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Giants in the Earth: How Mammoths Changed Our World

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 29, 2017

(Illustration: National Geographic)

by Richard Conniff/The Wall Street Journal

Discovering the Mammoth is one of those books that make you wonder about the author as much as about his topic. John J. McKay writes that he got started with a single blog post aiming to establish “a chronology of what was known about mammoths and when.” Or rather, he got started because he noticed, while indulging his “great love of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas,” that “lost history theories”—think Atlantis, flood geology and rogue planets—“all used frozen mammoths as proof positive of their ideas.”

Mr. McKay, who describes himself on his blog as “an underemployed, grumpy, and aging liberal who lives in the Great Northwest”—that is, Alaska—soon began obsessively collecting facts about these great, hairy pachyderms. He became the “mammoth guy” to his neighbors and apparently also to his long-suffering (now ex-) wife.

The resulting book is unfortunately more the chronology that Mr. McKay set out to write in the first place and less the thrilling “Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science” touted in the subtitle. Mr. McKay’s background as a technical writer shows in his clear sentences, with one carefully authenticated fact logically following another from beginning to end. It also shows, however, in the absence of color, scene setting or a driving narrative arc. And yet I found the book oddly compelling.

Mr. McKay makes the case that, beginning about 1600, mammoths and their mastodon cousins, appearing in bits and pieces from beneath the ice and earth, became “a focusing problem for a scientific revolution.” They were the starting point for sweeping changes in geology and comparative anatomy and in the ways we think about life on Earth.

Scholars could reason their way around previous out-of-place discoveries like fossil seashells found on mountaintops, Mr. McKay writes. But “the remains of unrecognizable land animals, especially large ones, were a tougher problem.” Most European naturalists in the 1600s had only the vaguest awareness of living tropical elephants, and they had no obvious way to connect them to these puzzling ancient creatures. “Unraveling that mystery required the development of a new, specialized intellectual toolkit,” Mr. McKay writes. “Unthinkable ideas such as extinction and a history of the earth itself separate from, and older than, human history needed to be embraced.” Though Mr. McKay does not put it in so many words, mammoths were the beginning of the end for the biblical view of Earth history.

The initial response to the discovery of mammoth and mastodon remains was, however, entirely orthodox. With Genesis 6:4 firmly in mind (“There were giants in the earth in those days”), most Europeans took them for the bones of such “mighty men.” A discovery in southern France in 1613, for instance, resulted in a “true history of the life, death, and bones of Giant Theutobochus, King of Teutons,” slain in battle with the Roman consul Marius and buried in a 30-foot-long tomb. Likewise, when a tooth weighing almost 5 pounds turned up a century later in Claverack, N.Y., the Puritan minister Cotton Mather boasted that this American discovery made Goliath and other Old World giants look like mere pygmies. Other, more naturalistically inclined, scholars thought mammoths emerging from Siberian ice were the remains of huge, burrowing rodents that lived underground and died on exposure to air.

The gentry coveted “unicorn” ivory as an antidote to poisoning, and at “the peak of the poison panic in the mid-sixteenth century,” Mr. McKay writes, exotic ivory fetched 10 times the price of gold. At first, mammoth, walrus and narwhal ivory got mixed together without distinction. But the word “mammoth,” from an indigenous Siberian word meaning “earth horn,” gradually gained currency in Europe. The trade in mammoth ivory for carved objects also boomed. Mr. McKay quotes one estimate that, by 1840, Siberia had already exported the tusks of 20,000 mammoths. (That trade is still thriving today at a reported rate of 60 tons of mammoth ivory a year.)

The intellectual problem with mammoths arose because Western thinking had no conception of a species becoming extinct. Instead, the “great chain of being” progressed link by link from the lowliest worm up to humans, everything in its place and each species essential to the unity of the whole. “From Nature’s chain whatever link you strike,” Alexander Pope wrote, “Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.”

The German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz flirted with the idea of extinction at the end of the 17th century but could bring himself to argue only that species could change form to some degree. Or as Mr. McKay puts it, “a cold-adapted elephant had the same relation to a tropical elephant as a shepherd dog to a terrier.” A century later, beginning in the mid-1790s, the French comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier finally assembled the evidence to distinguish carefully among elephants both living and dead. He made extinction an irrevocable fact of life. Cuvier, now considered the father of paleontology, demonstrated that whole worlds of species had lived and died before us. It was a radical turning point in our conception of the world and of our own place in it. It was also the essential preamble to Charles Darwin’s subsequent idea of evolution by natural selection.

Mr. McKay doesn’t spend much time on the American side of the story, which is a pity. To understand just how thoroughly mammoths and mastodons shaped our own sense of ourselves as a nation, readers might enjoy Paul Semonin’s “American Monster” (2000). But Mr. McKay fills in the European background in admirable detail. In an afterword, he notes that early humans on many continents lived with mammoths and other probiscideans, hunted them for food, and used their bones and hide for shelter, tools and early art. We may even have followed them out of Africa and watched what plants they ate in new habitats before sampling them ourselves. Mammoths, elephants and their kin, John McKay suggests, helped make us who we are.

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One Response to “Giants in the Earth: How Mammoths Changed Our World”

  1. […] online: Greg Laden’s Blog, Nature, Christian Science Monitor, Twilight Beasts blog, Richard Conniff for the Wall Street Journal (paywall), Publisher’s Weekly, and Library […]

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