Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Kircher's giants

Athanasius Kircher is perhaps the most interesting mind of the Seventeenth Century. The German born Jesuit wrote over forty books on comparative linguistics, volcanoes, music theory, magnetism, China, diseases, and anything else that crossed his path. He claimed to be able to read Egyptian hieroglyphics, he used the newly-invented microscope and suggested that the tiny "animacules" caused plague and other diseases, he was the first European to publish Sanskrit, he coined he word "electromagnetism", he built a museum of mechanical gadgets, and he designed the cat piano. A recent collection of conference papers about him was entitled "The Last Man Who Knew Everything."

The times he lived in and the broad range of his interests ensured that a lot of what he wrote was bunk and, for almost 300 years, he was dismissed as a colorful crank. Lately, that's begun to change. Kircher was an influential figure in his day and it's not possible to write an accurate account of the scientific revolution without taking him into account. Even before his intellectual rehabilitation began, his books had been rediscovered as objects of art. Many of them are illustrated with fantastic illustrations and interesting maps--one shows the location of Atlantis. One of his most frequently reproduced illustrations compares the sizes of famous giants.


Kircher's Giants. Source.

Most cultures have a tradition of giants. I won't say "all", because whenever you say that there will be a cultural anthropologist who will show up to make a liar out of you. But there is quite a rich tradition in what became Western Civilization. The tradition drinks from four fountains. The first, is the mythology of Classical civilizations. This included the Titans, whom the gods of Olympus had to vanquish before they could rule, and the heroes, who must have had a great stature to match their great acts. Next, was the Jewish tradition, which was well known even before Christians made it dogma in the remains of the Roman Empire. This included the Antediluvian giants of Genesis 6; the tribes defeated by Moses, Joshua, and David; and the ancient patriarchs themselves. Third, were the local traditions of Northern regions gradually incorporated in Christendom. Finally, were the actual discoveries of large bones found in caves and plowed up in fields from time to time. By the time Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, the first two fountains had been combined into a kind of standard list. Over the next thousand years, giants from the other two fountains were added to the list.

Kircher's famous illustration is from the second volume of his wonderful book Mundus Subterraneus (The Underground World). It shows five figures all in the same pose. Two are from ancient sources, two are from recent (to him) sources, and one is a normal man. The four on the right ascend from left to right while the one on the far left overshadows them all. His position, out of order, demonstrates his specialness. The point of the illustration is not to provide visual comparison of famous giants; it is to make a point about that particular giant. Kircher, who later writers would call gullible, thinks that giant is ridiculous.

The biggest giant is from the works of the late Medieval satirist Giovanni Boccaccio. Boccaccio was a pivotal figure in Italian literature, but he was also a literary critic and historian. In his Genealogia deorum gentilium (Genealogy of the Gods and gentiles), he tried to make sense of confused and often contradictory accounts of the Greek and Roman pantheons and, as much as possible, tie them into local histories. The giant illustrated by Kircher was a discovery that happened in Sicily during Boccaccio's lifetime. Some writers have said Boccaccio claimed to have been a witness to the discovery. He didn't. He was 400 miles away in Tuscany at the time and only reported what he was told. So, what was he told?

In 1342, near Trepani, on the western end of Sicily, a group of workers, digging the foundation for a new house, uncovered a deep cave. They climbed in and found a great grotto where they saw the figure of a seated man of almost unimaginable size. In his hand he held a staff as large as ship's mast. According to their report, he was 200 cubits tall (300 or 400 feet, depending on your cubit). The workers hurried back to the village of Erice to share the story of their discovery. Soon, a crowd of 300 people armed with torches and pitchforks marched to the work site and entered the cave. Once inside the grotto, they paused, all frightened and awestruck except for one brave man who stepped forward and touched the staff. It disintegrated leaving only dust and some iron pieces. He then touched the leg of the titan who also turned to dust leaving only some enormous teeth.

The teeth were taken to the Church of the Annunciation where they were strung on a wire to be displayed. This was a common practice in the days before museums. Wonders of nature were given to churches to inspire the faithful with the endless wonders of God's creation. Boccaccio does not report what happened to the iron. We can safely assume that the local blacksmith took advantage of the free materials.

There was some debate over the identity of the giant. Some thought he was Eryx, a legendary early king and founder of the village. Although a demigod himself, Eryx was killed in boxing match with his fellow demigod Hercules. The opposing and more popular theory was that he was the cyclops Polyphemus and this was the cave where he was blinded by Odysseus and his crew. In making that claim, they faced some competition. Over the years, a number of villages had discovered a number of caves containing the bones of a number of giants and all had proclaimed their giant to be Polyphemus. Classics scholars, then and now, believed that the Odyssey described an itinerary of real places around the central Mediterranean and that Sicily was the home of Polyphemus. Even the average peasant knew this and was proud of the history of their island. If the local giant wasn't Polyphemus, enough giants had been found that no one doubted that the island had once been home to a whole race of them.

In the early Twentieth Century, the Austrian paleontologist Otheniel Abel wondered if there was more to the story than mere myth . Fifty years earlier, in 1862, Hugh Falconer, one of the first great authorities on the diversity of extinct proboscideans, had presented a paper on the discovery of the remains of a dwarf elephant on the island of Malta. Falconer named it Elephas melitensis. In the years after that, other dwarfed species were found on most of the major Mediterranean islands. All of these species, except one, are believed to descended from Palaeoloxodon antiquus, the straight-tusked elephant. The exception is a dwarf mammoth that lived on Sardinia. Sicily is especially rich in these fossils, having been home to three different species of dwarfed elephants at different times. Abel thought the skeletons explained the origin of the cyclops myth.

Most land mammals share a basic skeletal structure, but proboscieans and humans have some very specific resemblances. These are mostly in the limbs. Both have long straight limbs with short ankles or wrists and five digits. Laying the disarticulated bones of a probosciean out on the ground, it's easy to form something that looks like an enormous, stocky human. Then comes the problem of the skull. Abel pointed out that the most distinguishing feature of the skull, if the tusks are missing, is a huge hole in the middle of the face. This is the nasal cavity with all of the attachments for the trunk. The eye sockets are on the sides of the skull are almost unnoticeable. This would make it very easy for an awestruck discoverer to mistake the nasal cavity for the socket of a single huge eye.


Elephas melitensis. Source.

Other differences in the skulls can be explained by the fact that giants are, by definition, monsters. Add to this the fact that probosciean skulls are not solid and bony. They are made of thin plates, honeycombed with sinuses and, when dried out, tend to fall apart at the first touch leaving nothing to be systematically examined.

Kircher raised some rather sophisticated environmental and bio-mechanical arguments against the possibility of a giant of that size having ever existed. He said it couldn't have been taller than forty feet. His illustration is meant to show how silly the claims of Boccaccio's informants were. Kircher thought the other figures on his illustration were reasonable. Starting next to Boccaccio's monster is the little, tiny figure of a normal human who barely reaches his ankle. Reaching to mid-calf is Goliath of Gath, who normal guy David smote with a stone. The figure on the far right, which Kircher calls the giant of Mauritania, was a skeleton found in Morocco according to the highly respected Roman writer Pliny [actually, it was Plutarch]. To his left was a giant found within the living memory of Kircher's elders and, artistically, the most important influence on his illustration.

When the prominent Basel physician Felix Plater was called to Lucern in 1584 to care for the ailing Colonel Ludwig Pfyffer, he expected to spend his spare time collecting rare plants on the neighboring mountains and visiting with his friend Renward Cysat. He was successful on both counts. He gathered over a hundred samples of plants unknown to him and Cysat had a special treat for him: mysterious bones.

Cysat explained that, seven years earlier, a tremendous storm had buffeted the village of Reyden, a village that Plater had passed through on his way to Lucern. When the brothers of the local monastery came out to inspect the damage, they found that an ancient oak on Kommende Hill had been knocked over. Tangled among it's roots were the bones that Cysat now showed Plater.

