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53 MIN READ TIME

AMERICAN INCOGNITUM

It took several more decades to solve the American mastodon mystery, partly because the fossils at Big Bone Lick were so remote and so dangerous to reach. The Ohio River valley was an untamed frontier claimed by French forces, Englishspeaking settlers from the American colonies, and the Native American Nations that already lived there. The French and English each negotiated competing alliances and trade deals with the Native Americans, then began building forts in the area. This was a recipe for war.

The first English speakers to see the fossils at Big Bone Lick were pioneer settlers, surveyors, and traders in the 1740s and 1750s, a few years after Longueuil’s French military expedition had found fossils in the area. But it would be a long time before English-speaking naturalists learned of the salt lick’s scientific treasure. War broke out in 1754 after Americans commanded by 22-year old George Washington ambushed a force of French Canadians. These were the first shots fired in the “French and Indian War.” This conflict prevented access to Big Bone Lick for several more years.

The war gave naturalists in France a long head start. They had the chance to study the teeth and leg bone that Longueuil had donated to the collection of the French king. In the early 1760s, these strange fossils attracted the interest of international science superstar Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon and his assistant, medical doctor and anatomy expert Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton. Daubenton set to work studying the American fossils using the approach that English naturalist Hans Sloane had recommended thirty years earlier: comparative anatomy. He placed the American fossil leg bone next to specimens of the same bone from a Siberian mammoth and a modern elephant, They weren’t the same. The mammoth bone and the Ohio River fossil were much thicker and heavier than the elephant’s. But the three leg bones did have similarities—enough similarities, Daubenton believed, that they could all be lumped together as one species of elephant. His boss Buffon agreed with Daubenton’s solution to the mystery. There was “no longer any room to doubt,” Buffon proclaimed, that these fossils were “truly the tusks and bones of the elephant.”

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