"Once in the sun-fierce badlands of the west in that strange country of volcanic ash and cones, . . . we found a sabertooth, most ancient cat, far down in all those cellars of dead time."From The Innocent Assassinsby Loren EiseleyThe twenty-five-million-year-old cat described in the above passage was found only a few miles from here by a University of Nebraska paleontology crew. One of the more unusual paleontological finds ever made in Nebraska, the sabertooth was found with one of its sabers thrust through the upper arm bone of another of its species. Both animals died locked together as a result of their combat.One of the members of the paleontology crew working at the site was a young student named Loren Eiseley, a native of Lincoln who received his degree from the University of Nebraska in 1933 and who went on to achieve fame as an anthropologist, literary naturalist, author, and philosopher.During the summers of 1931, 1932, and 1933 Eiseley participated in the University-sponsored "South Party" or Morrill Paleontological Expedition under the direction of Dr. E. H. Barbour. After graduating from Nebraska Eiseley received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1937 and for ten years taught in Kansas and Ohio before becoming a member of the University of Pennsylvania faculty, where he served as chairman of anthropology department from 1947 until his death in 1977 at age seventy.Eiseley's poem describing the sabertooth find in western Nebraska was published in 1973 as The Innocent Assassins. Author of thirteen books, some of his best-known works include: The Immense Journey, The Night Country, The Firmament of Time, and The Unexpected Universe.The sabertooth fossil found by the "South Party" in 1932 is on display at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Morrill Hall, Lincoln.The Innocent AssassinsOnce in the sun fierce badlands of the west in that strange country of volcanic ash and cones, runneled by rains, cut into purgatorial shapes, where nothing grows, no seeds spring, no beast moves, we found a sabertooth, most ancient cat, far down in all those cellars of dead time. What was it made the mystery there? We dug until the full length of the striking saber showed beautiful as Toledo steel, the fine serrations still present along the blade, a masterpiece of murderous art conceived by those same forces that heaved mountains up from the flat bottoms of Cretaceous seas.Attentive in a little silent group we squatted there. This was no ordinary death, though forty million years lay between us and that most gaping snarl. Deep-driven to the root a scapula hung on the mighty saber undetached; two beasts had died in mortal combat, for the bone had never been released; there was no chance this cat had ever used its fangs again or eaten - died there, in short, though others of its kind grew larger, larger, suddenly were gone while the great darkness went about its task, mountains thrust up, mountains worn down, till this lost battle was exposed to eyes the stalking sabertooths had never seen.Pure nature had devised such weapons, struck deep in the night, endured immortally death, ambush, terror, by these, her innocents whose lives revolved on this, whose brains were formed only to strike and strike, beget their kind, and go to strike again.There were the great teeth snarling in the clay, the bony crests that had once held the muscles for this deed, perfect as yesterday. I looked a little while, admiring how that marvelous weapon had been so designed in unknown darkness, where the genes create as if they planned it so. I wondered why such fury had been swept away, while man, wide-roaming dark assassin of his kind, had sprung up in the wake of such perfected instruments as these. They lived long eras out, while we in all this newborn world of our own violence show uncertainties, and hopes unfostered when the cat's sheer leap wrenched with his killing skill his very self from life.On these lost hills that mark the rise of brain, I weep perversely for the beauty gone. I weep for man who knows this antique trade but is not guiltless, is not born with fangs, has doubts, suppresses them as though he knew nature had other thoughts, inchoate, dim, but that the grandeur of great cats attracted him - envy, perhaps, by a weak creature forced to borrow tools from the earth, growing, in them, most cunning upon an outworn path.I see us still upon that hilltop, gathered like ancient men who, weaponless, detach from an old weathered skull a blade whose form reshaped in flint could lift death up from earth's inanimate core and hurl it at the heart. Whatever else would bring cold scientists to murmur over what they saw? We are all atavists and yet sometimes we seem wrapped in wild innocence like sabertooths, as if we still might seek a road unchosen yet, another dream.The Innocent Assassins by Loren Eiseleypublished by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1973.