Many of the bones were damaged and only a few fragments of the skull remained. Naturally, the workmen were blamed for mishandling them. Plater convinced the city council to let him take them back to Basel with him for study. From the long bones of the arms and legs and, especially, digits that appeared to be a thumb, Plater felt confident in telling the Lucerners that they had the remains of a human giant. By his calculations, it stood fourteen strich tall (nineteen feet) in life. Since giants were not part of any local traditions, he believed that it must have lived and died during some prehistoric time before normal humans arrived in the mountains.

Plater asked Hans Bock, an artist who happened to be painting his portrait at the time, to prepare large drawings of the bones and an imaginative drawing of the giant as it must have appeared in life. In Boch's reconstruction, the heavily bearded giant stands with one hand on a dead tree, perhaps the oak, naked except for a laurel and a girdle of oak leaves. The beard and garb of leaves make him look like the Green Man and probably indicate his primitive state. Despite Plater's conclusion that the giant and normal people had never lived together, Bock included a modern man, gaping in awe at the giant, for comparison.

The Lucerners were delighted, both with Plater's conclusions and with Bock's drawings. The bones were put on display in the city hall and the giant was made the shield-bearer of the city coat of arms. They had a version of Bock's drawing painted on a tower attached to the city hall with a poem telling the story of his discovery. That wasn't the end of the giant's fame. In the next century, Cysat and members of the city council decided to decorate the three footbridges that connected the two parts of the city across the Reuss River. They hired Hans Heinrich Wägmann, a local artist, to paint triangular panels to be hung inside the bridges attached to the roof trusses. Prominent citizens were encouraged to sponsor panels and in return, their family crests were incorporated into the paintings. Cysat bought panel number one on the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke). For the subject, he chose Bock's giant along with a poem that he composed.


The giant of Reyden displayed on the Kapellbrücke. Source.

Kircher, or his artist, used some version Bock's drawing as the standard giant to illustrate the relative sizes of famous giants and discredit Boccaccio's giant. All six of Kircher's giants have the same posture and attire of Bock's giant. In a modern court of law, that would probably be enough to nail him for plagiarism. In his day, the modern concept of plagiarism was just emerging and the first copyright laws were still a generation in the future. His use of Bock's drawing would have been considered more along the lines of an homage to the original artist than theft.

There were apparently differences among the three original versions of the giant—Bock's drawing, the tower mural, and the Kapellbrücke panel. I only have access to one, but I can make an educated guess at the source of Kitcher's version. Bock's original drawing was sent back to Platter in Basel and ended up in the library of the local Jesuit monastery. Even though Kircher was a Jesuit, he would have had to have visited the monastery to have viewed it. Kircher spend most of his productive life in Italy, rarely going far from Rome. The mural on the tower is gone. After years of neglect, the city decided it was irreparable and had it painted over in the 1860s. I haven't been able to locate any surviving drawings or photographs of it. Later, the stucco was scraped off the tower to reveal the underlying stone walls. In 1993, a fire destroyed most of the Kapellbrücke. Cysat's panel was one only thirty (of the original 158) that was saved. Like Bock's original drawing, Kircher never saw the panel or the tower, though it's possible that he may have seen sketches made by some other traveler. If he did, he didn't mention it.

Kircher's written description of the discovery gives a clue as to where he might have seen the giant. Platter published an account of the discovery in a collection of medical essays in 1614. Kircher's version bears no resemblance to this. Except for short paragraphs before and after, the majority of his account is a long quote of a legal affidavit filed by Cysat in Lucerne. We don't have to look far to discover where found the affidavit.

In 1661, three years before that volume of Mundus Subterraneus appeared, a small book written in German by Cysat's son appeared in Lucern. The book was a history of the city and the surrounding countryside. In the context of describing the towers and bridges of the city, the younger Cysat tells the story of the giant of Reyden. At the center of his narrative is his father's affidavit. He also included the poem from the tower along with a drawing of the giant.


Young Cysat's illustration. Source.

When Platter examined the Reyden bones, the idea of historically real giants was just beginning to be challenged. Because giants are unambiguously mentioned in the Bible, these challenges were in the form of arguments that the Bible used the word giant in an allegorical sense; the giants of the Old Testament were great in their capacity for evil, not in their actual stature. This position did not automatically kill the giants. Writing almost ninety years after the discovery of the Reyden giant, the most Kircher would say was that real giants weren't mush bigger than twenty feet tall. In the early 1700s, the French academy published a flurry of papers arguing both sides of the giant question. As late as 1764, the influential doctor Claude-Nicolas LeCat could receive a polite hearing before the academy while arguing for the historical reality of giants.

What finally did the giants in was the development of the sciences of comparative anatomy and paleontology. When Cysat showed Platter the bones, he had very little to compare them with. He knew whales and elephants were very large animals, but no accurate anatomical information was available to him, not even good drawings. It was only after his death that showmen were able to acquire elephants from India and show them in towns and villages in Europe. The first anatomical studies were in the 1780s, well after Kircher was dead. Paleontology, building on comparative anatomy, took another hundred years to develop.

In 1783, the young naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach traveled through Switzerland. He knew the story of the giant of Reyden and wanted to see what the truth was. In Lucerne, he found that Platter had returned the bones to Cysat who put them back in their place of honor in the Council Hall. By then, only three fragments survived. After an examination, he felt confident identifying them as the bones of an elephant. His confidence was as strong as Platter's and more accurate. Thirteen years later, he was one of the first to decide that the mammoth and mastodon were distinct species, different from the known species of elephants (he was also one of the first to assert that Asian and African elephants were different species).


The last of the Reyden giant. Source

By 2013, only one fragment remained in Lucerne. It now resided in the Lucerne Natural History Museum instead of the Council Hall. That February, the keeper of the museum website and Adelheid Aregger, a journalist with an interest in cultural matters, got into a conversation about the bones. Looking over Blumenbach's account of his visit they realized that he had taken pieces with him when he left. Aregger and her husband continued to look into the story. The Blumenbach collection at Göttingen included quite a few bones. Using isotope analysis, they were able to identify two pieces of mammoth thigh that had come from the same soil as the as the remaining piece in Lucerne. Kircher got blacklight posters and the Lucerne bones didn't. But they're still pretty cool.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Teeth of Giants

In 1645, the twenty-seventh year of the Thirty Years War, Swedish armies inflicted a devastating blow to the Imperial forces in Bohemia and swept into Austria with the aim of capturing of Vienna. The Imperial capitol, was not prepared to give up easily. The Swedes soon found themselves digging in for a long siege  negotiating with allies for support, and building fortifications around the occupied countryside. Upriver from Vienna, in the Krems district, while digging trenches, a group of Swedish soldiers discovered the bones of a giant.

The discovery took place on St. Martin's Day, November 11. The soldiers had been ordered to build a series of defensive fortifications around an old tower at a place called Laimstetten. The winter was not making their job any easier. Rain and groundwater filed the trenches. The engineers in charge ordered the men to dig a series of deep drainage ditches down the hillside. It was in one of those ditches, at a depth of three or four klatters (eighteen to twenty-four feet), in a layer of yellowish soil that smelled of decay, that they ran into a cache of enormous bones.

The most impressive bones are described as being a skull as large as a medium-sized table, arms as thick as an average man, a shoulder-blade with a socket large enough to hold a 24 pound cannonball, and teeth weighing up to five pounds. Someone in charge ordered the diggers to save the bones so that they could be sent to learned men in Sweden and Poland for study. Two more giants were uncovered in the trench but, with a war to be fought, they were left there and nothing more was said about them.    

