DISCOVERING THE MAMMOTH: A TALE OF GIANTS, UNICORNS, IVORY, AND THE BIRTH OF A NEW SCIENCE
John J. McKay | 256 pages | Pegasus | 2017 | ISBN 978-1-68177-424-4 | $27.95
More than a century ago, every educated person understood that the bones of giants were actually the remains of fossilized elephant species, including the woolly mammoth, the mastodon, the dwarf elephant, and their various cousins. This information was readily available in most books of natural history, and even churchmen, who considered giants to be an article of faith, felt the need to acknowledge the obviousness of the fact before trying to argue why their particular giant was the exception to the general rule. Yet after the Second World War, this connection between fossils evidence and mythological fantasy no longer seemed obvious, and when Adrienne Mayor reintroduced it around 2000, the suggestion that fossils had a relationship to mythology was greeted as fresh and new.
This book grew out of a single blog post. I have a great love of conspiracy theories and fringe ideas. Many years ago, I noticed that lost history theories—Atlantis, polar shift, flood geology, and rogue planets—all used frozen mammoths as proof positive of their ideas.
As you might imagine, McKay’s book opens with the question of giants and unicorns, two mythological creatures whose reality found grounding in the misidentified remains of Ice Age animals. Or, to put it a bit more accurately: When the bones of these creatures emerged from the Earth, the learned mandarins of the Renaissance reached for Biblical and mythological precedents to understand what their rudimentary science and ignorance of both exotic and extinct species had ill-prepared them to encounter. Although McKay does not include a reference the parable of the blind men and the elephant, the story of early scientific efforts to understand the mammoth bears more than a passing resemblance to the Indian parable whereby the blind men attempted to discern what an elephant was without seeing it, describing it as a wall, a snake, a tree, etc. depending on which part they touched:
And so these men of Indostan
When the question of giants emerged as a scientific issue in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the scholars who debated the issue tried to understand the nature of mammoth fossils in much the same way, writing learned treatises based on nothing more than a drawing or hearsay, and only rarely on a few bones. It is no wonder, then, that their reconstructions and interpretations resembled little more than flights of fancy, even decades after the anatomy of the elephant became known.
To that end, McKay’s first chapter is the most interesting to me, for it is in that chapter that he recounts the earliest efforts to explain the occasional eruption of unusual skeletons in pre-modern Europe. The chapter is rich with detail on the controversy over the existence of giants and unicorns, as well as amusing anecdotes, some of which I had not heard before. My favorite, perhaps, involved the young king Louis XIII of France, who requested a showing of “giant” bones in the early 1600s. Having seen the bones, he asked an adviser if giants really existed. The adviser said yes and noted that such men would make admirable soldiers for the king’s army. Louis scoffed and said that they would eat too much to be cost-effective.
The second chapter describes the gradual European discovery of the existence of mammoths from the Siberian ivory trade. It recounts the well-worn anecdotes about the Eastern misapprehension that the frozen carcasses of Ice Age mammoths were actually the recently dead bodies of an unknown species of burrowing mole or mole rat, though McKay takes issue with the Chinese identification of the legendary mole monster k’i shu with the mammoth on the grounds that Chinese sources make no mention of ivory. He also reviews the fascinating history of pictures of elephants in the northern reaches of sixteenth century maps, and he argues that such placement reflects, indirectly, the mammoth, through the mistaken belief that ivory coming from the north originated with Arctic elephants.
I will confess that my specific interest in mammoths extends primarily to the weird side of their history, so the later chapters on the scientific debate over mammoths, extinction, and the speciation of mammoths grew progressively less interesting, not because McKay’s story was any less compelling but because the subject matter moved farther away from my interests. Overall, McKay has provided a thoughtful and rich examination of a formative period in scientific history and made a compelling case that the question of giants, which is also the question of the mammoth, played a major role in the development of the scientific worldview we know today.
That said, there were places where I had hoped for a bit more. The book has a definite European focus, which causes the occasional forays into the Muslim world, China, and other non-Euro-American contexts to stand out in starker relief. The tale might also have benefited from a stronger narrative focus, perhaps centering chapters around a key protagonist to provide a touchstone for some of the more complicated data dumps. Similarly, the central importance of mammoths and mastodons in American scientific history gets short shrift here and would have benefited from more development. This story was told well in American Monster by Paul Semonin back in 2000. Discovering the Mammoth is a bit of a bookend to that volume, telling the European side of the history of the mammoth.
One of the reasons for the truncated discussion of American mammoths is the somewhat arbitrary timeframe covered in the book. Europeans had been mistaking mammoth bones for those of giants since Classical Antiquity, and a craze erupted when the Spanish began sending home mammoth teeth and bones as those of American giants in the first decades of European colonial contact with the New World. While nodding to these past encounters, McKay concentrates most of his narrative on the period from the late 1500s through the first decade of the nineteenth century, when science was in its formative period, concluding with Cuvier’s case for extinct elephants and the scientific acceptance that mammoths were in fact a dead species of furry elephant. In many ways this is a natural selection of material for the specific focus on establishing the mammoth as a species, but it truncates the story a bit. Selfishly, I had hoped to hear about how mammoths raged through popular culture, envisioned as carnivorous Biblical behemoths, fantasized as the workhorses of lost white races, frozen sentinels of an Earth overturned by a comet, and other fanciful speculations. Those uses came later, after the mammoth had been accepted as a species—a way of redefining the “Giants” of old as monsters that still somehow confirmed Biblical claims about the Flood, antediluvian sin, and all of the other religious truths that the Giants once vouchsafed.
Overall, Discovering the Mammoth is a fun and interesting read, and a worthy way to spend a few hours consuming its brief 200+ pages. It is, in the end, a testament to the messy nature of science.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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