Thursday, April 10, 2014

Book update

Today I received another rejection, or semi rejection, letter. The editor wrote that it sounds like an interesting project and invited me to submit the completed manuscript when it's ready. I read that to mean she thinks the concept has potential, but is not willing to risk an advance on a writer with no publication history or academic credentials. Crap.

The problem, at this point, is that there just aren't that many well distributed publishers of non-fiction that will consider unsolicited proposals. My next move will be to:

A. start submitting to smaller university and regional presses or
B. look for an agent.

Both of these probably represent a reduction in profit and money is an object for me. I've spent seven years on this and, being broke and unemployed, I would like to make enough to live on while I finish it and maybe even be able to get an apartment.

Tessa had an old Peanuts cartoon that we kept on the fridge door. Snoopy was sitting on his doghouse typing. The captions read: "Dear sirs, With regards to your rejection letter. What I wanted was for you to send me fifty thousand dollars and publish my book. Didn't you know that?" Apparently they don't.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

South Carolina has a State Fossil

South Carolina finally has an official state fossil: the Columbian mammoth (that's also the state fossil of Washington). The decision was not without some melodrama.

As I mentioned below, eight year old Olivia McConnell was perusing lists of state symbols and noticed that her state was one of the last states without a state fossil. She did some research and discovered that South Carolina has a special tie to American paleontology through a discovery of some mammoth teeth that were the first in the New World to be authoritatively identified as elephantine in nature. The identification was made by an African slave whose name was unfortunately not recorded. Armed with this background research, Olivia wrote to her state representatives who promptly wrote a bill and submitted it to each house. The bill was short and clear. After the usual whereas's it read:
Article 9, Chapter 1, Title 1 of the 1976 Code is amended by adding: "Section 1-1-712A. The Columbian Mammoth is designated as the official State Fossil of South Carolina."
It sailed through the House with a 94-3 vote, went on the Senate, and came screeching to a halt. Sen. Kevin Bryant, a creationist, decided the bill needed some religion and amended it with three verses from Genesis describing the creation of the animals. This was judged to be an insertion of a new topic into the bill which, for procedural reasons stopped its progress. At this point, the national press took notice, and not in a way that made South Carolina look good. 

If the story had simply been about religion, Bryant and his supporters would have gotten their Southern stubborn on and said "screw you" to Yankees, the liberal media, and all of the others that they imagine to be persecuting them. The South Carolina legislature has had no problem unconstitutionally inserting religion into their education standards. What made this time different was that the story was almost universally framed as "humorless old men frustrate well-meaning little girl's dream." Defying public opinion in the name of God and the South wasn't going to work this time. Bryant whined to The Daily Beast that he didn't mean to block Olivia's bill, he "just felt like it'd be a good thing to acknowledge the creator of the fossils."

The simple thing to do would have been for Bryant to remove his amendment and pass the bill before the PR disaster could go on any longer. It didn't work out that way. Bryant removed his amendment, but Sen. Mike Fair, another creationist, put a hold on the bill so Bryant could reword his injection of religion in a way that wouldn't be deemed a new topic. Bryant did this and the Senate leadership accepted his new language. The bill was set to come up for a vote on Wednesday, when Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler blocked it. Peeler thinks the state has more than enough state symbols and considers naming any more to be a waste of time. To demonstrate how strongly he felt about this, he chose the most embarrassing time possible to waste three hours of the Senate's time arguing over it. Finally, the leadership allowed his to insert a second clause into the bill declaring a moratorium on any new symbols. The leadership chose not to view this as a new topic even though it is. The final vote was unanimous.

The final Senate bill is hardly perfect. Peeler got his moratorium. Bryant got his religion. The final wording is awkward and redundant:

The Columbian Mammoth, which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field, is designated as the official State Fossil of South Carolina and must be officially referred to as the 'Columbian Mammoth', which was created on the Sixth Day with the other beasts of the field.
The one improvement, from my perspective, is that they finally got the species right. The original bill said "Wooly (sic) Mammoth" in  the title and "Columbian Mammoth" in the actual bill. The final version has this corrected to Columbian in both places. The press is still having trouble with that. The New York Times coverage refers to it as the "Columbia woolly mammoth." USA Today correctly refers to it as the Columbian mammoth, but then messes up by calling it a sub-species of the woolly mammoth.

South Carolina has a state fossil and Olivia McConnell has had an education in civics. I hope this encourages her to stay out of politics and to go into science. Or, if she is inspired to go into politics, that it be so the people of South Carolina have someone representing them who knows how to do their homework and who will cut through the crap.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Mammoths in the News

In South Carolina, eight year old Olivia McConnell noticed that her state has a state grass doesn't have a state fossil. She set out to fix that. She wrote a letter to her state legislators, Rep. Robert Ridgeway and Sen. Kevin Johnson, laying out her reasons why the state need an official fossil and proposed the mammoth for the job. They were impressed and sponsored a bill for her.

The articles I've checked on all flip back and forth between Columbian mammoth and woolly mammoth and so does the bill. They are two different species. Columbian would be the correct one for South Carolina. Olivia probably knows the difference. She did her homework on this, but I can't find the text of her letter. One of the reasons she gave for choosing the mammoth was that it has an important tie to South Carolina. The first known mention mammoth remains in the Americas appeared in 1743 in Mark Catesby's in his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands he wrote "At a place in Carolina called Stono, was dug out of the Earth three or four Teeth of a large Animal, which, by the concurring Opinion of all the Negroes, native Africans, that saw them, were the Grinders of an Elephant...." Catesby probably heard about the teeth when he traveled in the southern states in 1725.

Olivia's bill should have sailed through both houses and been signed into law in no time. Rep. Ridgeway's version sailed through committee, was put to a vote and passed 94-3. Those three should be ashamed of themselves. Then the bill ran aground in the senate. Far right Sen. Kevin Bryant decided it needed to to be amended with an unconstitutional injection of religion. He wanted to add some verses from Genesis so every one would know just who created mammoths and fossils. Bryant's amendment was ruled out of order because it introduced a new subject. Bryant tried to shorten his amendment, but still wants to keep religion in the bill. Thus, it remains in limbo. In his defense, Bryant whines, "I think it's a good idea to designate the mammoth as the state fossil, I don't have a problem with that. I just felt like it'd be a good thing to acknowledge the creator of the fossils." Bryant has one ally in the state senate, Sen. Mike Fair, who has placed an objection on the bill. Fair, like Bryant is a creationist and climate change denier.

And so, it remains unclear if South Carolina will get a state fossil. Three other states have mammoths as their state fossils (and one has the mastodon), but duplication has never been a problem for state symbols (state flowers, for example). Changing the species won't help. Bryant and Fair will want to attach religion to any fossil. Most stories on this predictably end with the gag that perhaps Bryant and Fair should be the state fossils. The story shouldn't be about their obstructionism. It should be about Olivia McConnell, a smart, observant girl. I hope those two old poops don't discourage her. We need more girls like Olivia.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Vilui Rhinoceros

Peter Simon Pallas arrived in Irkutsk an hour before midnight on March 14, 1772. He was accompanied by a painter and three naturalists. The horses, he writes, we tired. It was a week before the equinox but the rivers were still frozen and there was plenty of snow on the ground in that part of the world. This was a feature, not a bug, as far as travel in Siberia was concerned. When the temperatures rose, the whole country would become one endless, roadless, mosquito-filled bog. Since the beginning of the Russian state, the fastest way to travel its vast expanses had been by sleigh in the winter. He could have used those frozen rivers and snowy ground to continue deeper into Siberia but Irkutsk was his goal. He wrote that he knew the city held curiosities he had to see and stories he had to hear about the unknown land across Lake Baikal. Irkutsk did not disappoint. The governor had a rhinoceros to show him.

Pallas had arrived in Russian four years earlier at the invitation of Catherine the Great. He had been offered a teaching position at the Academy University, but that title was more a description of his pay grade and social status than a job description. He immediately set to work preparing for a five year expedition into the eastern provinces of Catherine's empire. Before leaving, he took time to look through the Academy's collections where he discovered a rhino skull that had been discovered near the Amur River on the Chinese-Siberian border. Numerous bones of rhinos along with hippos, elephants, and other tropical animals had been found in his native Germany and other parts of Europe. He wrote a paper describing this skull, tying it to the problem of the Siberian mammoth. Like most thinkers of his time, he was inclined to explain their presence in the north as a result of the Biblical flood washing the bones of tropical animals north. Pallas did not follow the usual method of scientific explorers, which was to collect samples and take notes and then analyze and write about them on their return. He sent several scientific papers back to the Academy and two volumes of a travel narrative while still on the road.

When Governor de Brill told him that he had preserved parts of an unknown large animal, Pallas' first thought was probably of a mammoth. Westerners knew of tales of bloody preserved mammoth carcasses as long as they had known about the mammoth. Earlier in the century there had even been a report by a reputable European. In addition, Pallas had seen dozens, possibly hundreds, of mammoth bones since leaving St. Petersburg. In his Travels, he wrote that there was hardly a river east of the Don that did not produce a few. He must have been both surprised and delighted when de Brill produced the head and feet of a rhino. During his four years on the road, Pallas had begun to doubt the wisdom of his having come to Russia. Captain Cook was the superstar of exploratory science. It seemed to Pallas that the South Seas was the real frontier. In Siberia, he lamented, one could go a hundred miles without discovering anything. A preserved rhino was something to get excited about.