Here, the account of the discovery does the soldiers a great injustice. Many of the bones, including the skull, fell to pieces as they were brought out. Naturally, the workers got the blame for mishandling the bones. In fact, it would have been difficult to save most of them. Ancient bones, that have not petrified, are very fragile things. Collagen rots and acidic water carries away many of the minerals. As the bones dry out, deprived of the surrounding soil that maintained their shape for so long, the bones can literally turn to dust, just like in the movies. Only the densest parts of bones survive very long out of the ground without careful preparation. Skulls, which look so solid, are not among the best survivors. Sinuses honeycomb the face which, in many animals, is really nothing more than a series of thin plates. As it was, only the shoulder-blade with its amazing socket, a leg bone, and some teeth were in good enough condition to be sent away for study.

The sources tell us that rest of the bones, including at least one good tooth, were taken to the nearby Kremsmünster Jesuit abbey. Another tooth was sent to Hapsburg Emperor in Vienna for his collections. Two others eventually made it to churches in Germany. This presents us with a little mystery. For the Lutheran Swedes, the abbey should have been viewed as an outpost of the enemy. Worse, it was a Jesuit monastery. In the Protestant world at that time, Jesuits were regarded as ninjas of the Pope: amoral spies and saboteurs capable of any evil in the service of their master. Did the Swedes invite a group of probable spies into their military defenses, as a courtesy, because they thought the Jesuits might be interested in something they dug up? Did the Swedish commander pick out one of the better fossils and send it to the Hapsburg Emperor, the leader of the enemy alliance, out of a sense of good sportsmanship? The earliest account of the discovery, was written by Matthew Merian six years after the fact, and makes it sound as if that's exactly what happened. What's more likely, is that the Jesuits collected the bones after the Swedes were gone. By then, they would have been exposed to the elements for eight months and the teeth would have been the best prizes left among the remains. It's also likely that it was the Jesuits who sent the a tooth to the Emperor and not the besieging Swedes who did so. Sadly, there are no records to confirm this at the abbey, now owned by the Benedictines.


Matthew Merian, Theatrum Europaeum, 1651. "Truthful size and image of a tooth, from that broken body which was dug up at Krems in lower Austria in the year 1645 weighing eight and a half medical ounces or one half pound." Source.

Merian's description of the discovery and the bones is short--about 350 words--but he was a first-rate engraver and produced a detailed image of the tooth at the abbey. Merian made no attempt to explain the giant bones and teeth, however the implied explanation is that they are the remains of a giant human. Any modern zoologist or paleontologist will be able to identify the tooth at a glance; it comes from some kind of elephant. At a second glance, they will tell you that it is the tooth of a mammoth. Merian could not have made the mammoth identification, the word would not be introduced into Western Europe until forty years after his death and even then it would only apply to the ivory. If any ivory was recovered with the Laimstetten bones, Merian never heard about it. Even identifying the bones as elephantine would have been difficult for him. In his day, only a handful of elephants--assuming you have very large hands--had made it north of the Alps. Even written anatomical descriptions of elephants would not be available until after his death.


Petrus Lambecius (Peter Lambeck), Commentariorum de augustissima Bibliotheca Caesarese Vindobonensi, 1674. "Tooth of twenty three ounces, found in the year 1644 at Krems." Source.

In 1664, Emperor Leopold I hired Peter Lambeck to be his royal  librarian and court historiographer. In this role, one of Lambeck's primary duties was to organize and catalog the Emperor's various collections. The Krems tooth appears in the first volume in a chapter dedicated to giants' teeth, a bucket of three hundred year old grain, and a two-headed chicken. The grain and the chicken were both normal sized. Lambeck barely mentions the actual teeth in the collection writing, instead, an extended meditation on the nature of giant teeth. Were they the teeth of true giants, tricks of nature (i.e., stones shaped like bones), or were they the teeth of some other animal, like a whale, elephant, or Carpathian dragon? In his use of extended block quotes from St. Augustine, Athanasius Kircher, and others, Lambeck would have been a natural born blogger. As to the Krems tooth, Lambeck gives a one sentence description of the discovery, misstating the year as 1644, and provides an illustration.


Happelius (Eberhard Werner Happel), Größte Denkwürdigkeiten der Welt oder so genannte Relationes Curiosae, 1689. "Giant Tooth." Source.

The next mention of the Krems giant comes in the popular journal Relationes Curiosae by the novelist and historian Eberhard Werner Happel. Happel's description is nothing more than a paraphrasing of Merian's description. What's new is his illustration. Despite the low quality of the illustration, it is clear that this is a completely different tooth than either the Krems abbey tooth in Merian or the or the Imperial Museum tooth in Lambeck.

Writing in the next century, Hans Sloane figured that Happel's tooth was the tooth dug up at Laimstetten in 1645 and that Lambeck's tooth was a different tooth dug up the year before. Lambeck says the tooth was found "under fortifications near Krems." He doesn't say who was digging the fortifications. If you assume that it was the Austrians who were preparing fortifications, Sloan's theory makes sense. I have two problems with Sloane's theory. First, in 1644, the Swedish army was nowhere near Austria; the main theater of the war was in Northern Germany. It strikes me as extremely unlikely that the Austrians would have expended much energy building fortifications four hundred miles away from the fighting. Second, I question how Happel obtained his image of the tooth. Happel spent his entire life in Northern Germany. Even if he did travel to Vienna, he would not have found the Imperial collections open to the public. I think I know where he found the drawing.


Petrus Lambecius (Peter Lambeck), Commentariorum de augustissima Bibliotheca Caesarese Vindobonensi, 1674. "Monsterous teeth of the Ancient Giant, Og King of Basan." Source.

Four years after the publication of the first volume of Lambeck's catalog, another giant tooth passed through the Imperial Museum. The tooth had been sent from Constantinople by a seller who hoped the Emperor would pay twelve thousand ducats for it. The seller claimed that the tooth had been found in a tomb in Jerusalem under an inscription in Chaldaic which read: "Here lies the giant Og." In the old Testament, Og of Basan ruled a kingdom east of the River Jordan. He and his people were destroyed by Moses and the Hebrews. According to some traditions, Og was the last of the true giants. Despite these extravagant claims for the tooth, the Emperor decided to keep his ducats and sent it back to Constantinople, but not before Lambeck made an engraving of it. The tooth of Og was included as an appendix in the sixth volume of Lambeck's catalog.

The illustrations of Og's tooth in Lambeck and the Krems tooth in Happel bear a strong resemblance to each other. Both show a well weathered elephant's tooth with no roots. Happel's illustration faces the opposite direction than Lambeck's, which was a common occurrence when hand engraved illustrations were copied.

After Happel, Merian's story was repeated from time to time, but no more illustrations of the teeth were made. By the end of the century, several anatomies of elephants had been published in Europe making it possible to identify the teeth.  In the new century, although it was possible to identify specific teeth as elephantine, the belief in ancient giants still persisted in some circles. As late as 1764, Claude-Nicolas LeCat could get a hearing by the French Academy for his paper on giants, essentially arguing that so many prestigious authors of the past could not be wrong.

In 1703, Georg Henning Behrens made a charming argument against the teeth coming from giants. Behrens did not deny the reality of giants, he simply thought the teeth were too big. Behrens reasoned that Og was the biggest man in the Bible. In Deuteronomy, it is written that his bed was nine cubits long--thirteen or eighteen feet, depending on your cubit. Since beds are always longer than their owners, let's say he was eight cubits tall (a normal man is four and a very large man might be five). If we assume both Og and the Krems giant had the same basic proportions than a normal man, we find the Krems Abbey tooth is three hundred, ninety-six times the size of a very large man, which is clearly ridiculous.


The Kremsmünster Abbey tooth identified by Othenio Abel in 1912. Source.

