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MULTIPLYING MYSTERIES

Three hundred years ago, the mystery of gigantic unexplained bones crossed the Atlantic to start a new chapter in America’s Thirteen Colonies. People in Europe and Asia had been puzzling over mammoth fossils for thousands of years, and even making money off them. Europeans had marveled at “giant” bones displayed in churches and public exhibitions, while kings and nobles spent fortunes for supposedly magical pieces of “unicorn” horn. Tusks from Siberia’s legendary underground monsters had long been sold as valuable ivory in the markets of China. But when similar fossils also turned up in the American colonies, these multiplying threads began to weave together into a global mystery—a mystery that would help to shape the emerging new scientific age.

It began in 1705, when rainwater washed huge teeth and bones out of a cliffside in the sparsely-settled frontier of New York’s upper Hudson River valley. Other fossils were soon found nearby. These quickly became famous throughout the colony as the bones of giant humans. After personally examining one of the massive teeth, a powerful Puritan minister named Cotton Mather declared that “it must be” a giant human tooth, for it “has the perfect form of the eye-tooth of a man.”

Mather is most remembered today for his religious ideas and his superstitious beliefs about witches. His writings first inspired and then defended the terrifying Salem Witch Trails in colonial Massachusetts. In that dark chapter of American history, more than 200 people were accused of supposed witchcraft—and, tragically, 20 people were executed. But it’s less well known that Mather was also extremely interested in science. He wrote the first popular science book to be published in America, and introduced smallpox inoculation to the colonies. He believed that studying the natural world confirmed the exact historical truth of the stories of the Bible— and giant teeth were part of that. “Concerning the days before the Flood,” he explained, the Bible claimed that “There were giants on the Earth in those days.” And here was proof! He excitedly sent news of the bones of American giants to the world’s leading scientific organization, the Royal Society in England.

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Review of The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, by David Wootton
A Review of The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind by A.C.Grayling
Review of The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life after Death edited by M. Martin and K. Augustine
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