Book review – Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science

“Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake, […]”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, “The Black Gate is Closed”

Even Hobbits knew about elephant-like creatures. But, not so long ago, we didn’t. This book starts off with a striking realisation. Our distant ancestors lived with mammoths, using their meat, hides and bones, possibly even overhunting them to extinction. Despite having lived side-by-side with these large, majestic creatures, somewhere along the line we forgot what they were – the details of their identity not being passed down the generations and gradually fading from our stories, our myths and legends, and, finally, from our collective memory. Even though their remains were with us through the millennia, we forgot the mammoth. In turn, their remains fueled new myths and legends, from the Greek Cyclops and Titans, to Chinese dragons, the Biblical giants, and the Siberian idea of giant burrowing moles that would die upon exposure to air. How do you reconstruct the identity of a creature for which your frame of reference is gone?

Discovering the Mammoth

Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science“, written by John J. McKay, published by Pegasus Books in August 2017 (hardback, 249 pages)

Discovering the Mammoth answers this question through John J. McKay’s painstaking work over the last decade. He has gone back to hundreds of original publications, letters, pamphlets and historical accounts, covering the period from roughly the beginning of the 1500s to the mid-1800s, to piece together how we rediscovered the mammoth, and how in its wake the scientific discipline of palaeontology was born. Only one other book I know of has specifically looked at a subset of this: The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths and Myth in Greek and Roman Times.

The earliest written accounts that McKay has recovered detail how bones found in various places in Europe were interpreted as those of legendary giants. Ivory tusks, at this point in time still indiscriminately mixed up with those of walruses and narwhals, continued to feed the unicorn myth. Somewhere in the 1500s traders penetrated deep enough into Siberia to come into contact with the people who sourced the material for the ivory trade, and mammoth tusks started to be recognised separately. McKay recounts in great detail how a motley cast of aristocrats, merchants, missionaries, and collectors uncovered more information, and how the realisation slowly seeped in that these were elephant remains. Through all the first-hand accounts, McKay neatly sketches how the spread of knowledge at the time was slow. Geographical barriers and inclement weather were enormous obstacles that could delay expeditions for months, printed media were not yet widely available, and the international scientific network was still in its infancy, with museums and learned societies yet having to be born from the practices of cabinets of curiosities.

“Despite having lived side-by-side with these large, majestic creatures, somewhere along the line we forgot what they were […] their identity […] gradually fading from our stories, our myths and legends, and, finally, from our collective memory.”

Subsequent observations gathered by Swedish prisoners of war stuck in Russia, and a new generation of French, German and Russian academics, together with more first-hand information becoming available about elephant anatomy, around the beginning of the 1700s led to a consensus that these bones belonged to elephants. Keep in mind the dominant influence of the Biblical accounts during this time. The idea of species going extinct was not accepted and considered heretical as it would imply imperfection in god’s design. Similarly, we were still centuries off from a proper understanding of biogeography, geology and plate tectonics. Instead, most explanations centred around the idea of the Biblical flood having washed bones far north, or unknown Roman conquerors having led elephant-mounted armies into these regions, the way Hannibal had. Sure, some of the bones were a bit different from African and Indian elephants, but that was conveniently explained away as normal variation as seen amongst domestic livestock and dogs.

However, as gigantic bones started to be recovered from the Americas, and more and more ivory started pouring into Europe as trade intensified, the conclusion that these beasts must have lived in Siberia for a long time became inescapable. It was down to Cuvier to make acceptable the idea that these bones belonged to extinct animals. And it took until 1806 for a defrosted mammoth carcass to be properly recorded, described and collected, when Russian naturalist Mikhail Adams followed a lead into Siberia. Although carcasses had been found before on a few occasions, scavengers and locals needing dog-food usually got there first. Adam’s trove of bones, and the subsequent reconstruction and description by German doctor and naturalist Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius, published in 1815, finally revealed a proper picture of the mammoth to the world.

And that is where, rather abruptly, McKay’s account finishes. I would have loved to see him dedicate at least one more chapter detailing subsequent refinements in our understanding of mammoths, including the discovery in 1864 of ivory fragments with carvings of mammoths on them – proof positive that once upon a time we coexisted with them. Instead, he pays lip-service to this in the four-page afterword. Of course, developments since then have been far better documented elsewhere.

At times, this reader got a bit lost in the multitude of people and their contributions. A graphic representation, perhaps in the form of a timeline, would have been a fantastic addition. My only real complaint with the book is that every few pages typos and grammatical errors crop up, usually words being duplicated, or sentences having been constructed one way and apparently then rewritten, seemingly without having been reread for consistency. It’s not enough to get in the way of understanding the narrative, but it leaves the impression the text was not, or poorly proofread, which is a shame. Furthermore, although a notes section is included at the end of the book, the text doesn’t include references to them, with the notes only mentioning a concept from the text with relevant additional information, which is not entirely satisfactory in my opinion. Finally, although a plate section with lovely historical illustrations is included and these are numbered, the main text lacks any reference to these numbered figures, leaving it to the reader to puzzle out when a certain illustration is being discussed.

Those niggles aside, Discovering the Mammoth makes for a fascinating read and succeeds in bringing to life the intellectual milieu of the time, as well as the many stops and starts in the advancement of our understanding. In that sense, McKay’s book accomplishes its goal, filling a gap in our knowledge by bringing together the many, many scattered historical sources to reconstruct how the mammoth was rediscovered. A mammoth task for which he is to be commended.

(Sorry, I really tried resisting pachyderm punning)

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.


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