In 1905, the Austrian paleontologist Othenio Abel traveled to Kremsmünster abbey to help Fr. Leonhard Angerer organize their fossil collections. Abel had gathered many of the items in the collection, including a complete cave bear skeleton, which he mounted. Abel had a special interest in mammoths, having hypothesized that pygmy mammoths were the source of the cyclops legend. Abel had read about the 1645 discovery and decided to try to identify the tooth in question. By then the abbey had accumulated a few more giants' teeth. In 1770, a merchant named Meyer in Krems found six mammoth teeth while digging a cellar and donated them to the abbey. By comparing the Merian drawing with the teeth in the Abbey collection Abel found one very good candidate for the Laimstetten tooth, but Fr. Angerer had doubts. The tooth that Abel identified weighed 628 grams. Some bits probably fell off over the years, but not enough to make a big difference. Merian gives two wildly different weights for the tooth. In the text he says it weighed five German pounds, about 2800 grams. On the illustration he says it weighed 8.5 medical ounces, 256 or 297.5 grams, depending on which system he was using. Neither measure is even close to Abel's tooth. The best we can say about the tooth that's currently on display at the Abbey is that maybe it is the right one.

The anonymous Swedish soldiers and Herr Meyer have not been the only ones to find ancient bones in the Krems district. Many mammoths have been dug up along that stretch of the Danube over the years along with thousands of human artifacts. Hunting camps have been identified and, in 2005, the grave of two human babies, probably twins, was discovered. The two had been sprinkled with red ocher and covered with a mammoth scapula. So far, no new human giants have been found.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The White Elephant of Rucheni

On a Renaissance map of the world, there is a small white elephant standing near the Arctic coast of Russia. How it got there is a mystery. Is it a mammoth, or does it symbolize something else? The solution is like a jigsaw puzzle. We have many pieces of evidence, in different colors and shapes. But it's not clear that all of the pieces belong to the same puzzle and, in any case, too few pieces have survived for us to be able to construct a clear image of the thinking that led the artist to place that elephant in the frozen north. Perhaps the most important clue that we have to work with is that the elephant occupies a position that mapmakers had previously reserved for a monster that we now call the walrus.

The Dieppe school is the name given to a group of cartographers who worked, predictably, around Dieppe, France and who produced maps during the middle decades of the sixteenth century. Most of the Dieppe maps are large, hand-drawn, decorative maps produced for rich patrons. The maps are not useful for any practical purpose, such as sea navigation or invading the Netherlands, but they are very accurate and up to date for their times. Their real purpose was to inform kings and courts about the latest discoveries in other parts of the world.


The Desceliers map of 1550. (source)

The world map signed by Pierre Desceliers and dated 1550 is a perfect example this type of map. It is large, 135 cm x 215 cm. It was clearly meant to be read spread out on a table rather that hung on a wall. When looking at the map from the South, the text in the Southern hemisphere is right-side up, half way across the map, the text suddenly flips so that the Northern Hemisphere reads correctly for someone on the other side of the table. The map has notes scattered about it describing distant lands and recent discoveries. It is beautifully decorated with color illustrations of real and mythical animals, peoples, and cities. It carries the coat of arms of kingdom of France and was probably made for King Henri II.

For the last hundred and fifty years, two opposite corners of the map have attracted the most attention from scholars. In the Northwest, Canadian historians study this map and the other Dieppe maps because they were the first to display information gained from the voyages of Jacques Cartier and Jean-François Roberval. These maps were the first to show the Gulf of St Lawrence and a mostly correct shape for Newfoundland. In the Southeast, the map shows a great landmass with some Portuguese place names on it separated from Java by a narrow channel. On other Dieppe maps, this land is called Java la Grande. To many, this appears to be evidence that the Portuguese knew about Australia long before its official discovery by the Dutch in 1606.


Canadian bears at lunch.


Dog-headed men sacrifice one of their own in Java la Grande.

There are other fascinating details on the map, but for mammoth researchers, the most interesting detail is on the north side, just west of center. There, in what corresponds to Northwestern Russia, is the elephant. That part of the map is twisted ninety degrees counter-clockwise so that Russia's European Arctic coast runs straight north from Scandinavia instead of east. Although it is very close to France and Germany, very little was known about Scandinavia by continental mapmakers at the time. However, there are enough details and place names on the map for us to be sure where the elephant is meant to be.


Desceliers Arctic elephant. North is at the bottom of the page.

In the detail above, Scandinavia is at the top of the map. "Sveti" (the word that looks like "Sulti") is Sweden. The embayment just below it is the Gulf of Bothnia, part of the Baltic Sea. The embayment below that, to the left of the word "Finland," and entering from the West (right), is the White Sea. "Groullande" means Greenland. Why it's in Russia is a story for another day. Below that, next to a vacant native village, are a bear, some kind of deer, and a white elephant.

This scene is more than a decoration; the animals are supposed to be representative of the native fauna of that region. Other real animals on the map are in the same approximate locations where they would have been found in life. Mythical animals are in the correct places where the myths place them. There are other elephants on the map in central Africa, Persia, at the court of the Chinese emperor, and in Java la Grande (next to a description of Sumatra). Desceliers appears to have known the difference between Asian and African elephants. In his illustrations, the latter are bigger, have larger tusks, and larger ears (though he did give them Basset hound ears). And, in case there was any doubt, the legend specifically mentions elephants in Russia.


Desceliers description of Russia. (source)

In a text box to the right of the elephant, Desceliers describes Russia:
Near the north pole is a country and people called Rucheni and they confess in the manner of the Greeks. They are beautiful and blonde, dependent on sleighs, and have silver mines. Their merchandise consists of valuable pelts, falcons, gyrfalcons, white elephants [ylefanz blanc], bears, moose and others that they carry to other parts of the world. The region is very cold; the land is known as the glacial. It is continuous day for six months, when the sun is above the equator, and for another six months it is night, when it is the on the opposite side.
The obvious questions, at this point, are: Could Desceliers' white elephant be a reference to the mammoth and, if not, what else could it be? Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as "well, of course it's a mammoth." Most people are familiar with the fact that mammoth bones, ivory, and, occasionally, complete carcasses of mammoths are found in Arctic Russia. In fact, mammoth ivory currently makes up a significant portion of the global ivory trade. How big a portion is impossible to determine, since most of the trade is illegal. But no mammoth remains have been found around the White Sea; it was still covered with glacial ice when mammoths died out in Europe. The prime region for collecting mammoth ivory begins two thousand miles to the East in Siberia. Still, there is a way that mammoth ivory could have been traded there.

The White Sea is at the end of a long system of trade routes that extend along the coast and deep into Siberia using small, shore hugging boats and the great northern river systems. The first known historical accounts that unambiguously mention Siberian mammoth ivory all are in the context of trade along this coast.

In 1611, Josias Logan, the representative of the British Moscovy Company at Pechora, on the European side of the Urals wrote, in a letter to Richard Hakluyt, "There use to come hither in the Winter about two thousand Samoieds with their Commodities, which may be such as we dreamed not on yet. For by chance one came to us with a piece of an Elephants Tooth... ." Logan thought the ivory meant that there was an easy way across Siberia to China, because that was the closest place he thought elephants could be found.

Eight years later, Richard James sailed to Russia as chaplain on a diplomatic mission to Moscow. The mission was a failure; James missed the ship back to England and ended up spending winter in Kholmogory on the White Sea. He kept a small journal in which he wrote new words that interested him. On page 62, following the word for elephant (slone), he wrote: "maimanto, as they say, a sea Elephant, which is never seene, but according to the Samites, he workes himself under grownde and so they find his teeth or hornes or bones in Pechare and Nova Zemla." Sea elephant was sometimes used as a synonym for walrus, but James had already made a separate entry for walrus (mors), so he clearly meant that maimanto was a different elephant-like creature.