Pallas was exceptionally lucky that almost everyone involved in bringing the mammoth to his attention had understood its importance. The rhino had been discovered by a group of Yakut (Sakha) hunters in December on the banks of the Vilui River, a tributary that fell into the Lena well above the Arctic Circle. The rhino was nearly complete when they found it, but enough of it was in a bad state of decay that decided to cut the feet and head from the carcass and leave the rest behind. In any case, even if they had wanted bring the whole body, breaking it loose from the frozen ground would have been almost impossible during the winter. The hunters took these parts to Ivan Argunov, the district magistrate who took a notarized statement detailing the location and position of the carcass and sent the parts and statement to the regional capital on Yakutsk in January. The authorities there kept one foot and sent the rest on to Irkutsk, where it arrived in late February, just three weeks before Pallas' arrival.

The head and feet were in excellent condition. Almost all of the skin was present and covered with hair. The delicate structure of the eyelids remained. Muscles and fat were preserved under the skin. Though the horns were missing, from the spots where they had been attached, he could tell it had been a two horned rhino. Of immediate concern was making sure it remained preserved in the best condition possible. It had already begun to give off a stench that he compared to "an ancient latrine." He chose to dry it in an oven. The melting fat falling in the fire caused the oven to get much hotter than he wanted and one of the feet was burned beyond any hope of saving. Naturally, the loss was blamed on an inattentive servant although I feel confident in say that no one in Irkutsk had any experience in drying rhinoceros parts so we should cut him some slack. Pallas took careful measurements of the head and feet and wrote a detailed article (in Latin) for the Academy. He would have liked to have spent more time studying it, but the Siberian Spring was coming and he wanted to get across Lake Baikal before the ice broke. 


The Vilui rhinoceros as it appeared with Pallas' description (source)

Pallas' paper was published in the Academy yearbook for 1772 and eagerly read by scholars all over Europe. When he returned in 1774 he was covered in honors and eagerly sought out by other scientists. Moving to Russia turned not to have been a bad choice after all. he stayed in Russia for the rest of his working life. His rhino did not disappear into the Academy collections never to be seen again. During the Nineteenth Century, other scientists continued to study it. Its blood was examined, the remains of its last meal were picked out of its teeth, and, in 1849, Johann Friedrich von Brandt, the head of the zoology division at the Academy wrote a book length anatomical study of the remains. As an introduction to his study, Brandt went over the documents relating to the discovery.

In his rush to leave Irkutsk, Pallas regretted not having had time to make drawings of the remains. The Academy made up for this lack by having an artist prepare a detailed set of drawings of the head in profile and the remaining foot from the front and side. When Brandt made his study, he had an artist make new drawings, though not as detailed, of the head from all angles. By Brandt's time, enough other remains, especially horns had been made that they were beginning to be able reconstruct the Siberian rhino and see how different it was from living rhinos. One detail that particularly stood out was how unusual the horns were. Instead of being essentially conical, like those of living rhinos, The horns they were finding in Siberia were flat as a knife blade and ridiculously long, sometimes three or even four feet. Brandt had his artist match the skull up with one of the horns in their collection to give readers an idea of the horn's magnitude.


The Vilui rhinoceros as it appeared with Brandt's description. Because color printing was still rare, the illustration was most likely had colored. In either case, the use of color demonstrates the importance the Academy placed on the study. (source)


Like many extinct animals, the name of Siberian rhino has gone through many permutations over the years, from Rhinocerotis antiquitatis to Gryphus antiquitatus to Rhinocerotis tichorhini to its current name Coelodonta antiquitatis. It's commonly called the woolly rhino and is one of the best known ice age animals after the mammoth and sabre toothed tiger. Pallas never did have his name attached to it. It's curious that he didn't give it a name. At the time, he was working on his own naming system to fix the weaknesses that he saw in the Linnaean system. As it was, the naming credit has gone to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach who, coincidentally, also named the mammoth. Pallas needn't feel slighted; he named and has had named after him a number of other species.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Monsieur Paquet's giant bone

Business must have been going well in 1779 for Monsieur Paquet, a Paris wine merchant. At least, that's what we can infer from his decision to expand his cellars that year. After removing part of the wall, He began digging into the yellow soil of mixed sand and clay. Two feet in, he discovered something very large and hard that was not a rock. At first, he thought he had run into a tree trunk, but, after clearing away more soil, he discovered that it was the biggest bone he, or anyone he knew, had ever seen. Paquet vanished from history soon after that, but the created a mini controversy and the last hurrah of the idea that mammoths were not elephantine in nature.

Paquet knew he had something valuable. He spent eight days trying to excavate it, but, with the soft walls collapsing, he finally had to give up. Using a sledge hammer and iron wedges, he broke off what he could see of the bone and built a wall over the rest. Even without the part still buried and other pieces chipped off, the bone weighted over 200 pounds. Several doctors came to view his bone and all agreed that it was one half of a giant pelvis. However, one learned visitor disagreed.

The exception was Robert de Paul de Lamanon, a promising new light on the French intellectual scene. As young men, Robert and his older brother, Pierre-Auguste, developed a habit of walking, rather than riding, wherever they went. This gave them the opportunity to examine all aspects of the countryside from agriculture to the living conditions of the peasantry to the geological structure of the land. After his father died, Robert dropped out of the seminary—as a student of Locke, Hobbs, and Rousseau he had no interest in religion—and set out with his brother to study the mountains of Switzerland. He estimated that they walked 1800 miles through the Alps that year. Based on his close-up observations of mountain valleys and the gravel deposits below the mountains, he developed a theory that the primary force shaping the earth was water—not the waters of the Biblical deluge, but rivers and periodic eruptions from enormous primal lakes in the mountains. This was the Lamanon who arrived in Paris and heard about Paquet's giant bone.

After rather roughly wresting it from the ground, Paquet kept the bone in the hopes of selling it for the sizable amount of 800 livres (at the time, Lamanon was living on a budget of 600 livres per year from his father's estate). Despite his high hopes for selling the bone, Paquet was willing to let Lamanon spend several days examining it. Lamanon hired an artist named Martin to help him and the two used their time to take measurements, make drawings, and even construct clay models of the bone. Based on his examination, Lamanon argued that it couldn't possibly be a pelvis. He pointed out that several structures were missing, most importantly, the acetabulum, the socket that meets the ball at the top of the femur to form the hip joint. To his eye, it looked like the lower part of a skull. Building on that observation, he stated that the bone bore no resemblance to the skull of an elephant or hippo or any other known terrestrial animal, which was true enough. Therefore, he concluded, it must have belonged to a whale. He admitted that the only whale skull he had seen was the damaged skull of a young whale left behind by a showman as he skipped town ahead of his creditors.

Monsieur Martin's drawing of the bone (source)

It was no coincidence that Lamanon specifically called out elephants and hippos for comparison. Besides being the largest of terrestrial animals, they had both been suggested as identities for other giant bones found around the Northern Hemisphere. In Asia and Europe, the bones were called mammoth and assigned to elephants. In the Ohio country of North America, mastodon bones, then as yet unnamed, showed features common to both elephants and hippos. Lamanon used his analysis of Paquet's bone to question those identifications. The mere resemblance of certain bones, he wrote, specifically referring to tusks and teeth, does not necessarily mean they come from the same animal. The teeth of a horse resemble those of donkey and the teeth of a cat those of a dog. Mammoth teeth resemble those of an elephant, but those of the mastodon do not. Couldn't this mean that mammoth, mastodon, and elephant are three completely different animals, or that mammoth and mastodon finds were not the remains of single animals but the co-mingled bones of several different animals, some elephant-like and some not? This was the position of the great Louis Jean-Marie Daubenton regarding the unknown animal of the Ohio. As for the Siberian mammoth, he pointed out that, even though the offer of a substantial reward for a complete skeleton had been in effect since the time of Peter the Great, no one had yet been able to produce one.

That Paquet's bone might have come from a whale was the starting point in the argument Lamanon wanted to make. His next point was the idea that other large bones were not necessarily those of known terrestrial animals. Having set his argument up, Lamanon moved on to his objective: using Paquet's bone to support his geological theories. The primal lakes that Lamanon envisioned shaping the geology of the north were really inland seas and their draining was a series of explosive, catastrophic events. He argued that whale bones in places like the Paris basin didn't come up from the ocean; they came down from the mountains. Mixed bones, such as those that Daubenton believed the Ohio animal to be made of, Lamanon saw as evidence of the violence of the lakes' draining. Even if the bones included those of elephants or hippos, these were animals living downstream, swept up, and deposited far north of their native habitats.

Most naturalists believed that the mammoth was an elephant and the mastodon was something similar, but there was still enough room for doubt that Lamanon's argument that they were not wasn't scandalous. What did scandalize some was the fact that he directly challenged Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte du Buffon and intendant of the royal museum (Jardin du Roi). Buffon was without question the most influential man in French science. Buffon's theory of the earth was that it had started out as a molten sphere and cooled first at the poles and that the habitable part of the world had expanded from there. He further claimed that only hot climates were hospitable for large animals. By this, he explained giant bones, such as the mammoth's, were relics of a time when the climate of the North was tropical. His theory of the relationship between temperature and size so annoyed Thomas Jefferson that he dedicated a large part of a chapter of his Notes on the State of Virginia to refuting it. Lamanon refuted Buffon by pointing out that there were plenty of large animals in the North such as moose, but especially fish and whales.

A childhood friend of his later wrote that "a thousand voices were against him, he was assailed on all sides, the newspapers rang with accusations of arrogance, audacity, boldness, ignorance itself.” One such outrages person was one Baudon, who published a nitpicking response to Lamanon five months after his paper came out. Boudon upbraided Lamanon for having the temerity to contradict his betters. He followed this by assuring his readers that his only motive was his love of truth and not currying favor for his forthcoming book. August was embarrassed enough by his brother that he wrote a letter of apology to Buffon on his behalf.

