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"Amberat" - also spelled amberrat - the word sounds quite lovely. Some paleontologists are quite enthusiastic about amberat, a thick resinous substance that can harden into something resembling asphalt over time. Amberat is also sold in India as an Ayurvedic medicine, as well as in Russia as a "natural balsam with healing properties", and is also called mumie, shilajit, and moomiyo, among other names.

A quote about the source of valuable and powerful amberat, or, as they call it, mumie, from the lifepharma.com (a supplements distributor) site:

"From the ceilings of high mountain caves hang black icicles having a specific smell and bitter taste of Mumie. For this reason Mumie has been referred to as "mountain tear", "blood mountain", "balsam of rock". It is the digest of multitude of many flora at the crest of the mountains under very special conditions which produce the Mumie which then drops to the base of the caves where it can be collected. Because this special digest accumulates no more than twice a year, Mumie is a rare find."

Very mysterious, this process of "digesting of flora at mountain crests" which then "drops to the base of caves" inside the mountain. The Charaka Samhita, an ancient Ayurvedic text, claims that there is no curable disease in the universe which is not effectively cured by shilajit [another term for amberat] administered at the appropriate time, in combination with suitable drugs and via the prescribed method. Apparently the black variant is considered the most potent...

Let's follow another related description, this time from The Desert's Past--a Natural Prehistory of the Great Basin (Donald K. Grayson, Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1993):

In 1849 "Seventy miles northwest of Las Vegas, [William Lewis] Manly's [starving] group passed by Papoose Lake [in Death Valley]... Realizing that continuing west might see them die of thirst, the small band of travelers headed south:

"we turned up a canyon leading toward the mountain.... Part way up we came to a high cliff and in its face were niches or cavities as large as a barrel or larger, and in some of them we found balls of a glistening substance looking something like pieces of varigated [sic] candy stuck together. The balls were as large as small pumpkins. It was evidently food of some sort, and we found it sweet but sickish, and those who were so hungry as to break up one of the balls and divide it among the others, making a good meal of it, were a little troubled with nausea afterward" (Manly 1894:126).

Manly guessed that what they had found was a food cache belonging to Indians, and was concerned that what they had done might cause them serious problems. The Manly party was not the only one to take notice of this "glistening substance," although they may have been the only ones to mistake it for food. In 1843, Fremont found some of the same stuff. Exploring the canyon of a small tributary of the Bear River in far southern Idaho on August 29 of that year, Fremont found "several curious caves" on the roofs of which he noticed "bituminous exudations from the rock" (Fremont 1845:141). Sixteen years later, the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers assigned Captain James H. Simpson the task of discovering a better wagon route across the Great Basin....On July 16 Simpson was exploring Dome Canyon in the House Range.... He found the "walls of the canyon full of small caves, and as usual showing a great deal of the resinous, pitchy substance that seemingly oozes out of the rock" (J.H. Simpson 1983:125). Unlike Manly's party, however, Simpson did not taste it; he guessed that it might have been "the dung of birds or small animals" (1983:125)."

Grayson goes on to summarize:

"Simpson was very close to being right. These hard, shiny deposits that are so often found cemented to the walls of caves and rock crevices in the Great Basin are made by Neotoma. What Manly and his friends ate, and what Simpson guessed may have had something to do with the dung of small mammals, was part of a packrat midden."

Packrat middensThe first records of herbivorous Neotoma species are from the late Miocene, 6.6 million years ago. Neotomas like Eek are the Woodrats, also called packrats, and are organized about their living spaces, including moving trash and debris outside of their nests often into a pile. These trash heaps are called middens. Woodrats also urinate and defecate on their middens. Sugar and other substances in the urine crystallize as it dries (recall Manly's description of "candy"), creating the hard dark material known as amberat. If the midden is in a cave or other area protected from rain and wetness, the hardened urine can build up and encase the midden, preserving the contents, helping it last for even tens of thousands of years. The oldest known packrat middens are too old to date by the radiocarbon method, meaning they are over 50,000 years old. Fossilized packrat urine is called urinite.

Because packrat middens can preserve the material encased within it, they can be analyzed by paleontologists to reconstruct aspects of the original environment at the time they were built. Comparisons between middens outline a valuable record of vegetative and climate change. Packrat middens have largely supplanted pollen records as a method of study in the regions where they are available.

So there, perhaps, is the mechanism for the flora being "digested at mountain crests", and then, "under special conditions", mysteriously being deposited to the floor of caves as valued amberat. Every week I may be throwing away a veritable goldmine by cleaning Eek's cage!

Update May 22, 2013: Interested in more details about packrats, their middens and amberat? Check out this informative and well-assembled blog post which also features Eek! http://plantsandrocks.blogspot.com/2013_05_01_archive.html

(photo courtesy of the USGS website - that photo, and more on packrat middens, can be found here: http://sbsc.wr.usgs.gov/cprs/research/projects/global_change/middens.asp)

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Blog_post | by Dr. Radut