Logan and James both observed elephant (mammoth) ivory in the hands of Samoyeds (now called Nenets), a people whose territory extended across the Arctic coast from the White Sea to the Urals and beyond, covering a large part of the trade route that would have brought mammoth ivory to Europe. From Kholmogory, where James saw ivory with the name mammoth (maimanto), to the mouth of the Pechora, where Logan saw what he called an elephant's tooth, is about four hundred miles. The trade route from Pechora across the Urals to the Gulf of Ob is another six hundred miles. From there to the region where most mammoth ivory is collected, on the Eastern side of the Tamyr Peninsula, is another thousand miles. How did mammoth ivory enter into such a long trade route? Given enough time, any valuable commodity will find its way to market.
At the western end of the trade route that brought mammoth ivory to Pechora and Kholmogory was a market that was that already demanded ivory. For centuries, this demand had been satisfied by walrus ivory. Over time, the western walrus herds were driven to near extinction and hunters and merchants moved further afield looking for new sources of ivory. As they  worked their way east, word of their desire for ivory and their willingness to pay for it with good iron tools would have moved east ahead of them into the mammoth regions.

Sometime before the year 890, a Viking named Othere, looking for new trade opportunities, showed up at the court of King Alfred of Wessex, who was busy uniting England at the time and would later be known as "the Great." Hoping perhaps to impress his host, Othere bragged of his wealth, his lands, and his travels. Othere was a lord in Hålogaland, the northernmost settlement of the Norwegians as he described it. Othere gave Alfred some walrus tusks and told him where he acquired them. "He said that on one occasion he wished to find out how far that land extended due north or whether anyone lived north of the waste...." Othere described sailing north for three days, east for three days, and finally south for five days. There he stopped at the mouth of a great river. North, east, and south from Hålogaland would have taken him around North Cape and the Kola Peninsula and deep into the White Sea. The largest river entering the White Sea is the Northern Dvina. At its mouth is the site where Kholmogory would later be built. At this point in his story he admits, "He traveled there chiefly - in addition to observing the land - for the walruses (horshwælum), because they have very fine bone in their teeth." Othere knew there was walrus ivory in the Northeast before he made his voyage, possibly from the Finnish tribes that paid him tribute. The implication of his story is that he made his journey to see if he could cut out the middleman and acquire ivory directly.

Othere's tale, which tradition says was written down by Alfred himself, shows that almost seven hundred years before Desceliers drew his map, Europeans were traveling to the White Sea, specifically to look for ivory. From that date forward, there are plenty of accounts of ivory being traded across the Russian lands into Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. In the eleventh century, the Persian polymath al Biruni wrote that the Volga Bulgars "bring from the northern sea teeth of a fish over a cubit long. White knife hafts are sawed out of them for the cutlers." In 1207, during one of their frequent uprisings, the people of Novgorod evicted their prince and each of the rebels took as their booty three coins and a walrus tusk. In 1476, one of those same Novgorodians presented a tusk to their new ruler, Ivan III of Moscow. In 1527, envoys from Moldova demanded free passage across Poland-Lithuania to Russia so they could "acquire furs and fish teeth to pay tribute to the Turks." By the early sixteenth century, walrus ivory had appeared everywhere that ivory was imported.

This is not to say that walrus ivory was recognized as such everywhere that it was imported. The trade routes that brought elephant ivory from Asia and Africa and walrus ivory from Greenland, Iceland, and northern Eurasia were long and involved, with the ivory changing hands many times before it reached its final consumers. Europe, in 1500, was in the midst of a poison panic. Unicorn horn was the only known protection against poisons and upper class Europeans would pay any price for genuine unicorn horn. In those pre-FDA days there was no quality control for magical anti-poison artifacts. The market responded to the demand by providing buyers with elephant ivory, walrus ivory, narwhal horn, old bones, random teeth, and even interestingly shaped white rocks, all of which were guaranteed to be authentic unicorn horn. In such an atmosphere it was only natural that there would be some confusion about the nature of the animals that supplied ivory.

Before 1500, Europeans had only the vaguest idea what an elephant actually looked like and no idea what a walrus looked like. There are records of only two elephants have been seen in Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and the middle of the Renaissance. The artist who illustrated the Anne Walshe bestiary in the early fifteenth century might have been able to find some images of elephants in older illustrated manuscripts or descriptions from recent travelers. Instead, he pieced together an animal based entirely on classical texts. The accompanying, seven sentence description, uses information from the earlier bestiaries of Physiologus, Solinus, and St. Ambrose, all sources over a thousand years old at that time. The illustration gets some things right. The elephant is large, grey, and boxy. It has a trunk and tusks. But it has too many tusks—four. It also has tiny ears and hoofed feet. Like most medieval bestiaries, his follows a classical canon of animals known to Roman writers. It does not include any animals of the far north, such as moose, polar bears, or walruses.


Elephant from the Anne Walshe bestiary, early 1400s. (source)

The earliest European illustrations of walruses begin to appear after 1500 and are based on even less information than the Walshe elephant. The most influential of these illustrations came from Olaus Magnus, the last catholic bishop of Upsalla, Sweden. In 1539, Olaus published a colorful map of the northern Atlantic filled with ships and delightful monsters. But his monsters were not there just to fill space. Olaus was able to cite sources for most of the animals and dramatic scenes on his map. In 1555, he published Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, a lavishly illustrated book on the people of the north that included descriptions of the animals and monsters depicted on his map. Olaus placed his walrus near the White Sea in roughly the same location as Desceliers' white elephant. He described the animal in this way: "To the far North, on the coast of Norway, there lives a mighty fish, as big as an elephant, called morse or rosmari ...." His walrus had legs and tusks in its lower jaw, like a wild boar. He also noted that it climbed mountains.


Olaus Magnus' rosmarus piscis (walrus fish) being tormented by snowball throwing Finns. From his 1539 map. (source)


Olaus Magnus' morso Norvagico (Norwegian walrus) about to be skinned by whalers. From his 1555 book Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus. (source)

Olaus' illustrations and descriptions carried a certain weight of authority; he came from a family of respected thinkers and had actually been further north than anyone else in the community of European thinkers. When writing the first edition of Historiae animalium (1551–1558), a work sometimes called the first work of modern zoology, Conrad Gesner relied heavily on Olaus' descriptions of marine animals. Olaus' Historia was translated into several European languages and republished many times over the next century. Even though somewhat more accurate information about walruses had been circulating since the 1520s, Olaus' images continued to influence concepts of the animal well into the next century. But if Olaus' readers thought his travels in the North had given him firsthand knowledge of walruses, they were mistaken. Olaus' written description of the walrus is based on a thirteenth century description of walrus hunting by Albertus Magnus and on two recent travelers to Russia who themselves repeated part of Albertus' description, adding only that walrus ivory was an important export commodity for Muscovy.

Olaus was not the first to repeat Albertus' description of walrus hunting—which involved slipping a rope through a cut in their skin while they slept on rocks, tying the end of the rope to a tree, awakening them, and allowing the frightened walruses to run out of their own skin in their rush to get back to the sea. Besides the two travelers Olaus mentioned by name (Maciej z Miechowa, 1517, and Paolo Giovio, 1525), at least two other writers had repeated the tale before him, Hector Boece (1526) and Sigismund von Herberstein (written in the 1520s but not published until 1549). Of these writers, only Herberstein mentions legs ("It has short feet, like those of a beaver"). Albertus described the walrus as a type of whale and, since whales were classified as fish during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it should have been doubly clear that walruses should not have feet or legs. When Albertus described walruses climbing up on rocks to sleep, he clearly stated that they used their tusks to pull themselves up. Olaus repeated that detail. This raises the question, why did Olaus draw his walrus with feet and thick legs?

It should be easy to dismiss the legs as an imaginative flourish, but the work of another mapmaker suggests that Olaus might have had an unmentioned source that did mention legs. Like Desceliers, Martin Waldseemüller is best known for something other than his Arctic elephants. His 1507 map of the world was the first to use the word "America" to describe the new world. With such a claim to fame, it's not surprising that first thing most writers say about his next world map, the Carte Marina of 1516, is that it does not use the word "America." But, like Desceliers' map, there are plenty of other interesting details on this map that merit our attention. One of them is a strange, large creature in the far North.


