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8 MIN READ TIME

PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER

MASTODON GRINDER TOOTH STUDIED BY CUVIER

We ended Part One with a wonderful scene from 200 years ago: President Thomas Jefferson gleefully sorting mastodon fossils in the halls of the White House. It was an exciting time for Jefferson and other fans of the mammoth and mastodon mysteries. Breakthroughs came in a rush. After centuries of wonder, legends, debate, and frustrating guesswork, many key pieces of this fossil puzzle snapped into place in just a handful of years. Largely complete mastodon skeletons were finally unearthed in the United States, allowing the bones of this so-called “American incognitum” to be put together and displayed for the very first time. The discovery of a well-preserved frozen mammoth in Siberia provided not only a nearly complete skeleton but also its shaggy skin. This revealed that wooly mammoths were adapted for life in cold climates. And in France, scientific research by the naturalist Georges Cuvier convincingly demonstrated that mammoths, mastodons, and modern elephants were all distinct from one another. It was Cuvier who gave the incognitum its name— “mastodon”—based on its “grinder” teeth.

Jefferson was glad to see the American incognitum finally given a name and recognized as a distinct type of creature.

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