Discovering the Mammoth

Discovering the Mammoth

A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of A New Science

Book - 2017
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Today, we know that a mammoth is an extinct type of elephant that was covered with long fur and lived in the north country during the ice ages. But how do you figure out what a mammoth is if you have no concept of extinction, ice ages, or fossils? Long after the last mammoth died and was no longer part of the human diet, it still played a role in human life. Cultures around the world interpreted the remains of mammoths through the lens of their own worldview and mythology.

When the ancient Greeks saw deposits of giant fossils, they knew they had discovered the battle fields where the gods had vanquished the Titans. When the Chinese discovered buried ivory, they knew they had found dragons' teeth. But as the Age of Reason dawned, monsters and giants gave way to the scientific method. Yet the mystery of these mighty bones remained.

How did Enlightenment thinkers overcome centuries of myth and misunderstanding to reconstruct an unknown animal?

The journey to unravel that puzzle begins in the 1690s with the arrival of new type of ivory on the European market bearing the exotic name "mammoth." It ends during the Napoleonic Wars with the first recovery of a frozen mammoth. The path to figuring out the mammoth was traveled by merchants, diplomats, missionaries, cranky doctors, collectors of natural wonders, Swedish POWs, Peter the Great, Ben Franklin, the inventor of hot chocolate, and even one pirate.

McKay brings together dozens of original documents and illustrations, some ignored for centuries, to show how this odd assortment of characters solved the mystery of the mammoth and, in doing so, created the science of paleontology.

Publisher: New York : Pegasus Books, 2017
ISBN: 9781681774244
Branch Call Number: QE705.A1 M35 2017
Characteristics: xiii, 241 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plate : illustration ; 24 cm


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Jun 14, 2018

The cast of characters gets a little overwhelming and it would help to have an appendix on the zoology of mammoths and mastodons. The history of thinking about the mammoth is a good way to learn a little about the history of science.

Since childhood, I've been fascinated by mammoths and mastodons. I have not idea why; I just do. This book is a satisfying history of the discovery, confusion, and understanding of the woolly mammoth. The bones of this extinct beast were, at first and for a long time, thought to be that of giants - human giants. Later, they were interpreted as victims of the Biblical Flood or casualties of Roman invasion forces. All wrong, of course. So how did we actually come to understand them to be what we now know them to be? That's what this book explores and does so quite engagingly. Sometimes, it gets a bit too deep into some of the politics of the day but if you don't care about that stuff, you can skim past that with little lost. Overall, this is a fascinating read and a great bedtime nightstand kind of book. Cool section of photos and illustrations.

Major beef: typographical errors (of which there are quite a few in the later chapters).


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