September 20, 2017

Prehistoric Arkansas

Arkansas history is a rich tapestry. French explorers, Native Americans, historic grave yards, graceful southern mansions, Civil War battles, criminals on the run, springs spilling from the mountains, and a melting pot of people from all cultures and backgrounds make up the stories woven into the Natural State’s identity and background.

But beneath the layers of history, characters, and politics, is an overlooked and more ancient aspect than all else, and that is prehistoric Arkansas. The tracks of the past are still with us. Dinosaurs left their footprints across southern Arkansas. The location is called Briar Site, a gypsum quarry, and what was originally thought to be potholes by workers turned out to be dinosaur footprints. According to aerial surveys, there are 10 parallel sauropod trackways in the quarry.

Photo credit Arkansas Geological Survey’s Geology Learning Center. A cast made from the foot bones of
Arkansaurus fridayi.

Mastodon bones have also been found throughout the state, notably between Crowley’s Ridge and the Mississippi River. Scientists have theorized that the bodark fruit was a particularity delectable food for this extinct elephant ancestor. The bodark fruit, from the bodark tree, used to grow amply across our state. The name “bodark” is a version of the French “bois d’arc” meaning “wood of the bow.” Another ancestor to elephants, Mammoths, were also found in Arkansas, notably the bones found in Hazen in 1965.

Another prehistoric Arkansas story comes in the form of a giant fish tale. The largest catfish fossil in North America was discovered near Camden. According to Edward and Karen Underwood’s book, Forgotten Tales of Arkansas, the skull was nearly 3 feet long, and the fish was estimated to have weighed about 450 pounds. The fossil was sent to be studied by the Department of Ichthyology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Photo credit Arkansas Geological Survey’s Geology Learning Center. This is a caricature of Arkansaurus fridayi, created out of Styrofoam and on display at the Geological Survey’s Learning Center. 

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Another aspect of prehistoric Arkansas history, and perhaps my favorite if only for the name, is the Arkansaurus fidayi dinonsaur. According to history, a man named Joe Friday was searching for his missing cow on his property in Sevier County. Road crews had churned up dirt while building a road, and Friday noticed a fossilized foot sticking out of the earth. The remains were unearthed and sent to the University of Arkansas. Three casts were made and given to the University of Arkansas, the Arkansas Museum of Science and Natural History, and the Arkansas Geological Commission.

And yet, when it comes to dinosaurs and Arkansas, one has to look no further than Dinosaur World, which was a tourist attraction in Beaver, Arkansas for years. Founded in 1967, it covered 65 acres and had life size statues of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. Some of the sculptures were created by Emmet Sullivan, who designed the Christ of the Ozarks statue in Eureka Springs. A few of Dinosaur World’s sculptures were featured in the film Elizabethtown. The park closed in 2005.

Arkansas’ prehistoric finds hearken back to a time in our history long before the springs flowed in the Ozarks, long before the mansions were built, and long before the French found La Petit Roche. If we needed a reminder that the land we call Arkansas is indeed ancient, the dinosaur footprints left across our state are evidence of just that.

To find out more about Arkansaurus fridayi in person, or explore more of Arkansas’ rich geological and prehistoric history, you can visit the Arkansas Geological Survey’s Geology Learning Center in Little Rock at 1911 Thayer Street, or visit them online at http://www.geology.ar.gov/education/learning_center.htm.

Liz Harrell

Arkansas Women Bloggers member Elizabeth Harrell is a native Arkansan, author, and freelance writer. Her book, My (not so) Storybook Life, was published in 2011. Her blog projects have been featured in At Home Arkansas, Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge, and Better Homes and Gardens. Visit her at https://elizabeth-harrell.com .