Book of the week: The Legacy of the Mastodon

David Norman enjoys a tale of bones and teeth

August 28, 2008

The history of the discovery of fossils (and their scientific, and occasionally political, importance) is one that has been written about on a number of occasions. The most intellectually robust, broad-brush and enduring book to date is Martin Rudwick's brilliant The Meaning of Fossils (1972 and subsequent editions). However, when we turn to the matter of vertebrate fossils, such historical studies generally take on a rather narrower focus, concentrating on specific episodes (including the earliest revelations about prehistoric monsters in the early decades of the 19th century, and the "bone wars" of the 1870s and beyond) or they represent essentially biographical reviews of worthy individuals such as Mary Anning, Gideon Mantell, Richard Owen and Joseph Leidy.

In this volume, Keith Thomson presents us with an interesting, and indeed rather novel, synthesis, with a transatlantic perspective. The book is a testament to a considerable amount of scholarly research but also benefits from an inherent mid-Atlantic balance that reflects Thomson's own intellectual "ontogeny", sandwiching a considerable period of his career working as an academic at Yale University within an initial academic training in England and a period, towards the end of his formal career, as the first director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Although multi-chaptered, the book is subdivided into four main sections: "The Jeffersonians", "Fossils and geology", "Giant saurians and horned mammals" and "Toward the 20th century", followed by some insightful appendices and supportive chapter notes (in the manner of scholarly texts on historical matters).

Thomson's book sets out to survey the geographic, scientific, social and political landscapes associated with the foundation, ambition and spirit of exploration of the new nation while placing it in the context of the old colonial powers, their own vested interests and foundational scholarship. By far the most enjoyable part of the book is the first section, devoted to unearthing (literally and metaphorically) a rich tapestry of misunderstanding, visionary insight, prejudice and ambition.

All this revolves around the discovery of huge fossil bones and teeth at a Kentucky location with the wonderfully evocative name of Big Bone Lick. Called at first "the American incognitum", the fossils belonged to a large, tusked, elephantine creature with quite literally breast-shaped molar teeth - hence masto-dont - and such was their burgeoning fame and notoriety that they came to the attention of two of America's foremost thinkers, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. French soldiers collected the first mastodont teeth as early as 1739 (although such remains were long known to Native Americans and were already part of their folklore).

However, their interpretation remained difficult (given the state of knowledge at the time) and gave rise to the notion that the "incognitum" (the word mastodon was not coined until 1799) was a huge, extinct carnivorous creature (or, as some suggested, perhaps two distinct creatures). Specimens of these early discoveries were sent to London, where the polymathic Franklin served as "ambassador" for the Pennsylvanian Assembly. He was intrigued by these remains and what they revealed about former life on the American continent. To his credit he did not doubt that the remains belonged to a single animal that bore large tusks and an elephant-like body, and he was convinced that its teeth indicated a herbivorous/browsing habit. Jefferson was also intrigued by these remains, and he collected specimens that would adorn the entrance to his presidential home in southern Virginia. Interestingly, he used the remains to promote the idea that the fauna of the American continent were not "inferior" to those known in Europe (as claimed by the French natural philosopher the Comte de Buffon).

From this auspicious beginning, the discovery of fossils in America moved on both falteringly and swiftly with the revelation of "Great Claw" (fragments of a giant ground sloth); the discovery of giant marine reptiles (similar to those unearthed in the early 19th century by Mary Anning in England); and, of course, the discovery of truly spectacular remains of fossil mammals and dinosaurs in the American Midwest that, once and for all, established the importance of the fossil history of the New World and eventually led to the creation of striking displays in what would become some of the world's great natural history museums.

The latter story dominates Thomson's book, and rightly so, despite the coverage that this topic has had in earlier works. What this book does, however, is delve into this history in greater depth. It examines the correspondence and gets far closer to the trials and tribulations of working in hostile and unexplored territory. It also charts the slow but inexorable rise of scholarship associated with the study of fossils and their role in understanding the process of evolution based on data collected in the US. Central to much of this story are men such as Joseph Leidy in Philadelphia.

Leidy has proved difficult for historians to come to grips with. He seems in the most recent biography to be a shadowy figure, although well recognised as a gifted scientist. Yet Thomson seems to get closer to the essence of the man and his foibles. While the younger Edward Drinker Cope and his soon-to-be bitter rival Othniel Charles Marsh were the principal players in the fossil mammal and dinosaur "bone wars" from the late 1860s to the 1880s, what emerges in Thomson's account is a far more richly textured view of the central (and immensely sagacious) role of Leidy, and many of his unsung contemporaries who played major roles in this amazingly energetic (and occasionally unsavoury) period of fossil discovery.

By the end of the 19th century, the shoots of fresh intellectual growth are clearly discernible in a new generation of workers (notably Samuel Wendel Williston, John Bell Hatcher, William Berryman Scott and Henry Fairfield Osborn) who, although tainted by association with Cope or Marsh (long the driving forces behind most expeditionary work to collect new fossils), were clearly moving on intellectually towards a period of productive collaboration instead of bitter feuding.

Thomson compresses this history into a little over 300 pages. What emerges is an epic tale of struggle: to shake off colonial repression and intellectual domination; to gain respect for independence through self-discovery; and, through this, a national historical narrative that allows a distinctively American intellectual voice to rise and gain respect from the Old World. That such a tale involves politicians, intellectuals, ambitious and unscrupulous individuals, wealth, influence and incredible personal energy is not at all surprising. However, that this intensely human struggle takes place across a landscape populated by fossils is really quite remarkable.

I enjoyed this book, even though the second half required a little more sustained attention. And I feel that it would perhaps have been better if the illustrations had not been clustered together in the middle (and had been a little more numerous). Although I fear it is unlikely to be a bestseller, given its rather fastidious attention to detail, I feel sure that Thomson's book will be read with interest and appreciation by many who find the social and political cauldron of the 18th and 19th centuries fascinating.


It's not often that a small ad can change someone's life, but while Keith Thomson was studying zoology (aiming to become a physiologist), he saw an advert for a studentship at the Natural History Museum. There, studying flying fish, he discovered a love for paeleontology.

After a PhD degree at Harvard, he worked at universities including University College London and Yale. In 1998 he returned to Britain and became the first director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History who was also a practising academic.

When asked about the differences between paeleontology in Europe and America, he says that the main one is the scholarly attention given to creationism in the US. He believes that paeleontology can change people's attitudes to the theory of evolution, saying that "the fossils and the geological evidence are the evidence for evolution. It's not evolutionary theory; it's evolutionary fact".

Now retired, he misses the students but not all his recollections are rose-tinted: "I often think: 'What have I done to deserve this wonderful life?' Then I remember the committees I had to go to and think maybe I've paid my dues."

- Sarah Cunnane.

The Legacy of the Mastodon: The Golden Age of Fossils in America

By Keith Thomson

Yale University Press, 416pp, £22.50

ISBN 9780300117042

Published 1 August 2008

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