Skip to comments.Giant Bones Challenged 18th-Century Intellectuals
Posted on 09/29/2007 5:27:14 PM PDT by blam
Giant bones challenged 18th-century intellectuals
By Dan Hurley
Today, the valley is dry, dusty and unremarkable, but 250 years ago it was one of the most fascinating spots ever discovered in the North America. From the very first time in 1739 that local Indians led a contingent of French explorers to the salt licks near the Ohio River in what is today Boone County, Ky., the spot raised intellectually troubling questions.
European and American scientists understood the importance of salt licks and why thousands of modern buffalo, deer and elk beat broad paths to the marshy lick, but they could not explain why they found huge bones and tusks of "elephants," as well as other giant animals for which they had no names (eventually named giant ground sloth, the moose ox, flat headed peccary, etc.) lying on the ground and exposed in the banks of the nearby creek.
As explorers pushed westward, fantastic reports piled up. In 1751 Christopher Gist acquired two large teeth found at Big Bone Lick from men who reported that they had seen a skeleton with rib bones "eleven feet long, and the skull bone six feet wide, across the forehead."
In 1765 and 1766 George Croghan became the first explorer to collect significant quantities of bones, including two tusks "about six feet long." He sent these to London for inspection by the leading scientists of the day, including Benjamin Franklin, who thought the bones were "extremely curious on many accounts; no living elephant having been seen in any part of America by any of the Europeans settled there, or remembered by any tradition of the Indians."
It is difficult today to appreciate the intellectual shock waves set off by these giant bones in the 1790s and early 1800s. The first dinosaur would not be unearthed until 1824. Scientists, like everyone else, operated with the religiously grounded view of a "perfect creation" in which every creature had its place in a divinely established, hierarchical and stable "Great Chain of Being."
Not until people like French scientist George Cuvier, working with specimens from Big Bone collected by French explorers, and Benjamin Franklin, working with specimens collected by Croghan, did anyone pose one of the shattering question that both reflected the emerging modern consciousness: Is it possible that a species which once existed can become extinct?
With only the first hints from the nascent field of geology that the earth's age had to be calculated in non-biblical terms, and with no knowledge of ice ages, Franklin put forward a very modern hypothesis. He suggested that the best explanation for the extinction of the giant creatures was a significant change in climate in North America.
As a leading citizen of the Enlightenment, no one was more intrigued by Big Bone Lick than Thomas Jefferson, but, like a good scientist, he cautioned against a rush to judgment. With so much of North America unexplored, he was not prepared to conclude that mammoths and mastodons were extinct. They may simply be hiding in the vast wilderness of the American West, leading him to instruct Lewis and Clark in 1803 to be "observant of the animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the US, the remains & accounts of any which may be deemed rare or extinct."
After the Corps of Discovery completed its famous exploration, Jefferson sent William Clark to the Lick in 1807 to systematically collect bones for him. The next year the President displayed nearly 100 of the specimens from Northern Kentucky in the East Room of the White House and invited fellow scientists to join him and "satisfy your curiosity."
For Dr. Glenn Storrs, the curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, and Dr. Brenda Hanke, the curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Cincinnati Museum Center, working close to Big Bone Lick means working close to the place where modern paleontology had its beginnings. For Storrs and Hanke, Big Bone remains a source of excitement and the curiosity.
Dr. Hanke just completed work on an interactive touch screen computer kiosk that will be unveiled during a special program at 5 this afternoon on the floor of the Museum of Natural History and Science in Union Terminal. The modern, high-tech program is located in the midst of ancient specimens from Big Bone Lick. As part of the Great Outdoor Weekend this Saturday and Sunday (www.CincyGreatOutdoorWeekend.org), Dr. Storrs will help lead tours at Big Bone Lick itself.
Hanke, a Canadian, always thought of Franklin and Jefferson as political figures, not scientists with whom she shared a curiosity and passion to understand the natural world. Now she sees Big Bone as an exciting human story as much as a scientific story. For her, the enduring lesson of Big Bone is the "infectious curiosity" it created among the greatest minds in America. She believes the site and its bones still have the power to inspire people, no matter what their age, to "explore and follow our curiosities, even if we don't end up writing a Declaration of Independence."
Dan Hurley is assistant vice president for history and research at the Cincinnati Museum Center. He is also staff historian for Channel 12 News and executive producer of Local 12 Newsmakers. E-mail: email@example.com.
that's nothing, a tooth pick and a marshmallow will challenge some 21st Century so-called Intellectuals
always learning, never acknowledging the truth.
The Cycle of Cosmic Catastrophes:
Flood, Fire, and Famine
in the History of Civilization
by Richard Firestone,
Allen West, and
*** Benjamin Franklin, who thought the bones were “extremely curious on many accounts; no living elephant having been seen in any part of America by any of the Europeans settled there, or remembered by any tradition of the Indians.” ***
Then here is something interesting.
Back about 1557 John Hawkins sailed to Africa then the Americas with a load of slaves. His fleet was captured at Vera Cruz, Mexico.
Some of the men decided to escape the Spanish and headed overland where they wer picked up by the French ship GARGARINE eleven month later off the coast of Nova Scotia. An ELEVEN month walk from Tampico, Mexico to Nova Scotia.
One of the men, David Ingram said they went overland and described many of the animals they saw, INCLUDING ELEPHANTS.
The two other survivors with David Ingram were Richard Twide and Richard Browne.
Isn’t History intersting!
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this guy above you’s saying that
live elephants were part of the 16th c american landscape.
I wish I had known about this place when I visited the Creation Museum last June, they can’t be too far apart.
I think that account is generally attributed to sightings of buffalo.
If you go, and see anything interesting, photos? :’)
These guys probably ate them all.
ping for later
Why would you do that?
I hope the admission was free.
***this guy above yous saying that
live elephants were part of the 16th c american landscape.***
Western author Louis L’Amour also beleived it.
Cool opportunity to make it to the Creation Museum
Are you sure that doesn't belong in the 'Salacious Ping List' (you know, along with the Grand Tetons National Park) ?
Juvenile humor ping.