Neither Buffon himself nor his protege Daubenton seemed particularly offended. Buffon was happy to take advantage of Lamanon's geological observations in his later works. Daubenton's curiosity was sufficiently aroused to make a trip to Paquet's wine cellar to examine the bone and convince the merchant to dig out the rest of the bone. Daubenton was the perfect man to settle what kind of bone it was. Forty years earlier, he had been chosen by Buffon to catalog the zoological collections at the Jardin du Roi. In that capacity, he had handled and measured the bones of hundreds of animals, both living and fossil. Later he had helped Buffon write his encyclopedic Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière by contributing anatomical essays on 182 species of quadrupeds. He was easily the most knowledgeable comparative anatomist in Europe. Daubenton took one of Lamanon's clay models and compared it to the bones in the royal collection. The closest match he found confirmed what Lamanon's observations. In a short paper read before the Academy, he set out his reasons for believing the bone was part of the sphenoid process, a lower part of the skull, of an especially large whale.

Daubenton was accompanied on his visit to Paquet's by the chemist Berniard. Lamanon asked Berniard if it was possible to determine, by chemical analysis, whether a bone came from a land animal or from a sea animal. Berniard admitted he didn't know. Since none of the three of them had heard of such an experiment. They secured a piece of Paquet's bone and Daubenton brought from the royal collections pieces of whale, elk, porpoise, and human bones; a walrus tusk; an elephant's molar; and one of the teeth of the unknown animal of the Ohio. As to the primary question, Berniard determined that there was no significant difference between the bones of land and sea mammals. For his readers he also pointed out that there was not enough difference between the human bones and the other animals to claim a special place for humans in creation. At least, not based on biology.

This was the final scientific word on Paquet's bone, but it was not the final word on Lamanon's paper. A year after the first appearance of his paper, Journal de physique, de chimie, d'histoire naturelle et des arts published a short paper by P. de la Coudreniere that challenged both Buffon's and Lamanon's theories of the earth and used mammoths as his main evidence. Coudreniere made a reasonable argument against each theory. Of Buffon's cooling theory he points out that because the earth is a flattened sphere, the poles are closer to the internal fires within than are the tropics and, by his calculation, should be the last to cool, meaning something else must determine the temperature gradient. Of Lamanon's lakes theory, he points out that the largest salt lake on earth, the Caspian Sea, doesn't host anything larger than beluga sturgeon and small seals. It certainly doesn't contain whales. So far, so good. Then he goes off the rails.

Coudreniere next turns his attention to the mammoth and the animal of the Ohio, which he assumes to be local breeds of the same beast. What does the animal look like? What does it eat? Where is its food found? It can only be, he informs us, a bear, specifically the giant bear of Greenland. How that answers the latter two questions, he doesn't explain. There is no known animal more voracious than polar bears, he tells us, but there might be an even bigger bear never seen by Europeans, known only to the Eskimos. Quoting an anonymous history of Greenland, he describes a black bear, reputed to be thirty-six feet high, though, he admits, the size was probably exaggerated. The reason the mammoth/bear is rarely seen in Eurasia and North America is that Greenland is its primary range and it only migrates into the other continents during times of famine. That Greenland was attached to the other continents by an unmapped polar land was a fairly common belief at the time. That elephant sized bears roamed that land was a less common belief.

Lamanon wrote very little about Paquet's bone after his article was published. After Baudon's piece was published he sent a short letter to the editor saying he never had the pleasure of meeting Baudon, but wished to assure him that he had no animosity toward Buffon or any other great men. He worked behind the scenes with Daubenton and Berniard but soon moved on to other projects. He never responded to Coudrenier's giant bear thesis. In 1785 he sailed on the la Pérouse scientific expedition to the South Pacific—the French equivalent of Captain Cook. He was killed in Samoa in December 1787.


Robert de Paul de Lamanon (source)

Paquet's bone did not achieve the fame of some other bones, but its impact on science was not totally insignificant. Berniard's comparative chemical analysis of bones would be cited several times over the following decades. The bone became an important piece of evidence for scientists deciphering the geology of the Paris basin. Freshwater shells and the strata of gypsum that underlie the city all point to an age when the basin was covered by water. Georges Cuvier, who occupied a position of authority in the first third of the Nineteenth Century equivalent to that of Buffon in the last half of the Eighteenth, frequently cited the works of Lamanon in establishing that fact. Cuvier also sought out the bone and was able to add to our knowledge of it. Lamanon and Daubenton were able to identify the bone as having come from a whale, but they could only speculate about the species. The collections at the Jardin du Roi were sadly deficient in whale bones. Daubenton used a small sperm whale, which is a toothed whale, for comparison and documented enough points of similarity to be confident that it was a whale, but could go no further than that. By the time that Cuvier approached the problem, that deficiency in the collection had been alleviated—partly through new donations and partly through directed looting by the revolutionary armies. Cuvier was able to narrow the species down further to a type of baleen whale. He thought that it most resembled a Greenland whale.

Though Lamanon's name was remembered and Paquet's bone was remembered, Paquet's name was not. He became merely "a wine merchant" in the literature. In 1785 he was finally able to sell the bone. In the six years since he had dug it out of his cellar wall, it had attracted attention, but no buyers. He was forced to lower his asking price. He was probably relieved when a Dutch collector offered him ten Louis d'or. Though less than a third of his original asking price, it was a sizable chunk of money and probably something of a record for a damaged partial bone. The buyer was Martinus van Marum, an agent for Teyler's Museum in Amsterdam. The museum was a rare public collection that was the brainchild of the late Pieter Teyler, a rich banker who left his entire fortune and personal collections to a foundation dedicated to bettering the arts and sciences. Marum, no doubt, grabbed the bone for the museum's grand opening that year.

Over the years, others have had a chance to examine the bone. It is indeed the sphenoid process of a Greenland whale or, as we would call it today, a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). The taxonomy of the right whale went through several permutations in the Nineteenth Century being lumped together with other baleen whales at times and split into multiple species at others. For a time, Paquet's bone was seen as the type specimen of a species Balaena lamanoni. Paquet had been forgotten by then. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Lamanon would no longer have his own whale.


The bone today (source)

The final word on the bone is a bit anticlimactic. The website of Teyler's Museum, tells us that the bone was neither a fossil—which was known when it was found—nor even very old. Though the bone was an important piece of evidence in convincing scientists of Cuvier's generation that Paris had once been deep underwater, it might be that it wasn't there at the time. Researchers at Teyler's think that it might have been nothing more than a waste product of the women’s undergarment industry. Fragments of whales' ribs have been found in the same district that are known to have come from the manufacture of hoop skirts and corsets. This has not caused Teyler's to remove the bone from their collections. Whatever its age, it's a piece of history. It remains on public display in the same room as Homo diluvii testis, one of the most famous fossils in the history of paleontology and one of the Beringer lying stones and equally famous counterfeit. That's pretty good company.

If I ever get to Amsterdam, I'll definitely visit Paquet's bone.

NOTE: One of the annoyances of working with Seventeenth Century journals, especially French journals, is the convention of rarely using first names. Some modern countries, such as Russia, have a convention using initials rather than first names, but Seventeenth Century French journals rarely give even those. Everyone is "M" (Monsieur). This makes finding biographical details a bit of a challenge. Buffon and Daubenton are influential enough that I wouldn’'t have had to go further than Amazon to find out who they were if I didn't already know. Lamanon is the only person in this post whose full name was given on his paper, and he was important enough that I could have picked up the few details I needed from Wiki. I'm not surprised at the lack of information about Paquet. It wouldn't have been unusual for the time if Lamanon had referred to him as "a wine merchant" and left it at that. This leaves Baudon, Berniard, and Coudrenier. I can find nothing else by or about Baudon. It looks like he never found a publisher for his book. Berniard, as I mentioned, was quoted into the next century, not just on bones but on other studies as well. Yet, no one in that century seems to have known what is name was. I was tempted to identify him with Pierre Berniard, another chemist who, however, I found out was in Poland at the time. Finally, I found a library entry for one of his articles that gave him the first initial "L". Maybe they were related. That leaves P. de la Coudreniere. I have two candidates: Henri Peyroux de la Coudreniere and his brother Pierre. Henri was a land speculator who left a small mark in history by encouraging Acadian refugees to settle in Louisiana. Pierre stayed out of his brother's schemes and stayed home to take care of their elderly mother. Henri would be the more fun of the two to work into the story, but I have no good reason to believe it was either one. Although it's unlikely in that century, I can't exclude the possibility that one of Baudon, Berniard, or Coudrenier might have been a woman.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

How cool are woolly mammoths?

Consider this: The current New York Times Magazine has an article by Nathaniel Rich on de-extinction--the idea of using genetic tools, such as cloning, to revive extinct animals. It's a very interesting and well thought out article. The hook for the article is the story of Ben Novak, an man who is obsessed with passenger pigeons. Throughout the article, the example of the passenger pigeon is used to discuss the challenges, the ethical issues, and the possible environmental impacts of recreating an extinct species. How did the editors decide to present this story? Naturally, they turned it into a mammoth story. The title is "The Mammoth Cometh." Two of the six illustrations are of the mammoth model in the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. Only one is of a passenger pigeon. Of the three quotes in giant fonts, one refers to mammoths and one to passenger pigeon. In Rich's 6600 word article, the word mammoth appears sixteen times, usually mentioned only in passing. The first mention isn't until the seventh paragraph.

The simple fact ie the public loves mammoths. Mammoths sell. It's almost impossible to publish a story about the end of the ice age or pleistocene extinctions without wrapping it in mammoth packaging. The public is hungry for new information and stories about mammoths. And I have them. That is why someone needs to publish my book and give it a big marketing campaign.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Mammoths in the News

Oh, look. Someone found a tusk about five minutes from where I used to live.