Waldseemüller's morsus, 1516. (source)

The legend next to the animal reads:
The walrus (morsus) is an elephant sized animal with two long, quadrangular teeth. It is hindered by a lack of joints. The animal is found on promontories in Northern Norway where it moves in great herds.
Whoever drew the animals for Waldseemüller's map (possibly Albrecht Dürer) had more in mind than just an elephant-sized animal. What they drew is a very elephant-like animal. The body shape is passable for an elephant, as are the fan-shaped ears and longer legs than those on Olaus' morse. Less elephant-like are the hooves, lack of trunk, and boar's tusks. A second edition of Waldseemüller's map was made six years later by Laurent Fries. Fries produced a less expensive and smaller map that, while being much less detailed than the Carte Marina, retained the walrus and its description. Fries moved the morsus west of Greenland and made it more elephant-like by adding a trunk, though the hooves and boar's tusks remained.


Fries version of Waldseemüller's morsus. Fries map would go through several editions in the 1520s and 30s. (source)

Albertus' description compared the walrus' teeth to those of an elephant or boar. This was probably his way of saying that the teeth in question were tusks and not ordinary teeth. This mention could have been responsible both for the sixteenth century artists consistently putting the tusks in the walrus' jaw, boar style, and for the elephantish shape to its body. However, there is one strong clue that the elephant-ness of Waldseemüller's walrus was more than a suggestion planted in his artist's mind by Albertus using the word "elephant." That clue is Waldseemüller's mention in his description that the morsus has no joints. Ancient and Medieval scholarship is filled with authoritative statements that the elephant has no knees and sleeps standing up. Aristotle himself tried to debunk the legend, but was generally ignored on this point for the next two thousand years.

How did an animal that is basically a giant seal with fangs turn into a four-footed animal that invited comparison with an elephant? Did Waldseemüller and Olaus have unnamed sources that gave some additional anatomical details that sounded more elephant-like than seal-like? Unless we discover some amazingly detailed secret diaries, we will never know for sure if they had some unwritten sources or what those informants might have told them about walruses. We can, however engage in some logical speculation.

In a series of papers written in the first quarter of the last century, Berthold Laufer documented the history of walrus and narwhal ivory importation into China. He found accounts of ivory being traded down the Pacific coast from the far north as early as the fourth century AD. As a side note, he also described the ivory trade in Central Asia, the landward side of China. Laufer was strongly against the idea that any of the Pacific ivory was from mammoths, but grudgingly admitted that it might have been present in the Central Asian trade. He made very clear that the Chinese had no idea what kind of animal produced northern ivory. They generically called it ku-tu, a word which eventually made its way into Persian and Arabic. Laufer pointed out that, like unicorn horn in Europe, the ivory arriving in China passed through so many middlemen between the original collectors and the final consumers that any idea of the source animal was lost in transit. He also pointed out that often the ivory had been cut up to remove spoiled parts and for ease of transport, making it difficult to know even what shape the tusks or horns had originally had.

In the West, there would have been some important differences in this process. The Scandinavians, Russians, and Nenets who controlled different parts of the northern ivory trade were all people who hunted walruses and narwhals. They knew what these animals looked like, though they were not always eager to share their knowledge. In addition, walrus tusks and narwhal horns often made it to European markets uncut. When mammoth ivory moved along the Arctic coast to Pechora and Kholmogory, it would have been recognized as something different and treated as the "other" ivory. Questions about its origin would have been asked more knowledgably than in China or Central Asia where all three types of ivory were lumped together. They would have found out that the mammoth was a four-legged land animal, had a good idea of its size, and, possibly, even gained some idea of its general shape.

Waldseemüller and Olaus were not merchants. They never traveled into the Arctic and never saw any part of a walrus other than its tusks. Getting the shape of the walrus right was not their top concern. They were engaged in gathering enormous amounts of information about many things only one of which was the walrus. The descriptions and images that they ended up creating could very well have been a mish mash of information, part walrus and part mammoth, and representing nothing more than a vague "source of Russian ivory" animal.

Two other maps from the years between Olaus’ map and Desceliers’ are worth looking at to get a sense of where mapmakers’ minds were by mid-century, at least as far as walruses were concerned. Both are considered products of the Dieppe school. The first is a plate in the Vallard Atlas which was created sometime before 1547 by an unknown artist. The second is a map of the world created in 1546 and usually attributed to Desceliers. Both feature animals near the White Sea, though neither one has an explanatory legend.


The animal on the map of Europe in the Vallard Atlas, c. 1547. (source)


The animal on the Desceliers map of 1546. (source)

The animal in the Vallard Atlas looks so much like Waldseemüller's morsus that it could only have been copied from that source. It is in color and the artist has painted it a very elephant-like grey. The animal on the Desceliers map is similar, but not an exact copy. The body is longer and lower, like Olaus’ walrus, but with thinner legs and hooves, like Waldseemüller's. The hooves are cloven; it has droopy ears and a short snout. The total effect is very boar-like, but still within the tradition of walrus-monsters. In this context, the white elephant on Desceliers' 1550 map represents something new. He is no longer struggling to make sense of garbled descriptions of the walrus. At some point in the years between 1546 and 1550, Desceliers must have come into possession of some new information that caused him to believe that products, not just of an elephant-like animal, but of real elephants were being traded in—and originating in—the Russian far north.

Like Olaus and Waldseemüller, Desceliers did not record the names of all of his sources. He had a good reason for his silence; some of his informants may have been spies. In the sixteenth century, accurate maps and navigational directions were trade secrets for merchants and state secrets for imperial powers. They were the equivalent of high-resolution satellite photography during the Cold War. In Spain, merchants returning from far parts of the world were required to turn their logs and charts over to a government official, who incorporated new discoveries into the official world map, which was then used to produce official charts. In Portugal, after word of Vasco da Gama's trip around Africa into the Indian Ocean leaked out, giving away geographic secrets became a crime punishable by death. The Dutch East India Company maintained its own secret atlas. Attempts at monopolizing information were doomed to failure. Sailors drifted from ship to ship, port to port, and country to country and could always be encouraged to talk about their travels. Within the ranks of the smaller, but better informed, group of captains, mates, and government officials were plenty of bribable members. In the world of surreptitiously traded geographical intelligence, mapmakers were major players.

This is not just supposition where the Dieppe mapmakers are concerned. Remember that southeastern corner on the Desceliers' map? In the last years of the nineteenth century and again over the last thirty years, the land mass south of Indonesia has been the subject of a lot of attention. On the Dieppe maps, Java le Grande is seen as an extension of an assumed unknown southern continent believed necessary to create balance on the globe. Most of the place names on Java la Grande are of Portuguese origin. Whether or not this is evidence of a Portuguese discovery of Australia eighty years before the Dutch arrived there is still a subject of hot debate. What's less debatable is that these and other place names prove that the Dieppe mapmakers were getting some of their information from Portuguese sources. This was information that was not generally available to the rest of the world.

Portuguese imperial interests were not limited to Brazil and the Far East. The Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the non-European world between Portugal and Spain, left much of the North Atlantic to Portugal. And Portugal did have an interest there. As early as 1500, Portuguese sailors had known about the fisheries around Newfoundland. Gaspar Côrte Real arrived in that year and rather unimaginatively named the island Terra Verde, Greenland (not that "Newfoundland" was a work of spectacular creativity). Most etymologies say Labrador was named for another Portuguese explorer, João Fernandes Lavrador ("lavrador" simply means "laborer" and was a nickname rather than a proper family name). Both Fernandes and Real may have sailed up the east coast of Greenland until they were stopped by floe ice. A number of maps published before 1550 show Labrador, Newfoundland, and southern Greenland as Portuguese possessions.

