Sunday, August 11, 2013

The first mammoth and dinosaur fossils, meet the modern men.

During the 18th and 19th Century, the general feeling among the Europeans was that the new world (America) was inferior in all ways to the old world (Europe). This assertion reached its peak when the French naturalist, Comte de Buffon, in his book ‘Histoire Naturelle’ published that the new world was a land where the water was stagnant, the soil unproductive and the animals without size and vigour. Their constitution weakened by the noxious vapours rising from its rotting swarms and sunless forest. The native Indians lacked virility, have no beard or body hair and no ardour for the female. The Dutchman Comeille de Pauw wrote in his work, Recherches Philosophiques sur les Americains’ that the native Americans were not only reproductively unimposing, but so lacking in virility that they had milk in their breasts. Naturally such views were met with furious rebuttals from American writers. Thomas Jefferson, asked his friend General John Sullivan to send twenty soldiers into the northern woods to find a bull moose to present it to Buffon as proof of the stature and majesty of American quadrupeds. After two weeks the soldiers tracked and hunted down a suitable subject, but unfortunately the moose lacked the imposing horns that Jefferson wanted. So Sullivan attached a rack of antlers from an elk. Who in France after all would know?
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, bones of a giant elephant like creature were being assembled. The creature was named ‘American incognitum’ now called the mammoth. The bones were first discovered at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky and soon found all over America. It looked like America was once home to these massive creatures. In their keenness to silence the Europeans (particularly Buffon) American naturalist got slightly carried away. In their description of the “incognitum” they overestimated its size by a factor of six and gave it frightening claws, which in fact came from Megalonyx, or giant ground sloth, found nearby. They convinced themselves that the creature had the agility of a tiger and portrayed it in illustrations as pouncing on its prey from boulders with feline grace. When tusks were discovered, they were forced into the animals head in many inventive ways. One restorer screwed them upside down to look like fangs of a Sabre tooth. But Buffon was not impressed; he cheerfully seized the fact of its extinction and proclaimed that the very fact that the creature was extinct was proof of America’s degenerate nature. 

Buffon died in 1788, meanwhile in 1787 someone discovered a enormous thighbone in New Jersey. The bone is today believed to have belonged to ‘Hadrosaur’ (a large duck billed dinosaur). At that time, dinosaurs were unknown. The bone was sent to Dr. Caspar Wistar, who presented it to American philosophical society. The discovery excited little interest and the bone was put in a store room and eventually disappeared. So the first dinosaur bone ever found was also the first to be lost. 

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