Discovering the Mammoth

Long after the last mammoth died and was no longer part of our diet, this awe inspiring creature still played a role in human life. Cultures around the world interpreted the remains of mammoths through their own world view and mythology. When the ancient Greeks saw deposits of giant fossils, they knew they had discovered 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 a new type of ivory from Russia. It ends during the Napoleonic Wars with the first recovery of a frozen mammoth. The path to figuring out the mammoth was traveled by a colorful cast of characters, including Peter the Great, Ben Franklin, the inventor of hot chocolate, even one pirate, and it culminates with the creation of the science of paleontology.

John J. McKay has a Master’s in History from the University of Washington. A technical writer by trade, he is the "Mammoth Guy" by vocation, and his remarkable archival research, lively wit and passion for extinct proboscideans is well known to the scientific community. He lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where people appreciate a good mammoth. Visit him at mammothtales.blogspot.com.