Bass-booming dinos warn against historical assumptions

PHOTO: puuikibeach, Flickr CC-BY

People have an odd relationship with time.

The future, as imagined, seems dreadful. Can’t believe how bad it will be, especially for other people, doubly so for the children. Maybe our children, but especially other people’s children. Those little bastards really have it coming.

The past, meanwhile, was ideal. Don’t you remember how it used to be? So much better, of course. 

I’ve written about the power of nostalgia before. It’s a steel trap we step into on purpose, over and over again.

Meantime, the present tugs on our coat like a hungry child. Now is the only time we may experience in full, and yet we mostly ignore it.

It’s all an illusion. The main appeal of the past is the certainty of our own memories. Those who study the workings of the brain know that all memories are imperfect recreations of the past, shaped as much by our feelings, then and now, as our sensory input. One recent study, detailed in a Dec. 14, 2022 Yasemin Saplakoglu Quanta Magazine story, opens the question of whether there’s any cognitive difference between memory and perception. A memory becomes as powerful as something happening right now before our very eyes. 

I’ve spent the last few years reading newspapers from before the birth of any living person. That’s a trip, folks. And let me tell you, I wouldn’t trust the past any more than I do the future. 

Sufficient digging reveals the past to be like the seams of iron ore run beneath the Mesabi Range. You can’t get it all, only the parts that are accessible. Just like the untold billions of tons of molten iron at the center of the earth, most of the past will stay buried forever. But as you chase the seams of accessible ore — the marriages, arrests and printed rumors — you find yourself clawing deeper into a subterranean world you never knew existed. You have to move a lot of overburden to go this far down, at great cost. Digging like this changes who you are.

Websites like capture baby boomers the way tar pits once gobbled up dinosaurs. It’s easy to see why. The past provides a certainty that the future never can. 

But knowledge about the past fosters discomfort. The most important details lie just out of the reach of our picks and shovels. Only the dead could tell and they never do. The newspapers tell of shootings, lynchings, beatings, drunken destruction, rape, slaughter and casual injustice. But family histories seem mostly devoid of such stories. Deep down, we know who’s lying.

Reopening the past is far more dangerous to our fragile minds than the future. That’s why people go nuts over history curriculum in the schools, or why mom and dad seem to share so many Facebook posts about the good old days. But even the simple things are very different than we imagined.

Take, for instance, some of the oldest things we’ve all learned about: those old dinosaurs. Most of us learned about giant lumbering green and brown dinosaurs that ate plants and each other some 65 million years ago. Imagine them now. When they open their mouths, do they make a lion’s roar? Touch their skin. Feels like an iguana, right?

New research counters all of this. Dinosaurs bore brightly colored feathers and skin, and spoke in deep, spectral voices that baffle the modern mind. 

In a Dec. 14 BBC story, “The mysterious song of the dinosaur,” by Richard Gray, a paleontologist named Tom Williamson describes the sound air made passing through the intricate air chambers of a Parasaurolophus skull. These are those plant-eating dinosaurs with distinctive crests on the backs of their heads.

The sound, said Williamson was “otherworldly.” He compared it to a large living bird, the southern cassowary of Australia. I had never heard of this bird, so I looked it up. What I heard haunted me. And then I heard the northern cassowary from New Guinea and was even more freaked out.

Apparently, dinosaurs sounded like a teenager’s car with bass-boosted stereo thumping at the stoplight. Their vocal frequencies ran so low that time-traveling humans might not be able to hear them. The ambiance of prehistoric forests would have sounded like an army of that deep bass singer from the Oak Ridge Boys. You know, the “mmm, papa mohw mohw” guy from “Elvira.” 

Meantime, the biggest dinosaurs might have been mute. T-Rex? More of a speak when spoken to kind of killer.

Scientists now understand dinosaurs to be the natural ancestors of modern birds. The reasons dinosaurs could grow so big in their day was because their bones stored oxygen the way bird bones do now. That’s also why some dinosaurs grew smaller, developed flight and, thus, survived whatever killed most of their relatives.

A northern shrike came to visit my feeder this winter. Shrikes hunt by pinching the spinal cord of small birds to paralyze them, before shaking them dead in a matter of seconds. Dinosaurs died, but they never died out. We are just lucky they became smaller than humans.

So you want to live in the past? Be careful. Even a young country like America holds secrets few want to consider. That’s why there’s an entire political movement dedicated to sealing off the mine. We should study the past for lessons, not just happy memories.

Don’t get me wrong. I love history. Heck, I have a microfilm machine in my office. But give me the future over the past. Or better yet, today. It’s the only aspect of time that we can shape like clay pots for someone to dig up many centuries from now. May we be artisans in our craft.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Jan. 21, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. Given the prevalence of the MAGA-mind at this time, it is particularly useful to take a closer look at the period from 1948-1963. Or perhaps, given the fall of China and the Korean War, 1953-1963.

    This is often cited as the apogee of American civilization, especially up here on Northeastern Minnesota. Good jobs with high pay were easily available. School children were well-behaved and concentrated on their learning. The future looked bright, and in that pre-helmet and pre-face mask era yuppy spawn from the Metro area and Duluth who had abundant indoor ice time weren’t kicking our boys around on the rinks.

    BUT… That was true only if you were a white male. Women, Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and immigrants of all sorts were trapped in lives that were at best tightly circumscribed and at worst quietly desperate. School performances were worse overall, with higher dropout rates and greater failures on critical skills like math. Most families lived in houses that were smaller than today, with only one bathroom and with a detached garage — or no garage — for the single car they owned. Many children slept up to four and five to a room. Dinners were fattier and less flavorful, clothes more poorly made, less stylish, and more expensive compared with incomes. Life expectancy for whites was ten years shorter than today, disabilities more common, and diseases that are now treated effectively were fatal. Health of non-whites was at third world levels. The costs of health care were beyond the reach of most families for many conditions, with only scattered “charity” hospitals and the willingness of doctors and local hospitals to write off as many as half their billing cases standing between families and crippling debt. People died in back bedrooms rather than use hospitals.

    And add to that the fact that fear of the newly developed nuclear weapons haunted the entire population continuously. Seeing a shooting star often raised the fearful question “is that the Chicago missile?”

    Those were the real good old days.

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