It's almost certainly not a woolly mammoth. No woollies have been found west of the Rockies. It's either a Columbian mammoth or a mastodon. If I was there I could tell them that. Instead, I'm here wallowing in self pity. Snif.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Orcas in Bottles

Most orca populations around the world have low genetic diversity, which can present a conservation problem for those populations. A new genetic study finds that one population is fairly diverse. These two facts might help us better understand the effects of climate on ocean systems.

First the Orcas. Researchers from Durham University in the UK conducted a genetic study of orca populations around the world. What they found was that most populations have very low genetic diversity. What does that mean? It means the members of each group are fairly closely related. This happens when a species goes through a genetic bottleneck. That is, most of the species died off and later generations are descended from the few survivors. Since we became fully human, our species has done this at least once. It might explain how we separated from our sibling species such as the Neandertals.

Over time, new mutations will appear in a population's genome creating new diversity. By assuming the existence of a genetic clock--that is, a steady rate of mutation--it's possible to estimate when a population passed through a bottleneck. Naturally, it's a lot more complicated than that, but that's the gist of it. The importance of the current study is that the genomes of various orca populations around the world show they all went through a genetic bottleneck about 40,000 years ago. All except one. The orca population off the coast of South Africa has a high level of genetic diversity, suggesting they maintained a large population through the event that cut back all of the other populations.

In naming that event, the Durham researchers point an accusing finger at the last ice age. That works pretty well. An ice age doesn't just mean a lot of ice up north and down south; it means the whole global climate changes. If you've learned anything about the current climate crisis, that should be it. Global warming doesn't mean it gets a little warmer every year; it means entire patterns of climate change. For the orcas, what we're concerned about is ocean currents. Increased cold in the far north and south doesn't sound like something that should hurt orcas. After all, most of us think of orcas as cold water animals. But it can hurt them a lot.

Just as with land climate, the ice ages didn't merely chill the water in the north and south; it changed circulation patterns all over the globe. To grossly simplify things, there are two patterns of ocean currents: one on the surface and one in the deeps. In a few places around the world the two connect. At one end, surface waters get cold and heavy and plunge into the deep. At the other end, the waters of the deep run into a continent and are pushed back to the surface. These upwellings bring nutrients to feed the small organisms that are the base of the entire ocean food chain. There are other sources, such as river mouths, but the upwellings create enormously fertile ecosystems.

The Durham researchers point out that most upwellings were disrupted or completely collapsed during the ice ages. The one that didn't was the Bengeula upwelling near South Africa. That fact pulls it all together. Less food at the bottom of the food chain means less food at the top of the food chain. As apex predators, orcas are very sensitive to disruptions at the bottom of the food chain. Only the South African orca population had sufficient food to make it through a bottleneck that affected orcas everywhere else. For future research, the Durham team suggest looking at other apex predators to see if they experienced a similar bottleneck.

I'd like to suggest another line of research. Climate and weather don't move in straight lines, they seesaw. The weather gets cool for a few years then it gets warm for a few years. This is not a smooth cycle. Lately, both the colds and warms have been getting warmer. The direction of these cycles has been getting warmer for the last 150 years and the speed upwards has been increasing. The seesaw is moving up, rapidly. In a scale of thousands of years, climate works in bigger seesaws. In the scale of your lifetime, the weather seesaws up and down. You might not even notice the pattern that is climate. On a scale of centuries, those seesaws form an even greater seesaw that helps historians understand the rise and fall of civilizations. One more step up and it gets interesting.

There wasn't just one ice age. Ice ages come in sets. What caused the ice age is an incredibly complex question. Roughly put, first the earth has to be in a state where ice ages are possible--the continents must be in the right shape, the mountains must be the right height, and the air must have the right chemical composition. Even then, a series of astronomical cycles determine whether an actual ice age happens. In the current period, we have had around nineteen ice ages (called glacial maxima (maximums)). Finally, when all the conditions are just so, it usually requires a nudge to tip the first domino. We are in a period in which ice ages are possible, but the seesaws within seesaws in and out of glacial maxima do not form a regular curve up and down. From a warm period (called an interglacial), such as the one we are in, the climate seesaws down to the coldest period, then rather abruptly (in geological terms) jumps up into the interglacial climate. Right now we should be seesawing down into the next glacial maximum; instead, our climate is reaching temperatures not seen in millions of years.


And the orcas? What intrigues me about this study is that 40,000 years ago is not the coldest part of the last glacial period. It's the second coldest. There was one seesaw colder. The coldest time was 23-17,000 years ago. If the bottleneck for orca diversity happened when they say it did, there must be another factor involved that they haven't discovered. Finding that factor could be a major key to understanding how species deal with bottleneck situations. The Durham team might be onto something with major implications for managing our current climate crisis.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Elephants of Raphia and Gash-Barka

Writing seventy years after the fact, this is how Polybius described the Battle of Raphia between the Egyptian armies of Ptolemy IV and the Selucid (Persian) armies of Antiochus III in 217 BCE:
When Ptolemy and his sister after their progress had reached the extremity of his left wing and Antiochus with his horse-guards had reached his extreme right, they gave the signal for battle and brought the elephants first into action. A few only of Ptolemy's elephants ventured to close with those of the enemy, and now the men in the towers on the back of these beasts made a gallant fight of it, striking with their pikes at close quarters and wounding each other, while the elephants themselves fought still better, putting forth their whole strength and meeting forehead to forehead. ... Most of Ptolemy's elephants, however, declined the combat, as is the habit of African elephants; for unable to stand the smell and the trumpeting of the Indian elephants, and terrified, I suppose, also by their great size and strength, they at once turn tail and take to flight before they get near them. This is what happened on the present occasion; and when Ptolemy's elephants were thus thrown into confusion and driven back on their own lines, Ptolemy's guard gave way under the pressure of the animals.
Ptolemy's guard recovered and went on to win the battle without his elephants. Polybius credits the victory to Ptolemy being able to give better motivational speeches than Antiochus.

Aside from its strategic and geopolitical importance, the Battle of Raphia has attracted the attention of historians and natural historians for twenty-two centuries because it is the only recorded instance of African and Asian elephants facing each other in battle. Considering the fact that African elephants are usually regarded as untamable, it is one of the only recorded instances of African elephants being used in battle, period.

Polybius' statement that the African elephants were terrified by the "great size and strength" of the Asian elephants took on a life of its own. For the next twenty centuries, it was accepted wisdom among educated Europeans that Asian elephants are larger than African elephants. For most African and Asian elephants, this is not true. The average African elephant is much larger than the average Asian elephant. The exception to this rule is the African forest elephant which only recently was recognized as a third species. This species is much smaller than the African savanna elephant and slightly smaller than the Asian.

How this belief persisted if a fairly easy question to answer. During the heyday of the Roman Empire, virtually all of the elephants they saw were Asian elephants. No one had a chance to make side-by-side comparisons. After the fall of the Western Empire, very few elephants made it to Europe at all. The handful that did (admittedly a very large hand), were all Asian elephants. By the end of the Middle Ages, Europeans lacked accurate images even of Asian elephants. This began to change after 1500 with the establishment of direct trade between Western Europe and Southern Asia around the tip of Africa. Within a few years of the opening of that trade, the king of Portugal had enough elephants that he could make gifts of them to the Pope and the Hapsburg emperor. In the second half of the Seventeenth Century, enough Asian elephants had been brought to Europe that non-royals owned them an traveled the countryside showing them to commoners. Dutch merchants, stopping at the Cape of Good Hope on their way to and from Asia were the first to view both kinds of elephants and make comparisons that questioned Polybius. In 1797, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach described enough differences between the two types of elephant, especially in their teeth, that he declared them to be different species.

For students of the classics, Blumenbach's identification created a problem. The Cape elephant, on which he based his conclusions, is much larger than any Asian elephant. A possible solution to their problem wasn't long in coming. As Europeans penetrated deeper into Africa, reports began to emerge of a much smaller elephant in the dense central African forests. In 1900, Paul Matschie, a zoologist from Berlin, identified four subspecies of African elephant, with the Cape elephant being the largest and the Central African forest elephant being the smallest. Matschie's samples for his forest elephant were from Cameroon, then a German colony. A few years later, Theodore Noack, based on the study of a zoo elephant in Hanover, identified a pygmy species of elephant from the same area as Matschie's forest elephant. Finally, in 1908, Richard Lydekker, of the British Royal Society, divided African elephants into thirteen sub-species incorporating all four of Matschie's sub-species as well as Noack's pygmy elephant. By the mid Twentieth Century, all of the sub-species were merged back into one species, Loxodonta africana.

Before that could happen, classicists seized the forest elephant as the solution to the Polybius problem. In a series of papers published in the forties and fifties, William Gowers and Howard Scullard argued that the elephants of Ptolemy must have been forest elephants. They further argued that forest elephants at the time inhabited a range that included all of North Africa from Morocco to Ethiopia. This interpretation has also been adopted by military historians, who use the hypothetical population of North African forest elephants to explain the source of Hannibal's famous elephants. Among historians and war gamers, the existence of the North African forest elephant has attained the same level of accepted wisdom as African-elephants-are-smaller-than-Asian-elephants had in the Middle Ages. Yet, I'm aware of no evidence that this is true.

That's not to say there were no elephants in North Africa. Around the year 500 BCE, a Carthaginian named Hanno took a fleet through the Straits of Gibraltar and down the coast of Africa. Halfway down the coast of modern Morocco, he put ashore and commented on the presence of large numbers of elephants. The elephants were part of a population that inhabited the Atlas Mountains, which stretch from the Atlantic across Morocco and northern Algeria. This population was the source of at least part of Hannibal's elephants and continued to exist for at least a century after his time. But were they savanna elephants or forest elephants? Is that even a meaningful distinction?

