The Big Bone Lick Fossil Site in Kentucky


I’ve decided to make Georgia Before People a weekly blog.  If you follow this blog, check most Fridays for new entries.  I read somewhere that successful blogs should have daily entries, but a reader ought to get a week’s worth of information from my lengthy blog entries.  I’m not going to worry about the blog police.


Big Bone Lick

In my chapter on fossil sites in Georgia and other southeastern states, I left out the great state of Kentucky.  Though Kentucky is in the SEC and can be considered a southern state, being south of the Mason-Dixon line, during the Pleistocene it was mighty close to the Laurentide glacier and incorporated ecotones that probably didn’t exist in Georgia and the states it borders, so I omitted mentioning Kentucky fossil sites.  But there are no space limitations in the cyberworld.  Here are my thoughts about one of the best Pleistocene fossil sites east of the Mississippi–Big Bone Lick.

Sulphurous smelling salt springs abound at Big Bone Lick, a poorly drained area, 45 miles south of Cincinnati.  The springs served as a natural salt lick for great herds of megafauna that migrated here from hundreds of miles away.  Herbivorous animals get plenty of pottassium from the plants they eat, but they’re oftentimes desperately in need of sodium, and the long journey was beneficial for their health and even survival.  The region around the salt springs would’ve been heaven for wildlife film-makers, if any had existed yet, because almost every North American hooved animal frequented the site.

During the last Ice Age, the Laurentide glacier advanced as far south as southeastern Ohio.  I was surprised to learn that during some previous Ice Ages (probably the Illinoian) glaciers even advanced into northern Kentucky as evidenced by large errattic boulders that could only have been transported here by ice.  But during the most recent Ice Age, the glacier stopped north of the state.  Still, ice dams formed across the Ohio River, creating many glacial lakes.  Periodically, the sudden warm climate cycles of the wildly fluctuating Pleistocene caused these ice dams to melt, and the great glacial lakes flooded the low lying site of Big Bone Lick, drowning multitudinous herds of beasts, and sometimes burying them under sediment, thus preserving them for future fossil hunters and scientists.

A list of species recovered here not only included the fauna of the savannahs, open woodlands, and forests commonly found in the Pleistocene ecotones of what’s now Georgia and other southern states, but also had representatives of the steppe grass environment that stretched all the way across Beringia into Eurasia.  North of  Kentucky, this steppe grass ecotone was probably interspersed with patches of forest that grew all the way to the glacier.  This meant that ranges of many species normally inhabiting different ecosystems overlapped here.  Big Bone Lick is one of the few fossil sites with the remains of both woolly mammoths and Columbian mammoths.  Woolly musk-oxen shared the range with its now extinct temperate cousin, the woodland musk-oxen.  There were forest species–Jefferson’s ground sloth, mastodons, stag-moose, and white tail deer, alongside grassland species such as Harlan’s ground sloth, bison, horses, elk, and caribou.  After the megafauna extinction the surviving species–elk and bison–continued to journey here for the salt.  Even in Colonial times the area was so rich in game that the Indians declared most of what’s now Kentucky a neutral hunting ground, and Daniel Boone got into trouble with them when he trespassed on this land.  A generation later, John Audobon, the famous wildlife painter, remarked on how beautiful Kentucky’s prairies were, though by the time he was an old man much of the game had been shot out.

Big Bone Lick became famous for fossils early on, exciting the interest of President Thomas Jefferson who made the first scientific description of Jefferson’s ground sloth.  His support for the Lewis and Clark expedition was inspired by his wish to find living representatives of the mammoth and ground sloth bones found here.  The presence of fossil specimens from animals that no longer apparently existed upended religious wisdom of the time.  Theologians didn’t think one of God’s perfect creatures could die out.  Then as now, illogical religious beliefs conflicted with scientific facts, and even though Jefferson wasn’t particularly religious (he thought Christianity would go the way of Greek myths) he couldn’t conceive of the concept of extinction.

