts are still exposed as the sediment washes away, and modern excavations occur when fossils are found on site.
Informational signs are included along the trails about the history of the site and about the animals that once lived in this region.
The park maintains a small herd of American bison (Bison bison) on its grounds. The animals are rotated around their paddock to allow the plants time to recover from grazing and trampling. Unfortunately for me, they were located too far away for me to see with them with my limited time. It is hoped that the ecosystem will be restored to its condition before the bison were extirpated from this area.
I had a great visit to Big Bone Lick State Historic Site! If you enjoy ice age megafauna, and are in or near Kentucky, consider stopping by! For more information, visit Big Bone Lick State Historical Site