It turns out, the answer is yes. Though most taxonomies no longer split African elephants into different sub-species after 1960, question still lingered about the forest elephant. The elephants had distinct physical features other than size that distinguished them from other African elephants. Was this no more significant that hair and skin color among humans or did the differences run deeper? With the rise of genetic sequencing technology at the turn of the century it finally became possible to produce a definitive answer. Beginning in 2000, a number of tests showed that the differences were great enough to label the forest elephant an entirely separate species. Hybridization between forest elephants and savanna elephants is possible, but rare. The name chosen for the forest elephant is Loxodonta cyclotis and credit for defining it is given to Matschie's 1900 paper. The genetic sequencing of the forest elephant makes it possible to make a provisional determination about the identity of Hannibal's and Ptolemy's elephants.

As for Hannibal's elephants, no one has done the study yet. Since the Atlas Mountains elephant herds have been extinct for two thousand years, this would require locating some bones and dating them to Hannibal's time. Even when the tests were done, it wouldn't produce a definite answer. While he probably used Atlas elephants for most of those he took on his invasion, it is possible that at least some of them were Asian elephants. His personal elephant was called Sarus, a word that has been translated as possibly meaning "the Syrian" (it could also mean "one tusk" or "Mr. Snuggles" (I made that last one up)).

We're on firmer ground with Ptolemy's elephants. Polybius specifically says they were African elephants, distinguishing them from Antiochus' Asian elephants. We have a second line of evidence to back this up. During Alexander the Great's campaigns in the East, the Greeks came to appreciate the value of War elephants. After his death, his generals and successors, each with their own chunk of the empire, tried to acquire elephants for their armies. Although Ptolemy I gained one of the choicer and easier defended parts of the empire, Egypt, he was cut of from the source of war elephants and was unable to breed his own herd (he likely had no females). According to an insciption found at Adoulis on the Eritrean coast, Ptolemy III bragged that "Troglodytic and Ethiopian elephants, which he and his father were the first to hunt from these lands and, [brought] them back into Egypt, to fit out for military service." Although the geographic term Ethiopia was used to mean all of Black Africa, in this case, it's safe to assume that it meant the the region of Adoulis which was then part of the Kingdom of Axum. Luckily, elephants still exist in the region.

In a place called Gash-Barka, near where the borders of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan come together, a small herd of about 120 elephants has survived. Between 2001 and 2003, a group of scientists collected poop as part of a larger research project into the Gash-Barka herd. One of the leaders of the team was Jeheskel Shoshani who had been one of the primaries on the team that first sequenced forest elephant DNA. Naturally, the team also sequenced DNA of the Gash-Barka elephants recovered from their poop. The results were conclusive: "At every one of the diagnostic sites, savanna elephant-specific nucleotide character states were present; sequences with sites that matched a character state typical of forest elephants were never found." The Gash-Barka elephants are savanna elephants. Furthermore, the Gash-Barka closest affinity was to East African savanna elephants, which are less likely to contain any hybrids than the other group tested, West Central African elephants.

In the discussion section of their paper, the researchers look at the implications for Polybius' account of the Battle of Raphia. The Adoulis inscription only mentions African elephants as the source for the war elephants for Ptolemy IV's father. There is no reason to believe he had replaced them with new, smaller elephants from another source. If the Egyptian elephants were as big, if not bigger, than the Selucid ones, something other than size must have caused them to run away. Maybe they weren't as well trained or experienced as the Selucid elephants. Maybe the Selucid troops knew some trick for fighting elephants that the Egyptians didn't know. Pliny wrote that one of the only things elephants fear is mice. Maybe the Selucids had a battalion of trained combat mice (probably not). Maybe it was just one of those things that happen when armies clash.

There is one final possibility to consider. At the time, there existed a herd of Asian elephants native to Syria. The bones of these elephants show them to have been the largest of Asian elephants. Within a century they would be hunted to extinction for their impressive ivory. Most surviving records of war elephants describe them as having come from India already trained. Quite a few generations passed before Mediterranean kingdoms were able to breed and train their own herds of war elephants. It is remotely possible that Antiochus' elephant handlers had managed to capture and train some Syrian elephants. If Ptolemy's elephants were bigger than average Indian elephants, the use of Syrian elephants raises the possibility that Antiochus' elephants could have matched them in size.

The Gash-Barka study puts to rest one part of the theory of the North African forest elephant. Elephants in Northeast Africa today are, and almost certainly in antiquity were, savanna elephants. In Northwest Africa, the species used as war elephants remains in question. But, it's a question that can potentially be answered in the near future. The study also shows how fields of science, supposedly far removed from the humanities, can find unexpected relevance there.

In its way, this is an argument for a traditional liberal arts education. If genetics was taught as nothing more than a vocational skill, it would have been far less likely that anyone on the Gash-Barka team would have made the connection between their project and the writings of a second century BCE historian. A liberal arts education brings remote fields of knowledge together and makes them all relevant to the human experience. Who could have said in advance that collecting a few piles of elephant poop would produce knowledge relevant to genetics, conservation, history, and the classics? I'm a strong believer that no knowledge is ever completely useless. I hope this advances my case.

Afterward: The Gash-Barka genetics study in the current issue of the Journal of Heredity
is the fifth report on that project. In May 2008, Jeheskel Shoshani was killed in a terrorist bombing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. With permission from his daughter, the team will continue to list him as a co-author on reports from the study.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Baron Longueuil and the Mastodon of 1739

The most important early discovery of mastodon bones happened in 1739 at a place called (in a gift to thirteen year old boys everywhere) Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, just a few miles downstream from the present-day location of Ken Ham's ridiculous creationism museum in Covington. This was not the first European discovery of mastodon bones, but it was the first to receive serious scientific attention in the Old World. The story is simple enough. In 1739, a small French army accompanied by their Indian allies traveled from Quebec to Louisiana to make war on the Chickasaw Indians. Their route took them down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to a place near modern-day Memphis where they were to meet a second army coming up from New Orleans. Half-way down the Ohio, they camped at the mouth of a small stream. Some ways up stream, they found some large bones. They collected a few of the bones and, after the campaign, sent them to Paris. This story has been repeated, embellished, corrupted, and deconstructed for almost three centuries. Using some documents that have been largely ignored till now, I hope to clear up a couple of points and contribute my own version of the discovery and of how word of the discovery was communicated to the outside, literate world.

First, some history

The French and British adopted different strategies to exploit North America. The British settled the East Coast and moved west. The French settled in the St. Lawrence valley and moved to occupy the interior of the continent through its waterways. Rather late in the game they moved to add the huge Mississippi drainage to their claim on the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes drainage. When Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the founder of New Orleans, tried to exert actual French power up the Mississippi he found his way blocked by the Chickasaw nation who were settled between modern Natchez and Mobile and ranged over a much larger area east of the river. The Chickasaw already had an already established an overland trade relationship with British merchants from the Carolinas. After several years of raids and counter-raids, Bienville decided to end the Chickasaw problem once and for all. In 1736, he raised an army in New Orleans which was to coordinate its attack on the Chickasaw's villages with a second army sent from the Illinois country. The Chickasaw separately defeated both armies. Not deterred (or perhaps desperate for his career) Bienville wrote to Paris for support. Paris gave him everything he wanted. The government sent cannons, mortars, grenades, thousands of pounds of powder and shot, and five hundred troops. They also ordered another, larger army to be raised in Quebec to advance from the north under the command of Bienville's nephew, Charles Le Moyne de Longueuil. It was this expedition that collected the bones at Big Bone Lick.

The campaign against the Chickasaw was another failure. The cannons got stuck in the mud, draught animals died, the French soldiers got sick, draftees deserted, and the Iroquois, who made up half of Longueuil's army, made a separate peace with the Chickasaw after exchanging gifts of cheese and pottery. In early summer 1740, Bienville called off the campaign. He and Longueuil released their troops to go home. As long as they were in North America, the French never did manage to defeat the Chickasaw. Longueuil sailed down the Mississippi to New Orleans with his uncle. From there, he took a ship back to France. In Paris, he donated the bones to the Cabinet du Roi (the museum of the King).

Now, some historiography

The story was retold several times over the following two centuries. By the early Twentieth Century, huge differences existed among the stories. Three different years for the discovery were being put forth. Three different versions of the actual discovery and collection of the bones existed. Some publications included a beautiful etching of a mastodon tooth. In some versions, an officer known only as Fabri or Fabry was present at the discovery, might have returned there in the late forties, and either met or wrote a letter to the Comte du Buffon in 1748 giving a short description of the native legends surrounding the bones. Another mysterious Frenchman known as Hamel or du Hamel seems to have known something about the circumstances of the discovery.

In the English language, the most important attempt to make sense of the various versions came in 1942. This was made by the most influential American paleontologist of his generation, George Gaylord Simpson. He wrote two articles on the subject. This version comes from "The Beginnings of Vertebrate Paleontology in North America," published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society where he wrote: 
In 1739 Longueuil was placed in command of French and Indian troops dispatched from Canada to aid Le Moyne de Bienville, founder and governor of New Orleans, in an attack on the Chickasaw Indians. ... The expedition left Montreal in June, 1739, and proceeded to the Ohio River by way of Oswego, Lake Chautauqua, and the Allegheny River. In late summer of that year they descended the Ohio and at some distance before reaching the falls, where Louisville now stands, they found a marsh on the edge of which were large bones and teeth, representing what they took to be the remains of three elephants. Longueuil had some of these remains gathered up, including a tusk, a femur, and at least three molars, and these were carried with the army to its rendezvous with Bienville, on the Mississippi near the present site of Memphis.
 After the successful conclusion of the Chickasaw war in the spring of 1740, Longueuil went on to New Orleans, taking the fossils with him, and hence transported them to France at about the end of 1740. The fossils were placed in the King's collection of curiosities, Cabinet du Roi, whence they were transferred to the natural history museum in the Jardin des Plantes....