Portugal is not the only contender for a source of undocumented information on the far north. Within the Spanish office of the Padron Real, an Englishman of Venetian heritage, Sebastian Cabot, produced charts for thirty years. Despite his one voyage for the Spanish being a disaster, Cabot maintained the confidence of the emperor on matters of navigation right up until the day he defected to England in 1548. With his vast knowledge of Spanish discoveries, Cabot was welcomed with open arms, rewarded with a generous salary and pension for services already rendered to the crown and to be performed in the future. Once settled in England, Cabot set about establishing a company, the charmingly named Mystery and Company of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown, to explore the Arctic regions hoping to find a shortcut to China. The first voyage of the company, in 1553, was to the East across the Russian coast, not to the West, where his father John Cabot had explored.

Did Desceliers learn something from his Portuguese informants that led him to believe there were elephants in the North? We'll likely never know. The Portuguese archives of exploration were all destroyed in the fire that followed the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. Did Cabot carry some information about the North learned during his long tenure in Spain? Cabot's personal papers have disappeared and nothing exists in the remaining Spanish and English archives to confirm such an idea. Could there have been a voyage to North not recorded in any government archive? This is very possible. Most voyages of exploration were commercial ventures, without government involvement. Thirty years after Desceliers published his map, a representative of the Muscovy Company (successor to the Mystery and Company of Merchant Adventurers) wrote to an unnamed Russian official asking for aid in exploring a route to the Ob River in Siberia. The Russian replied that he would be glad to help, although a ship load of Englishmen had already been in that country some years before. Stephen Burrough, one of the first English merchants of the Company, reported meeting Dutch merchants to the west of the White Sea. The Swedish king, Gustavus Vasa, attempted to extend his kingdom to the Arctic Ocean and White Sea and must have collected intelligence there. Norwegian trade to the White Sea dropped off in the thirteenth century, but it is unlikely that it ever completely died out.

We know that a trade in walrus ivory had been going on along the Russian Arctic coast since at least the ninth century, almost seven hundred years before Desceliers created his map. We know that at some point mammoth ivory made its way into that trade. The first unambiguous reference, Logan's "Elephants Tooth," comes only sixty years after the map. Before Desceliers, almost all written descriptions of walruses were based on Albertus' fanciful description of walrus hunting. Before Desceliers, visual representations of walruses in Europe portrayed a fantastic monster with legs and tusks. While these monsters might have been the result of mammoth characteristics being combined with Albertus' walrus, nothing that is unquestionably an elephant appears before Desceliers.

If early sixteenth century mapmakers had access to some intelligence about an elephant-like creature as a source for Arctic ivory, it appears that that information was lost soon after Desceliers finished his map. Russian tax rolls mention mammoth ivory in the 1580s. Logan's 1611 letter to Hakluyt, commenting on the elephant's tooth he bought at Pechora, was published in 1625. James recorded his in lexicon 1620, but the manuscript languished in various collections unnoticed until 1950. Literate society in Europe didn't become aware of the mammoth until the 1690s, didn't accept that it was an elephant until the middle of the eighteenth century, and didn't begin to understand it as a hairy, extinct cousin of the elephant until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Was Desceliers' elephant a mammoth? In the end, we have only the mystery.


Update: I wrote this for the Scientific American guest blog in November 2011. Since then, I've discovered three more maps from the same period that show elephants in or near the Arctic. One is a later map by Desceliers, the other two are unrelated to the Dieppe school. I've also gone over some travelers' accounts of Russia from the early 1500s and I'm now confident that mammoth ivory was being traded, mixed in with walrus ivory, as early as when Waldseemüller prepared his map.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

I Need to Get Some Platform

I'm back. Did you miss me? You may or may not have noticed that, since last summer, I've more or less given up blogging. Now I think it's time to start up again.

This weekend, I've been looking into literary agents. I sent queries to a handful that sounded like they would be a good match for me and the book. One word that stood out on many of their sites was "platform." They want writers with a strong platform. Platform, in this context, means voice and visibility. You probably know that publishers these days want authors to take an aggressive role in marketing their books, initiating events that don't require any investment by the publisher. Platform means they want to see authors who are positioned to do this even before the book is published. In non-fiction, this means they want the author to be an recognized expert in their field. Since I made up my field (historical mammothology) I am the world's leading authority in it, but I am falling down on the "recognized" part of that formula.

This brings us back to the blog. I need to get some new material in here, write frequently, spiff up the look a little bit, and find some way to create some "added value." And, most importantly, I need to get some traffic moving through here.

Meanwhile: here's a herd of mammoths trudging through a late spring snowfall.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Why do I try?

In all my years of blogging, the post that got the most comments was the simple question "Am I the only one who still thinks of unlined paper as 'typing paper?'"

Today on Twitter, I repeated someone else's mild joke about President's Day and, so far, I've had fifty favorites and retweets, by far the most I've had for anything I've ever said.

Instead of spending all this time researching a book, I should have just gone on social media years ago, written "So, what's the deal with mammoths?" and appended a hashtag for Jerry Seinfeld. It would have instantly made me Mr. Mammoth throughout the internet and gotten me an appearance on the Tonight Show and a fifteen minute NPR feature.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Mammoth Herd: the Adventure Begins

It's ‪#‎MammothMonday‬ and--Oh no!--my herd is in danger!


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Mammoth in a thong

In an effort to make science even sexier than it already is, Hope Jaren has introduced ‪#‎ThingIStudyInAThong‬ on Twitter. This is my contribution.


Mammoth in a thong. The real reason they went extinct?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Britannica breaks my heart

While hunting for some old images of moeritherium, I came across this:


Everything on it is wrong. Admittedly, the order Proboscidea has a big bushy family tree and many of the lineages and connections are the subjects of active controversies. But this goes beyond valid controversy; it's just wrong.

Starting at the bottom.

The genus Moeritherium is not the ancestor of any later proboscidean species. Though it had a nice long run of its own (almost twenty million years) and produced about a half dozen species, it was a side branch that ultimately left no descendants. When Charles W. Andrews unearthed the first Moeritherium at Fayum, Egypt in 1901, the oldest known proboscidean fossils were gomphotheres from the early Miocene. His discovery pushed the history of the order back to the earliest Oligocene--ten million years, but they didn't know that yet. It was an easy jump to make from earliest elephant to ancestor of elephants and Andrews announced his discovery that way. However, additional discoveries by him and by others soon raised questions about that conclusion and most Twentieth Century paleontologists were content to call it a cousin.

Trilophodon isn't a recognised genus or species at all. The word was coined in 1857 by Hugh Falconer to describe a sub-genus of mastodons that included the American mastodon and about half of the family that later came to be called gomphotheres. The other half, he called Tetralophodons (the terms describe an element of tooth architecture). The words are used today as adjectives, not as formal names, for different types of gomphotheres. The illustration is probably supposed to be Gomphotherium angustidens, the most common and best known Old World gomphothere.

Depending which species the Britannica artist had in mind, they might have managed to get the relationship somewhat right with Platybelodon. It is a trilopodont gomphothere. It produced the final species of the sub-family Amebelodontinae.

As far as mammoths being descended from platybelodons, no, just no. Mammoths are not descended from trilopodont gomphotheres or from tetralopodont gomphotheres or any kind of gomphothere. Their last common ancestor existed about 23 million years ago before the various prodoscidean genera left Africa.

Mammuthus primigenius, the woolly mammoth, is not the ancestor of modern elephants. In fact, it didn't evolve until long after the three surviving elephant species had reached their current forms. The idea that it is an ancestor originated in the earliest days of paleontology, before evolution or the ice ages were understood or accepted. Johann Blumenbach, who first recognized that mammoths were different enough from modern elephants to need a unique scientific, name thought of them as a less refined local breed of elephant and named them Elephas primigenius - the primal or original elephant. It didn't take long for naturalists figure out that the mammoth was different enough to need its own genus - Mammuthus. Outside of creationist literature, I'm not sure where you would find a source that claims mammoths are ancestral to elephants written since the 1880s at the latest. Plus woolly mammoths weren't that large. While they weighed as much African savanna elephants, they were much more compact, shorter and thicker.

