Discovering the Mammoth by John J. McKay
Speaking of paleontology….
Before there were dinosaurs and other prehistoric wonders, there were petrified remains of animals, plants, sea shells. From earliest days, humans have found them, and recognized that they appear to be life that no one has seen alive.
But to understand fossil remains, you have to be able to imagine that what we know now is not all there is to know. You have to be able to accept that the Earth is old, that it has changed a lot through time, and, above all, species of animals and plants emerge, change, and may even die out.
These concepts are hard to grasp, even when there aren’t dogmatic religious or folks stories contending.
McKay recounts how European thinkers “discovered” the Mammoth, a prehistoric elephant that died out at the end of the last ice age. As he notes, the tusks and other bones of Mammoths were known for many centuries, as well as other related species. But the notion of extinction was alien to the Western philosophy (Pagan, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, alike), and almost no one thought of the world as being millions of years old.
Most of the book is a history of Renaissance and Enlightenment times, during which Europeans became aware of the wider world, including the remains of unknown animals. He tracks down nearly every written mention of Mammoths and related fossils. This is a tangled mess of speculation and blinkered assumptions that only slowly recognized the actual evidence.
This story meanders through central Europe, Colonial New Spain, Colonial America, and, above all Siberia. In Siberia, there are not only massive numbers of Mammoth tusks and bones, but there are whole frozen Mammoths! It’s difficult to mistake or deny that these remains are a real and once living animal when you can smell the rotting carcass from miles away.
I learned lots about the early exploration of Siberia, and more than I really care about the politics of eighteenth and nineteenth century Russia.
McKay says that understanding the Mammoth is basically the beginning of paleontology, and he has a good point. Working out that Mammoths are related to but not the same as modern elephants, that they lived a long time ago, and that they are extinct took huge leaps of imagination. Furthermore, establishing the case required moving from travellers’ tales and biblical analogy to careful excavation, comparative anatomy, geological stratigraphy, and knowledge of similar finds all around the world. These are the very definition of modern paleontology, and the problem of the Mammoth was one of the first real successes.
Ironically, the Mammoth is also one of the most intriguing of all the extinct species because it overlapped with Homo Sapiens, even if there is no living memory of that fact. We know this because we have paintings and etching of Mammoths and other extinct fauna, made by our ancestors, who knew them and likely hunted them.
Thus, figuring out the story of the Mammoth also helped push the history of humans far into the past, and far beyond most folk stories and Biblical narratives. This is one of the crucial intellectual turning points where a thinking person is forced choose between science and received revelations. Do I believe the traditional story, or the evidence of my own eyes?
The beginning of paleontology is also one of the great beginnings of natural science in general. Mammoths are not only old and extinct, but they were normal (if extraordinary) animals who lived by the same natural laws that we live by today. This notion that scientific theory extends to all times and places is the essence of the scientific enterprise.
McKay appears to be really, really into Mammoths. The book jacket says he is “the Mammoth Guy”, and that seems to be accurate. He is also a historian, and it shows. This book has some interesting history in it, possibly too much history. (Honestly, I completely lost track of who was who in Russia circa 1800.)
Personally, I wouldn’t have minded a lot more about Mammoths, and less about eighteenth century opinions about Mammoths. I suspect that McKay could write such a book, and maybe he will.
- John J. McKay, Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science, New York, Pegasus Books, 2107.
Sunday Book Reviews