Vegetarian Predecessors


Vegetarian Predecessors
(Pleistocene Epoch)

Downtown Berkeley BART area

Before the Gourmet Ghetto, farmers’ markets or edible schoolyard gardens, local produce was organic, abundant, and free to all inhabitants. During the late Pleistocene Epoch 15,000 years ago, today’s Berkeley was part of a coastal prairie that resembled Africa’s Serengeti Plains.  Herbivores, mammoths, mastodons, bison, horses, llamas, and camels grazed beside tree-lined streams and through rich grasslands on seasonal migrations toward the nutritious mineral rich ocean shore beside today’s Farallon Islands.

Mammoths (with long coats of reddish or yellowish hair) probably traveled in herds of 10–20. With molars like modern Indian elephants, they grew to a height of 13 feet and weighed as much as 24,000 pounds. Like elephants, mammoths were probably intelligent, caring animals. They forged migratory trails, crushing rocks with their enormous weight and clearing trees. Such well-defined routes were subsequently used by man, and considerably later may have helped determine the placement of roadways like today’s State Highway 12 through the Valley of the Moon and Highway 1 from Rockport to Bodega Bay.

The mastodon, a shorter and stockier distant relative of the mammoth and elephant, reached heights of 10 feet. Baby mastodon fossils, now at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology, together with whale, camel, horse, and rhino remains, were uncovered during Caldecott Tunnel excavations. Other paleontological sites include the Berkeley Municipal Wharf (mammoth), University Ave. (mastodon), and Aquatic Park (bison). When digging the downtown, BART workers uncovered remains of a ground sloth, an herbivore that grew to 9 feet and weighed 600-800 pounds.  Ground sloths could stand on their hind legs to strip leaves from trees. Their powerful forearms also helped in defense against predators like short-faced bears, saber-tooth cats, packs of the dire wolf, and prides of California lions.

Contributed by Robert Kehlmann, 2012

  • Columbian Mammoth (2009), George C. Page Museum, La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles, CA.

  • Mastadon rendering (2008), photo Dantheman9758@en.wikipedia.

  • Mastadon Skeleton, Museum of the Earth (2007), Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, N.Y..

  • Baby mammoth mummy discovered in Serbia (2010), Field Museum, Chicago.

  • Ground Sloth fossil (2005), National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.

Photo credit abbreviations:
BAHA: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Assn.
BHS: Berkeley Historical Society