I'll address six questions here.
  • When were the bones found?
  • Who found the bones?
  • How were the bones added to the royal collections?
  • Is that etching really one of the teeth?
  • Who is du Hamel?
  • Who is Fabri?

 Other writers have answered some of these questions. My purpose here is not to claim their work as my own. My goal is to bring their research together with my own to create what I hope is the most accurate version.

The questions

When were the bones found? The first published mention of the bones is on a map entitled "Carte de la Louisiane Cours du Mississipi et Pais Voisins [Map of Louisiana, the Course of the Mississippi, and Neighbouring Countries]." It is dated 1744 and was prepared by "N. Bellin" (Jacques-Nicolas Bellin 1703-1772). Halfway down the "Oyo ou la Belle Riviere" is the notation "Endroit ou on à trouvé des os d'Elephant en 1729 [The place where Elephants' bones were found in 1729]." In 1756, Jean-Bernard Bossu ascended the Mississippi and wrote a series of letters to a friend in France. While stopping at a fort on the Illinois River, he was shown a giant molar. The commandant would not let him go to the place, because of the danger posed by the British, but told him the story behind the tooth: "In 1735, Canadians, who came to make war with Chickasaws, found around the Belle River or the Ohio, the skeletons of seven elephants, which makes me assume that Louisiana is in India..."

Which date is correct: 1729, 1735, or 1739? There is no doubt that 1739 is the correct date. The 1729 date is simply a mistake by the mapmaker. Bellin's source for that part of the map was a manuscript map drawn by Philippe Mandeville who, in turn, used information gathered Joseph-Gaspard Chaussegros de Lery, an officer with Longueuil. On Mandeville's map, "Endroit o yl a Ett trouv Les Eaux de plusieurs Elephans pard L arme de Cannada Command pard Mr. Le Baron de Longuille et o il a fait mettre Les Armes du Roy en 1739. [Place where the bones of many elephants were found by the army from Canada commanded by the Baron de Longuille, and where he had the Arms of the King set up in 1739]." The 3 in the date is smudged and hard to read. Sylvester Stevens and Donald Kent demonstrated this through the elegantly simple method of giving a skilled draftsman Mandeville's drawing and asking him to produce a map. The resulting map also had the date 1729. Bossu's date is based on the fact that, as mentioned above, the French waged two wars against the Chickasaw Nation. Longueuil's 1739 expedition down the Ohio was during the second of these campaigns. During the earlier war, Pierre D'Artaguiette led a force from the Illinois country during the winter of 1735-6. He never passed by Big Bone Lick.


Bellin's 1744 map incorrectly dating the discovery to 1729. Source.

Who found the bones? This one is both easy and hard to answer. At various times it has been claimed that the French found the bones, that their Indian allies found the bones, or that the Indians told the French about the bones after which the French went to the spot and collected them. Simpson says "they" found them, referring to the whole army, and Longueuil ordered the bones collected. There are no surviving records of the discovery written by Longueuil. There aren't even references by French scientists that such a report ever existed. There is, however a note from the mysterious Fabry. It reads in its entirety: "Baron de Longueuil left Canada with a large party of French and Indians to come and join M. de Bienville on the Mississippi at an appropriate location to assemble and march against the Chickasaw Indians. M. Longueuil, instead of taking the usual route through Detroit [to the Illinois River], portaged five leagues from Lake Erie, and went down the Ohio River by canoe to its juncture with the Mississippi, thirty-five leagues above the Illinois. When he was nearly halfway down the Ohio River, a few Indians who had gone hunting from their camp found the remains of three large animals on the edge of a swamp. They brought back to the camp a thigh bone and tusks that are believed to be from an elephant, and that M. de Longueuil brought to France in 1740. M. Lignery, Lieutenant in Canada, who was with M. Longueuil, wrote a Journal of the campaign, in which he detailed the discovery of bones in question." Fabry is not is very clear and to the point. The bones were found by an Indian hunting party and brought to the French. There is no mention of the French going to site or doing any collecting, though the mysterious du Hamel (below) gives me reason to think they did. Presented with mysterious giant bones, wouldn't you have gone and taken a look?

"Indians" is a pretty vague term. Is it possible to narrow that down a bit? In her book, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, Adrienne Mayor attempts to do just that. Longueuil's force was made up 442 men. Of these, 123 were French and Canadian and 319 were from allied Indian nations. According to Mayor, the nations living in the area where Longueuil would have been recruiting that were most likely to join him were the Iroquois, Wyandot, and Abenaki. Of these, she believes the Abenaki are the most likely discoverers. Many of them were Christians and spoke French, making them more attuned to know what might interest the French. The Abenaki also had a history of joining French expeditions and, thus might have been familiar with the attractions of lands outside their home territory. Mayor is comfortable enough in this conclusion that, after laying out her reasons, she refers to the discoverers as Abenaki for the rest of her book. Based on the information available to her, it's a solid conclusion. I've had no reason to question it since I first read her book six years ago.

That is, until last fall when, while writing my chapter about the mastodon, I came across a set of documents from the campaign. In 1922, the Archivist of Quebec published these documents in the annual report of the Archives. One of the documents is the roster of the army that departed Montreal and two others are reports from Longueuil while on the road. Unfortunately, both of the reports were written before he reached Big Bone Lick and do not describe the discovery. The roster names all of the officers and cadets who traveled with him and breaks down the rest of the army into soldiers, draftees, and Indian allies by nation. The latter are: 237 Iroquois, 50 Abenaki, and 32 Algonquin and Nippising. That's still a reasonable number of Abenaki. Let's move on to Longueuil's two reports. By August 4, the army had made their way up the St. Lawrence River, crossed Lake Ontario, portaged around Niagara Falls and made their way to the point where they were to portage over to the Ohio drainage. In this report he says that a large part ("une grand partie") of the Abenaki and Two Mountain Iroquois deserted when they were passing the English settlement at Oswego, New York, seduced by English brandy. He put the total at around seventy, but hoped they could be replaced with other Iroquois recruited in the Ohio country. Six days later, having completed the portage into the Ohio basin, he wrote that the actual number of deserters was closer to ninety. The Abenaki and Two Mountain Iroquois contingents of his army amounted to 101 men.

It's not likely that there were enough Abenaki left to make up a hunting party large enough to feed 350 men. But, if not the Abenaki, then who? Longueuil wrote that he hoped to recruit more Iroquois in the valley. None of the records I'm aware of say whether he was successful in that or not. However, there is a piece of evidence that indicates who he did recruit. In 1749, ten years after Longueuil passed through, competition between the British and French to be the dominant influence in the Ohio country was heating up. It would soon flare into the open warfare that Bossu was warned to avoid. In that year, the French sent Jean Baptiste Celoron de Blainville down the Ohio to convince the local Indians to stick with the French. For some reason, Anglo historians prefer to ignore his title and call him Celoron. That might be because he was kind of a jerk. Celoron was a veteran of the Chickasaw wars who, then, had brought his own contingent of French and Indians from the Illinois country. Celoron's style on this mission was to scold the heads of the villages he passed and then hand out gifts. His final stop was a large Shawnee settlement at the mouth of the Scioto River. He estimated the settlement as having 80-100 households. Celoron's welcome was underwhelming. First the Shawnee tried to scare him off with a show of arms (which Celoron dryly notes were probably provided by the British). Next, they erected fortifications around the village. When they finally allowed Celoron in to address them, he scolded them for their bad hospitality. He demanded to know what had happened to the good will they had when, "ten years ago, Monsieur de Longueil (sic) passed by here on his way to the Chuachias [Chickasaws]. You came out to meet him, and you showed him in every way the kindness of your hearts. A company of young men also volunteered to accompany him."

This, I think, is the true identity of the discoverers. The Shawnee settlement at the mouth of the Scioto was about 130 miles upstream from the Big Bone Lick and the lick was known to the Shawnee along the Ohio. In the summer of 1755, a group of Shawnee warriors attacked the small settlement of Draper's Meadow in western Virginia. Several settlers were killed and five were taken prisoner. One of the prisoners was Mary Draper Ingles. Ingles was taken west to an encampment of French and Shawnee just above mouth of the Bone Lick stream. She was then taken to the salt lick and put to work boiling water to collect salt. Her later escape and journey back to Virginia has been retold by historians, novelized, and made into more than one movie. Her story shows that in 1755, sixteen years after Longueuil passed, the lick was well known to the Shawnee.

There is one final question about the discoverers that has been insufficiently examined. What was the motivation of the hunters in bringing the bones to the camp? In the narrative that assumes the hunters had no previous knowledge of the bones, the logical course of events is that the found a salt lick, which is a place where buffalo and deer would gather, then hunkered down, waiting for the game to come to them. During this period of quiet observation, they saw the bones and decided to bring them back to the camp. Why? They thought the French would be interested in them. In the narrative that assumes the hunters did have previous knowledge of the bones, the logical course of events is that some of them went directly to the salt lick to collect bones, while the rest of the party hunted. In either case, why did they bring them back? This is a good question. If they had joined the expedition a few days earlier, as I believe, their motive might have been as much to impress the other Indians as it was to give the French something they might be interested in. Maybe more so. How ethnocentric is it for Euro-Americans to assume that we were the intended audience for the bones? Their retrieval might have been motivated by the newest members of the expedition trying to impress everyone in the expedition, not just the French.

