Prehistoric World in Morrisburg, Ontario

Prehistoric World in Morrisburg, Ontario is a quaint throwback to roadside attractions of yore. There’s nothing fancy here; it’s just a stroll through the park among painted concrete dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals created by local artists Paul and Serge Dupuis, but it’s simple fun and education for a reasonable price.

The Dupuis brothers have been creating these life-sized sculptures for over 37 years. They depict primitive reptiles of the Paleozoic period to large mammals of the Cenozoic and Quaternary. Each sculpture features a plaque with information about the creature. There are currently over 50 sculptures.

For kids, there’s something fascinating about the hugeness of dinosaurs. It’s hard to believe creatures like this once existed. Kids can rattle off complex Latin names with ease. I’ve forgotten half of what I used to know about all the different species and popular theories.

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The Dinosaur Place at Nature’s Art Village

The Dinosaur Place in Oakdale, Connecticut (southwest of Norwich) is a fun adventure park for kids of all ages. They even have an animatronic Dilophosaurus that spits water at you when you step into its cave! I loved dinosaurs as a kid, and would have been enthralled. When Jurassic Park came out in 1993, I was so excited I refused to change my Jurassic Park t-shirt until we saw it.

The Dinosaur Place grew out of a shop called Nature’s Art, which displayed fossils and gem stones. It was so popular that by 2003 the owners were able to open an expansion featuring life-like depictions of these prehistoric creatures. Families can easily spend an afternoon (and a small fortune) here. In addition to the dinosaurs, there’s also a maze and splashpad for kids.

Visitors stroll the 60-acre park along a 1.5 mile trail, where sculptures depicting over 40 types of dinosaurs are on display. Compared to Dinosaur World in Plant City, Florida, The Dinosaur Place emphasizes activities over science, although information panels accompany each type of dinosaur. There is a side trail specifically dedicated to dinosaurs that lived in the area that would become Connecticut.

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Alpha: An Implausible Survival Tale

A young hunter must survive on the Mammoth steppe with the help of a wolf during the Upper Paleolithic period in Alpha (2018), written by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt and directed by Albert Hughes. Hughes is known for films like From Hell and The Book of Eli, but this was Wiedenhaupt’s first produced screenplay. She did a bang up job adapting Hughes’ original story for the screen. Despite stunning visuals and cinematography, and some interesting attempts to reconstruct Paleolithic culture, however, Alpha mainly pulls on moviegoers’ heartstrings with a completely implausible story.

Tribal chieftain Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) is proud that his son Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has proven himself worthy to accompany them on their annual buffalo hunt, but his wife Rho (Natassia Malthe) is apprehensive. On their long journey to the hunting grounds, they encounter another group of hunters led by Xi (Jens Hultén), and they join forces. Keda is skilled, but impatient and hesitant to kill. Tau instructs him on the need for strength, a lesson Keda will learn the hard way over the coming months as he fights for survival.

While his fellow hunters are stampeding a bison herd off a cliff (an actual hunter-gatherer tactic), a bison tramples Keda, impales him, and hurls him off the edge, where he plunges over 100 yards, suffers multiple broken bones and massive internal hemorrhaging, and dies. Wait, the bison’s horn only snags his coat and he lands safely on a ledge suffering only an injured ankle? Then a flash flood miraculously arrives in the nick of time, providing him a soft place to land when he slips from the rocks? And he doesn’t just drown in the current? … really?

In order to have tension in a survival story, we must think (despite knowing otherwise) there’s a possibility the main character won’t survive, but this improbable scenario plants in the viewer’s mind the idea that the main character literally cannot be killed. All tension evaporates when the hand of God (the screenwriter) comes down and saves Keda from one impossible-to-survive situation after another.

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First Impressions of Alpha

A young hunter must survive on the Mammoth steppe with the help of a wolf during the Upper Paleolithic period in Alpha (2018), written by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt and directed by Albert Hughes. I’m a fan of prehistoric films and was looking forward to this movie, which purported to tell the story of how human-canine companionship began.

Despite stunning visuals and cinematography, and some interesting attempts to reconstruct Paleolithic culture, Alpha mainly pulls on moviegoers’ heartstrings with a completely implausible story that was so ridiculous at times I almost walked out of the theater. Here are some of my first impressions, with a full review to follow on Monday:

  • While Albert Hughes has some directing experience (most notably From Hell and The Book of Eli), this was Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt’s first produced screenplay. Wiedenhaupt did a bang up job adapting Hughes’ original story for the screen, although the dialogue seemed a bit too sophisticated at times.
  • Alpha was filmed primarily in Canada and Iceland. The cinematography is amazing, with sweeping landscapes that really give you a sense of the Mammoth steppe, which used to span from Siberia to Western Europe. It’s too bad they couldn’t film in the last remaining portion of this steppe in western Siberia.
  • Despite interesting attempts to reconstruct Paleolithic culture, the main character’s village is strangely lifeless. His mother is apparently the only female in the village, and there are no babies or children. This film basically has four or five characters—the rest simply exist as part of the scenery.
  • For no discernible reason, Alpha borrows stylistically from Zack Snyder’s 300. Instead of falling from a real cliff or rock ledge, Keda (the main character) is thrown from a cartoonishly-tall, sheer cliff, miraculously lands on the only ledge on said cliff, and then again is miraculously saved when a flash flood allows him to survive the remaining fall. These are all unnecessary stylistic choices that strain your suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.
  • Another bizarre stylistic choice was for the hunting party to travel literally hundreds of miles to find a bison herd. In reality, prehistoric people followed the herds, or settled in villages near where herds migrated. There is no reason for Keda to have to walked for what seemed like months to get home.