Another Pleistocene fossil site in Kentucky worth mentioning (there are more but I’ll save those for a future blog entry) is Welsh’s Cave.  Like Ladds Mountain, one of the best fossil sites in north Georgia, Welsh’s Cave is a mostly collapsed and eroded cave system.  Here, scientists found the remains of at least 31 flat headed peccaries, an extinct species of javelina that preferred open environments.  Fossils of grizzly bears found here are evidence of the eastern most occurrence of a species that was unknown east of the Mississippi River during Colonial times.  Other present day western species found at this site, which is located in central Kentucky, includes badgers, gophers, and ground squirrels.

Today’s blog entry was inspired by a fellow Fossil Forumite who goes by the handle, Cousin it.  His blog chronicling his search for paleozoic fossils in Kentucky is His blog’s called Swimming the Ordovician Seas.


Cooper, C.L.

“The Pleistocene Fauna of Kentucky”

Kurten, Bjorn; and Elaine Anderson

Pleistocene Mammals of North America

University of Columbia Press 1980

Were There Major Salt Licks in Georgia that Attracted Large Concentrations of Game?

The answer is yes.  Around 1775 William Bartram found one west of Augusta.  Here’s a passage from his Travels.

“After 4 days moderate and pleasant travelling, we arrived in the evening at the Buffalo Lick.  This extraordinary place occupies several acres of ground, at the foot of the S.E. promontory of the Great Ridge, which, as before observed, divides the rivers Savannah and Altamaha.  A large cane swamp and meadows, forming an immense plain, lies S.E. from it; in this swamp I believe the head branches of the great Ogeeche river take their rise.  The place called the Lick contains three or four acres, is nearly level, and lies between the head of the cane swamp and the ascent of the Ridge.  The earth is a cinereous coloured tenacious fatty clay, which all kinds of cattle lick into great caves, pursuing the delicious vein.  It is the common opinion of the inhabitatants, that this clay is impregnated with saline vapours arising from fossil salts deep in the earth; but I could discover nothing saline in its taste, but I imagined an insipid sweetness.  Horned cattle, horses, and deer, are immoderately fond of it, insomuch, that their excrement, which almost totally covers the earth to some distance round this place, appears to be perfect clay; which when dried by the sun and air, is almost as hard as a brick.”

Note that Bartram reported the area as being swampy.  It’s likely the salt lick existed during Pleistocene times, so there is a possiblity the swampy conditions created circumstances favorable for deposition of bones.  But it’s also possible the swamp didn’t exist then due to the more arid climate and no sediment ever washed over and preserved the bones.  In any case the site is worth searching for.

5 Responses to “The Big Bone Lick Fossil Site in Kentucky”

  1. Solius Symbiosus Says:

    Thanks for the link, Mark. An interesting side story to the Big Bone Lick story-Jefferson loaned some specimens from the site to Czar Alexander in the early 19th century. Due to political instability related to the Napoleonic Wars, the “bones” were never returned. After all the blood letting of the period, here and there(War of 1812 was an extension of European instability), everyone seemed to forget the “bones”. Today, those great Ice Age beasts exhibited in the museum in St. Petersburg are the fossils that were never returned.

  2. TRC Says:

    interesting thoughts. You likely would want to know that the fabled buffalo lick of Bartram’s was finally tracked down by Dr Louis De Vorsey, who also noted that it is not a salt lick (no salt deposits in GA), but kaolin clay. His wonderful article is at

  3. markgelbart Says:

    Thanks for the info, TRC.

    That’s right up my alley and it may be fodder for another blog entry some day.

  4. Dan Lykins Says:

    I have a hobby farm near Georgetown Ky. 12 acres with with rocks of all sizes full of fossil’s most covered with hundred’s of small bones.
    This would mean that hundreds of thousands of small creatures died or was killed in one small area. I can’t find a club or group in Ky. that I can show the fossil’s to, I would like to know more about the bones, and how could this many could be in this area. The ground had to be covered two feet deep in creature bones, for there to be this many.

  5. markgelbart Says:

    What do the fossils look like? I know numerous localities in Kentucky were salt licks that attracted lots of big mammals. This might explain what attracted them to one area.

    Is there a stream or river nearby. That would explain how the bones accumulated in 1 area.

    Take some of the fossils and show them to a biology professor from your nearest University.

    Also, take some photos and post them at the fossil forum–

    They might be able to tell you what they are.

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