How were the bones added to the royal collections? Most accounts are very specific that the bones were donated directly to the museum. Those bones were one femur, one broken tusk, and three molars. The note from the mysterious Fabry, quoted above, mentions only a femur and tusks (plural). Fabry's note appears twice in the literature of the time, both by the same writer: Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton. Daubenton was hired by Buffon in 1742 to assist him in writing his massive encyclopedia of nature, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, and to catalog the various royal collections. In 1762, Buffon began working on the volume his history that included the elephant. That same year, presumably as a result of his research for Buffon, Daubenton presented a paper to the French academy about the bones discovered on the Ohio. In this paper he only indirectly tells the story of their discovery: "Baron de Longueuil going out of Lake Erie in 1739 with a large party of French & Indians, went down the river Oyo on his canoes up to where it joins the Mississippi, thirty-five miles below the Illinois: while they were camped halfway down the Oyo, some Indians out hunting, found the bones of three large animals on the edge of a swamp, and brought to camp the femur in question and tusks that they [presumably the French] thought came from an elephant, and that M. de Longueuil brought to France in 1740." This is a paraphrasing of the note from someone he identifies only as Fabry. Later he writes that "M. du Hamel, of the Academy, told me that M. de Longueuil had brought from Canada very large molars, these are in the Royal collection."

Daubenton concluded that the teeth and the tusk and femur came from two different animals. The former he determined were from a relative of the hippo and the latter from a relative of the elephant. In Buffon's Natural History the sections on each of those animals include Daubenton's inventory of the royal collections. True to his earlier conclusions, Daubenton describes the femur and tusk with the elephant and the three teeth with the hippopotamus. In the inventory entry for the femur, he gives the full text of Fabry's note. Just as before, this is followed by the statement that "M. Hamel, of the Royal Academy of Sciences, said that Mr. Longueuil also brought in 1740, very-large molars that had been found in Canada, perhaps along with the tusk and femur [singular] I have just mentioned." In the next volume, in the section on the hippo, he says the three teeth came from Canada with the femur and tusk. Daubenton's three entries agree with each other in the most important details. These are: Fabry says the bones were discovered by an Indian hunting party and that they brought a femur and tusks to the camp, there is only one tusk in the collections delivered by Longueuil, and that he learned about the teeth from du Hamel (or Hamel), not from Fabry or Longueuil.

Is that etching really one of the teeth? In 1752, a Swiss geologist, Jean Etienne Guettard, presented a paper before the French Academy. The topic was a comparison of the geology of Switzerland and North America. Guettard included a short section on the fossils of North America. In it he writes, "I should have so much desired to compare a large fossil tooth that is place that is marked on maps of Canada as the canton where elephant bones are found. What animal is it? And does it resemble fossil teeth of this size that we have found in different parts of Europe? [i.e. mammoths]. I give this figure; the research we do on it later should shed some light on the subject." The maps he refers to can only mean Bellin's, which had been published twice by then. When his paper was published four years after its initial presentation, it included two plates of a giant tooth and a small Crinoid fossil. Every published example of the etching that I've seen, except one, identifies it as one of the teeth Longueuil donated.


Guettard's tooth. He identifies the small crinoid fossil on the lower left as a moth. Source.

There are some good reasons to doubt that. First, Guettard never mentions Longueuil or the royal collections. Second, he says he would like to examine a tooth, not that he already has examined one. I suspect the image was something he added to his paper before publication in 1756. Third, the tooth doesn't match any of the descriptions Daubention gave for the teeth. I'm not the only person who has had doubts about the illustration. In 2002, Pascal Tassy went through the fossil collection at the Museum trying to identify Longueuil's bones. In the 260 years since their donation, the bones were cataloged three times and given different numbers each time. Old numbers rubbed away, tags fell off, and the collections were moved several times. But, Tassy was successful and located all three teeth with traces of their Daubenton numbers visible using a black light. He also located the tooth in Guettard's illustration. After some detective work, he was able to match the tooth to a number in an 1861 inventory with the notation "Collection Drée." From here, he was able to find an illustration of the tooth and a reference to Drée in Georges Cuvier's Recherches sur les Ossemens fossiles (1806). When Buffon published an illustration of teeth from the Ohio in 1778 and this tooth was not one of them.

Guettard gives one possible clue as to the origin of the tooth. In the published version of his paper, he says that Jean François Gautier, a prominent Canadian naturalist, sent him a note commenting on his draft. Gautier wrote, "All those who have been to this place, who have seen the skeletons or bones of these animals, relate that the skeletons are almost complete: we do not assume that they include the teeth, because these are the only parts that we can easily carry away; the other bones are too large and too heavy." Gautier adds that he will have Father Bonnecamp, a Jesuit of impeccable scientific credentials, make drawings of the skeletons during his next trip down the Ohio. Bonnecamp was part of Celoron's 1749 expedition. He never made a second expedition down the Ohio, but Gautier's interest in the bones might have led one of the men to acquire one of the teeth from another traveler.

The likely history of the tooth is that Gautier acquired it sometime before 1756 and sent it to one of his scientific correspondents in France, possibly even Guettard. The tooth was in private collections until some point between 1778 and 1806 when it was either donated to the Museum or confiscated by the revolutionary authorities.

Who is du Hamel? This is the easiest question to answer. Daubenton describes du Hamel as being "of the Royal Academy of Sciences." This makes him Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau who was elected to the Academy in 1738 and served three times as its president. That he knew about the teeth, which are not mentioned in Fabry's letter, raises the possibility that he was present when Longueuil donated them. Like Guettard, Duhamel was a regular correspondent of Gautier's, which makes him another possible recipient of the fourth tooth.

Who is Fabri? Stanley Hedeen, in his book Big Bone Lick, refers to "A Frenchman by the name of Fabri [who] was likely at the Lick in the 1740s when he saw 'heads and skeletons of an enormous quadruped called by the Savages, the father of oxen.'" Mayor writes, "Little is known about Fabri except that he participated in the campaign from Montreal down the Ohio and on to New Orleans..."  Hedeen cites no source; Mayor cites Cuvier and Henry Chapman Mercer's The Lenape Stone (1885). Mercer writes that the tradition that the bones were those of a monster "appears in the song tradition of the ‘Father of Oxen,’ from Canada, and in a monster tradition from Louisiana, both spoken of by Fabri, a French officer, in a letter to Buffon from America in 1748." Cuvier mentions Fabri twice. His first reference reads: "We have three such [teeth] at the Museum, previously brought back by Fabri." He refers to Daubenton's catalog as his source. The second reference reads: "A French officer named Fabri announced to Buffon in 1748 that the Indians looked upon these bones scattered in various parts of Canada and Louisiana as coming from a particular animal they called the father of oxen." For this he cites Buffon (1778) as his source. What Buffon wrote was, "In the year 1748, M. Fabri, who had made great excursions into the northern parts of Louisiana and the southern regions Canada, informed me that he had seen heads and skeletons of an enormous quadruped, called by the Savages the father of Oxen."

Except for Duhamel's mention of the teeth, everything we know about the discovery of the mastodon bones at Big Bone Lick comes from Fabry/Fabri. And, all the information we have about Fabri ultimately comes from Buffon and Daubenton. Daubenton, who wrote first, quotes the note describing the discovery and says that it was written by M. Fabry, as he spells it. In the note, Fabry does not say he was present at the discovery; he refers Daubenton to Lieutenant Lignery for details of the discovery. In my reading, by referring to Lignery's journal for more information, it seems likely that Fabri was not at Big Bone Lick and that Lignery was his source of information. Buffon, writing sixteen years after Daubenton, says Fabri, was a great traveler who saw the "heads and skeletons of an enormous quadruped." Buffon makes no mention of Longueuil. Buffon gives us one solid detail that might help identify Fabri. He met him personally in 1748.

Looking at the roster of officers who left Montreal with Longueuil, I find no mention of a Fabri, Fabry, or any other variant spelling. I do, however find Lignery. François-Marie Le Marchand de Lignery (or Ligneris), a major, not a lieutenant, was later an important commander in the frontier wars with the British.

We haven't reached a dead end on Fabri. I finally located Fabri in the online Dictionary of Louisiana Biography put out by the Louisiana Historical Association. He is André Fabry de la Bruyère, the secretary to Longueuil's uncle, Governor Bienville. Fabry participated in both Chickasaw campaigns as part of the New Orleans contingents. He was an explorer who tried to establish a trade route between New Orleans and Santa Fe. He was also in Paris for most of the years 1747 and 1748 when Buffon mentions meeting him.

The sources

After eliminating secondary retellings, I believe these are the most dependable sources to use in reconstructing the story of the bones' discovery and final fate.

Fabry's note as quoted by Daubenton in Buffon's Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, vol. 11, 1764.

Buffon's memory of the conversation with Fabry in 1748 recounted in Buffon's Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, contenant les epoques de la nature, supplement vol. 6, 1778.

The campaign roster, and two letters of Gilles Hocquart, the intendant of Canada, repeating Longueuil's letters of August 6 and 10 found in Rapport de l'archiviste de la province de Québec, 1922.

Celoron's speech scolding the Shawnee from his journal in Galbreath, C.B. ed. Expedition of Celoron to the Ohio Country in 1749, 1920.

Daubenton's descriptions and analyses of the bones and teeth in Histoire de l'Académie royale des sciences avec les mémoires de mathématique & de physique, 1762 (pub. 1764); Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, vol. 11, 1764; and Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, vol. 12, 1764.

The analysis of Mandeville's map in Sylvester K. Stevens and Donald H. Kent, eds. The Expedition of Baron de Longueuil, 1941.

The rediscovery of the bones by Tassy in "L’émergence du concept d’espèce fossile: Le mastodonte américain (Proboscidea, Mammalia) entre clarté et confusion." Geodiversitas 24, 2002.

The best source possible for the discovery would be Lignery's journal, but I have been unable to find any trace of it. A later journal of his is in the Canadian archives, but not this one.