Alpha is a crowd-pleaser. Audiences will love the main character’s interaction with a wolf that acts like a modern domesticated dog (even playing fetch and tugging on a scarf), but don’t mistake this fantastical story for history. Look for a full review next Monday.

Starved Rock State Park’s Disturbing Past

Majestic landforms and canyons along the Illinois River near Utica, Illinois hold terrible secrets from the past.

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Situated along the southern bank of the Illinois River near Utica, Illinois, Starved Rock State Park is the most visited park in Illinois. Its most prominent feature is a large, sandstone butte that stands high above the shoreline. Visitors flock to hike its 13 miles of trails and explore its 18 canyons, but while the park offers beautiful scenery, many do not realize the strange history and events that took place there.

The landforms themselves are thousands of years old, and copper clovis points found at Starved Rock indicate human habitation as early at 8000 BC. The Kaskaskia tribe lived there in the early 1600s, but they came into conflict with the Iroquois, who moved into the area in 1660. The French soon followed. In 1673, famed explorers Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette passed Starved Rock on their way back up the Illinois River.

LaSalle, another French explorer, built Fort St. Louis on the butte, but the fort was abandoned several decades later and there are no remnants of it today. Sometime in the early 1770s, Ottawa and Potawatomi Indians attacked a band of Illini living in the area. The Illini fled to the butte, where they starved to death. The area has been known as Starved Rock ever since, even though little physical evidence supports this story.

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Cahokia Mounds Tell an Ancient Tale

A long-lost civilization built a metropolis on the Mississippi that lasted for hundreds of years, until its mysterious collapse.

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Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site is located near Collinsville, Illinois, around eight miles east of St. Louis. The site consists of over a dozen prehistoric mounds constructed by a vanished culture around the time Leif Ericson’s longships landed in Vinland. The mounds were built by a group of people identified by anthropologists as belonging to the Mississippian Culture. Not much is known about them, other than the artifacts and earthen structures they left behind.

The most prominent is Monk’s Mound. Monk’s Mound was the largest earthen structure north of central Mexico at the time of its construction. “Begun around A.D. 900 and completed 300 years later,” Gene S. Stuart wrote in his book America’s Ancient Cities (1988). “It has 4 terraces; rises 100 feet; covers some 16 acres with a base measuring approximately 700 by 1,080 feet, and contains about 22 million cubic feet of earth.” A large building sat at the summit of the mound.

The mounds were a part of a large city, which reached the height of its power between 1000 and 1200 A.D. A stockade surrounded the central structures at the site, which the residents rebuilt several times. There is no evidence of a battle at the location and it’s unknown whether the city had any enemies.

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Native American Lore of Healing Waters Park

An unassuming park in the far southwest Chicago suburbs holds the last vestige of the area’s prehistory.

An old Indian trail followed the Des Plaines River along what is today Route 171, or Archer Avenue, in southwest suburban Chicago, Illinois. Across Archer Avenue on the north side of the Des Plaines River and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, nestled in a subdivision at the corner of 85th and Willow Drive, lies Healing Waters Park.

The park, which consists of a small pond and a row of boulders 92 yards in length, is the last vestige of the area’s prehistory. Long before the first Europeans set foot on the land that would one day become the village of Willow Springs, the Algonquian peoples traveled to this area to drink from springs that reportedly possessed healing powers.

The boulders that mark the location are arranged in a precise north-south direction, with a circle of smaller stones at the southern end. “A circle of boulders contained the ceremonial eternal flame kept burning by the Mascoutin Society, a religious group,” a plaque at the park explains.

The Mascoutin were a tribe of Algonquian-speaking American Indians also known as the “Fire Nation” or “Nation of Fire”, though their name literally meant “a treeless country.” They were virtually eliminated by rival tribes and disappeared from records around the Revolutionary War.

The plaque continues: “The Indians came to this place to be cared for until healed.” Although the pond and its miraculous waters remain, it is surrounded by a black fence and a sign warns visitors against attempting to collect or drink the water.

Further Reading

Jim Graczyk and Donna Boonstra, Field Guide to Illinois Hauntings (Alton: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2001).
Willow Springs Historical Society, Untitled Plaque, 1984, Healing Waters Park, Willow Springs.