African and Mammoth/Asian elephants diverged from each other about seven million years ago. Each of those lines produced several species before the modern ones appeared, coincidentally around the same time, 2.5 million years ago. Mammoths separated from Asian elephants while their common ancestor still lived in Africa.

To sum up: four relationships that are wrong, one species that never existed, one in the wrong chronological order, one visually incorrect (in size), and Asian elephants aren't blue. A correct illustration should look something like this:


When did Britannica become so sloppy?

UPDATE: An editor at Britannica just tweeted me to thank me for bringing the problem to their attention and to say they'll get right on fixing it. My faith is restored.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Not a good way to go

Here's a little story on CT scans of the two baby mammoths Khroma and Lyuba. The two are recent discoveries--found within the last decade--and among the most complete and best preserved ever seen. With such exceptional specimens, it's only natural that researchers would constantly be searching for ways to squeeze a few more facts out of them. Getting an opportunity to run one through an industrial-sized CT scanner is something both teams jumped at. The article mentions some interesting lines of research suggested by the results about how they grew and possible subspecies, but one thing stood out for me: these babies died horrible deaths.


CT scans of Lyuba and Khroma showing the sediment they in haled in their final moments. Source.

Most things that die go straight into the food chain. There are billions of bugs, germs, fungi, roots, wolves, sharks, and birds waiting for their share of anything that dies. If the biosphere has its way, no part will go unused. But, the biosphere does not always get its way and that's the only thing that makes paleontology possible. Some bodies or parts thereof escape the food chain and linger long enough for us look at them long after their parent species have been taken off the menu. There will always be gaps in the fossil record because the processes that lead to fossilization are the exception rather than the rule. Every fossil has a unique story to tell.

Over the last 320 years, fewer than eighty mammoths have been discovered with soft parts preserved (seventy-five by my count). Many of those were no more than a patch of skin with some hair and ligaments attached. Until recently, only about half of those reported were recovered. Only seventeen of the seventy-five were more than half complete when discovered. We know details of the last moments of the lives of only a small number of preserved mammoths. To my knowledge, all but one died a horrible, terrifying death.

The CT scans of Khroma and Lyuba show they drowned, buried in mud, and still gasping hard enough as they went under that they sucked sediment into their lungs. Little Dima, though the story of his death is still disputed, apparently stayed afloat for days in a bog before losing his strength and sinking into the mud. The Berezovka mammoth, an old male, tumbled down a riverbank, breaking his hip and thigh as he fell, and suffocated while struggling to stand up as wet soil slid down the bank and buried him alive.


The taxidermied skin of the Berezovka mammoth in the posture died in, attempting to rise as it was buried. Vladimir Gorodnjanski, 2007.

All of these horrible deaths were preserved because they happened in the Fall. Once the mammoths died, they were quickly frozen, probably that same night, and, for some reason, never thawed. In Lyuba's case, her preservation was aided by settling into an anoxic layer of sediment in the pond where she drowned. Other mammoth carcasses discovered at Yuribei and Fishhook also show a pattern of having died in the late Summer or Fall.


Dutch paleontologist Dick Mol with the head of the Yukagir mammoth. Source.

I'm only aware of one frozen mammoth that died in the Spring and, coincidentally, he's also the only one I'm aware of who died a peaceful death. The Yukagir mammoth was discovered in 2002 on the banks of an oxbow lake east of the Lena River delta. The front part of the body and most of the gut with its contents were recovered and sent to Yakutsk to be studied. The Yukagir mammoth was an old male who died in the early Spring after a tough Winter. He had several deformed vertebrae in his upper back from an infection indirectly caused by inflammatory bowel disease. It was the hungry season just before the plants would begin to bud and bloom. He had been eating a lot of willow twigs, which do not have a very high nutritional value, but they would have filled his stomach and the natural aspirin in them would have soothed his back. It was probably a warm day when he lay down on the shady side of a hill and died. Later, the sun melted some mud higher on the hill which covered the body and froze. Being on the shady side of the hill, it stayed frozen for the next twenty-two thousand years.

That most of the frozen mammoths died in the late Summer or Fall, is not an observation that can be extended as a rule to other fossils. This season was the time of year when large animals on the mammoth steppe had the best odds of being preserved, that is covered in mud and frozen. Other environments had their own best seasons for preservation. I suspect the best time to get preserved in the anoxic depths of a peat bog would be the wettest season. The best time to get deeply buried in sediments of a lake or shallow sea would be the flood season. The least likely time of year for preservation, in any environment, would be any time that left a body exposed on the surface where scavengers and the elements could have their way with your remains. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Periodic Table of the Elephants

Last January, Brian Switek, a rising star in the dinosaur firmament (his latest book), made an offhand comment about the need for a periodic table of the elephants. I don't know if he meant it seriously or if he was just going for the pun. However, I had just been reading about proboscidean evolution and the name set off a whole marquee of light bulbs over my head. Let's make a periodic table of proboscidean evolution.

I Googled the idea and found several "Periodic Tables of the Elephants" but all of them were normal periodic tables using cartoon elephants as illustrations. None of them were really about elephants. I let the idea bubble for a while, bounced it off my Facebook friends, and, last week, decided to go for it.

So, what is the plan? Simply put, it's an educational poster of proboscidean evolution using the familiar theme of the periodic table to illustrate the diversity of the proboscidean family tree. It's a very bushy tree. The definitive work in the late 1930s listed 350 species. It took sixty years for someone to become brave enough to prune that tree, getting rid of unnecessary duplications, and adding recent discoveries. By my count, there are currently 177 species recognized in the order Proboscidea. This can't all be explained in a poster. No one wants a poster of mostly words. The poster needs an accompanying booklet. This book and poster set is not unusual for educational posters.

Alrighty. What's the plan? For the periodic table itself, I intend to organize a representative subgroup of the recognized species (about a third of them) in the order that their genera first appeared in the fossil record and use these for the table. For each square in the table, I'll make a drawing of the species with a size bar, give it a two letter symbol, provide its Linnean binomial (scientific name), and the namer and year it was named (these are also part of the full scientific name). In the center of the poster I'll provide a key to the squares and on one side I'll provide a general family tree of to show how they fit together.


But wait, that's not all. The booklet expands on this. In the booklet I'll provide a specific description of each species, with an enlarged illustration, explaining it's evolutionary significance and stories about it's discovery, lifestyle, and appearance. The whole thing will be prefaced with an illustrated article on proboscidean evolution that gives perspective to each of the individual genera and species. Aside from its educational value, the booklet will allow the owner to assume an air of superiority while explaining the poster to their students/nerdy friends. Who doesn't like that?

I've decided to pitch this on Kickstarter (or Indiegogo, I'm open to recommendations). I'm broke and I need some income to keep going. I have tons of research that doesn't fit into the book, and I would like to monetize it. This also gives me something to put on my resume to convince potential publishers that I know my stuff. There are some great stories that I had to greatly abridge or cut from the book. These will make great e-books, but these are things that will be useful for marketing the mammoth book after it's done. I need something that I can do right away that will pay up front. The evolutionary data fits the ticket perfectly.

To do this, I'll need to produce around eighty professional quality illustrations. I can do that, but, since the last time I did any serious illustration, I've developed a serious hand tremor. Retraining myself will take some work, but not a lot. I would show you my current artistic ability, but my scanner died not long before I moved. Getting a new one will bee my first expense. I need to pay myself for my research time, my art, layout, color, and the production of the first batch of the posters, booklets, associated mailing costs, and anything I might have missed. Based on what I've already done, I think three months for the project is a realistic goal.

This leads me to some questions: 1) Is this a good idea? 2) Would you buy the poster or do you know anyone who would? 3) If I go ahead with this, what should be my financial goal? I think at least $4000 for the art and at least $2000 for the rest. Could I get more? 4) I need to offer threshold gifts. Any ideas? Signed prints? The poster? 5) What am I forgetting?

I'll keep working on the book during this time, just not as fast. If anyone has experience with Kickstarter projects, I'd love to hear about it. What do you think?