My version

Leaving out all of my historian's probablys, it-is-likelys, and it's-safe-to-assumes, this is how I reconstruct the events as a story.

By the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, France was established in the drainage area of the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes. Some of their agents had even portaged from Lake Michigan into the Illinois River valley and established trading posts there. The next stage of their American expansion was from their Caribbean colonies to the Gulf coast and Mississippi Delta from whence the claimed the entire drainage area of the Mississippi River. In the 1720s, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the founder and governor of New Orleans, began expanding French influence up the river with the goal of hooking up with the French in the Illinois country and, ultimately, with Quebec. Making such a connection was not just to the economic advantage of the colonies; it was an important move in the geopolitical Great Game being played by France and Britain for control of the continent. Connecting the two colonies would contain the British on the East Coast giving the French a chance to monopolize everything north a New Spain (Mexico).

At first the plan went well. The settlements at Baton Rouge and Natchez were established a few years after New Orleans and good relations were established with the Choctaw nation. However, above Natchez, their expansion was halted, first by the Natchez nation and then by the Chickasaw. Both of these nations already had established trade relations with the British out of the Carolinas. When attempts to lure the Natchez into the French orbit failed, they resorted to force. By 1731, the French had destroyed or scattered the Natchez. The Chickasaw proved to be a more difficult problem. In 1735, Bienville gave up on negotiations and decided that, once again, war was the only way to deal with his intransigent neighbors. A great campaign was planned for the spring of the next year. The plan was a simple one: one army would come down the Mississippi from the Illinois country while a second would come from New Orleans overland through modern Alabama and they would crush the Chickasaw between them. The actual campaign was a miserable failure. The two armies failed to coordinate their actions and the Chickasaw defeated them one at a time inflicting a great number of casualties on the French. Bienville returned to New Orleans to plan another campaign.

Bienville began his second campaign in the summer of 1739. This time, the New Orleans force was reinforced with troops from France, artillery, and siege weapons. A second force, under Pierre-Joseph Céloron de Blainville, was to come down from the Illinois country while a third, commanded by Bienville's nephew, Charles Le Moyne de Longueuil, was to come down from Quebec. Longueuil's force was made up of 123 French and Canadian and 319 from allied Indian nations (186 de Sault Iroquois, 51 Two Mountains Iroquois, 32 Algonquin and Nipissing, and 50 Abenaki). Their planned route was to be almost entirely by water up the St. Lawrence, across Lake Ontario, a portage around Niagara Falls, across Lake Erie to a place where they could portage into the headwaters of the Ohio River, and down that river to the Mississippi. This route allowed the expedition to perform a second service to the authorities in Montreal and New Orleans. The Ohio River was barely known to the French. By following this shorter route, Longueuil was able to assess whether it was superior to the established route through the Great Lakes and over the Chicago portage into the Illinois River. For this purpose he was provided with a young surveyor, Joseph-Gaspard Chaussegros de Lery.

The expedition left Montreal in two detachments on June 16 and 30 by birch bark canoe. On August 4, they reached the place where they were to make their portage to Lake Chautauqua on the headwaters of the Ohio. Before making the portage, Longueuil sent a progress report to the governor in Montreal, the Marquis de Beauharnais. In this report he says that a large part ("une grand partie") of the Abenaki and Two Mountain Iroquois deserted when they were passing the English settlement at Oswego, New York, seduced by English brandy. He estimated their number at about 70. A week later, having completed the portage he sent a second report to Beauharnais estimating the number of deserters at 90. He hoped to make up for the desertions by recruiting more Iroquois along the way. There is no record that he had any success with the Iroquois, but he did recruit a number of Shawnee at Scioto Village.

One hundred thirty miles downstream from Scioto Village, the expedition made camp at the mouth of a creek on the southern bank of the river. De Lery noted on his map of the Ohio River that Longueuil made a formal showing of the Arms of the King, claiming the land. De Lery called their camp, "[The] place where the bones of many elephants were found." The bones were those of the American mastodon. One of the officers, Major François-Marie Le Marchand de Lignery, wrote in his journal the circumstances of how these bones were found. A party of Shawnee, who were familiar with the country, went hunting to reprovision the army. Somewhat later, come of them returned bringing with them giant tusks and a femur that the French officers identified as coming from an elephant. The hunters said that there were three skeletons of this animal in a salt lick not far from the camp. A group of officers went to look at the site and collected some more bones as souvenirs. Longueuil collected three teeth. The bones, tusks, and teeth were added to Longueuil's baggage and the army continued on their way to their rendezvous with the armies of Celoron and Bienville, which they made at the end of November.

The campaign against the Chickasaw was no more successful than the previous one. This time, rather than defeating the French in battle, the Chickasaw wore them down by refusing to engage them. By the summer of 1740, almost 500 French troops had been felled by disease and most of their Indian auxiliaries had abandoned them. Bienville called off the campaign and released the armies—at least, that part that hadn't already deserted—to go home. Longueuil joined his uncle and escorted the sick soldiers downriver to New Orleans. The bones from the Ohio were not a secret. Longueuil's officers told Bienville’s officers about them and maybe showed off their own souvenirs. One conversation that we know for sure happened was between Lignery and Bienville’s secretary, André Fabry de la Bruyère. Lignery referred to his journal while telling the story. We’re lucky that he did talk to Fabry because the journal has not survived.

Longueuil returned to France in the fall with the bones and teeth where he donated them to the Cabinet du Roi (the museum of the King). At the time of their donation, the bones failed to attract much attention. Academy member Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau was the only French scientist who was aware of the donation at the time. It is from him that we know of the three teeth that were donated along with the tusk and femur. It's curious that Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, the new director of the Jardin des Plantes, which included the Cabinet only learned about the donation when Fabry spent the winter in Paris in 1747-8. Fabry wrote a short note describing the discovery as he heard it from Lignery and orally told Buffon about legends along the Mississippi calling the skeletons the father of buffalo ("le pere aux beufs" which translates literally as "the father of oxen"). Buffon's ignorance of the discovery is doubly curious considering word of the discovery had been published twice by then on maps using de Lery's survey of the Ohio River. New maps of unexplored parts of the world were not trivial matters at the time.

In the spring of 1748, around the same time that he met Fabry, Buffon published the first volume of his encyclopedic Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. The project would eventually run to thirty-six volumes and occupy the rest of his life. Buffon’s assistant at the Jardin, Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton, helped with the project by writing an inventory of related items in the Cabinet for each chapter Buffon wrote. It wasn't until the early sixties that they got around to the chapters they deemed relevant to the Ohio bones and teeth. On examining them, Daubenton found them interesting enough that he wrote a major paper on them, which he presented to the Academy in August 1762. Daubenton compared the bones and teeth to those of an Asian elephant that had once been part of the king’s menagerie and to mammoth bones that Joseph-Nicolas Delisle had brought from Russia in 1747. Daubenton's conclusion was that all three sets of bones represented a single species and that the differences between them were attributable to age and sex. For the teeth, he came up with a different conclusion. The Ohio teeth in no way resembled the mammoth or elephant teeth in the royal collection. After some study of other teeth in the collection, he decided they most resembled those of a hippopotamus—a giant, carnivorous hippopotamus.

Daubenton’s paper and the volumes of Buffon's Natural History dealing with elephants and hippos were all published in 1764. Had they studied the Ohio bones and teeth earlier, their publications would have had much greater influence than they did. But, during the years between Longueuil depositing them and Daubenton writing about them, the bones and teeth of the Ohio came to the attention of other learned Europeans. The British learned about the lick and its bones as early as 1744 when Robert Smith opened a trading post on the Great Miami River, which debouches into the Ohio a few miles above the salt lick. In 1751, he gave two teeth to surveyor Christopher Gist. All through the fifties, other merchants and travelers brought back teeth and stories. Important men in Philadelphia, New York, and London heard these stories and received teeth as gifts. At some point between 1752 and 1756, a Swiss member of the Academy, Jean Etienne Guettard, learned about the teeth and the lick and had a detailed engraving of a tooth made. The tooth was not one of Longueuil's. The Academy published the engraving in its journal.

Longueuil was not the first European to encounter fossils of unknown mammals and realize that they were something worthy of comment. That distinction goes to Cortez and his officers in 1519 when they were shown the femur of a relative of the mastodon by Tlaxcalan elders. They took the bone and sent it to the king of Spain. Nor do Europeans deserve credit for realizing that they were something worthy of comment. That distinction goes to the Native Americans of North, South and Central America who showed them to the Europeans. The importance of Longueuil's recognition and collection is that these were the first bones of large vertebrates from the New World to be carefully studied and written about. Guettard made only a short mention of his tooth in a paper on the geology of Canada making the comment that he would like to know more about it. The British passed teeth and bones round and discussed them in letters, but no one made a detailed study of them for publication until several years after Daubenton's three articles came out.

In 1942, the American paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson made a point of dismissing the interest of Native Americans in the bones they encountered and wrote that Longueuil's moment at Big Bone Lick was the beginning of North American vertebrate paleontology. Simpson’s point is valid only if we speak specifically of the European scientific discipline of paleontology. Regardless of how many qualifications are applied to it, there is no denying that the collection of the Big Bone Lick mastodon fossils and donation to the Cabinet du Roi was an important milestone on the road to understanding extinct proboscideans.


Note: I wrote a big sloppy version of the first part of this post last fall while trying to figure out the sequence of events for the mastodon chapter of my book. Last week Adrienne Mayor posted a short essay on Cuvier and the mastodon that made a brief mention of the 1739 discovery. This inspired me to whack my historiographical notes into a coherent (I hope) post. While doing so, I noticed a few points that I missed last time and am making appropriate corrections to the chapter.