A publisher has asked me to assemble a proposal for a short book on the myths and legends associated with the Giza Pyramids, notably the medieval legends of the Muslim world, so I am going to be taking some time today to work on this. In the meantime, I wanted to share something interesting I ran across in reading about Graham Hancock’s new book, America Before. Do you remember the popular claim that there were wooly mammoths flash-frozen in the Arctic as a result of a catastrophic change in climate, perhaps due to a shifting of the poles? It turns out that this claim is much older than I had imagined.
The modern version of the story was popularized by Ivan T. Sanderson in “Riddle of the Quick-Frozen Giants” in the Saturday Evening Post of January 16, 1960. According to some sources, he learned of the frozen mammoths from Immanuel Velikovsky. From there, it was picked up by fringe sources as diverse as creationist books like those of Donald Patten, mystery-mongering books like those of David Childress, and catastrophist texts like those of Charles Hapgood.
When I wrote about the flash-frozen mammoths in 2016 (here and here), that was as far back as I was able to trace the claim, but it turns out it is not where it starts. As with so many bizarre claims, it apparently originated in France before English-language writers picked it up.
It goes back all the way to 1822, when George Cuvier—the many who was among the first to suggest that fossil elephant bones had been mistaken in ancient times for the bones of Giants—could not fathom how well-preserved wooly mammoths might have been extracted from the Siberian ice. In his Discours sur les Révolutions du Globe, Cuvier, a committed catastrophist who believed that massive disasters caused extinctions, wrote about his belief that the mammoths had been frozen instantly:
It is of great importance to note that these repeated irruptions and retreats (of the sea) have not all been gradual nor all uniform. On the contrary, the greater part of these catastrophes have been sudden, and that is easily proved by the last of these events, which by a twofold action inundated and then left dry our present continent, or, at least, a great portion of the soil which now composes them. It also left in the northern countries, carcasses of large quadrupeds frozen in the ice and preserved down to the present period with their skin, their hair, and their flesh. If they had not been frozen as soon as killed, putrefaction would have decomposed them. And besides, this eternal frost did not previously exist in those parts in which they were frozen, for they could not have lived in such a temperature. The same instant that these animals were bereft of life, the country which they inhabited became frozen. This event was sudden, momentary, without gradation; and what is so clearly proved as to this last catastrophe, equally applies to that which preceded it. The convulsions, the alterations, the reversings of the most ancient layers, leave not a doubt on the mind but that sudden and violent causes reduced them to their present state; and even the powerful action of the mass of waters is proved by the accumulation of relics and round flints which in many places intervene between the solid layers. Existence has thus been often troubled on this earth by appalling events. Living creatures without number have fallen victims to these catastrophes: some, the inhabitants of dry land, have been swallowed up by a deluge; others, who peopled the depths of the waters, have been cast on land by the sudden receding of the waters, their very race become extinct, and only a few remains left of them in the world, scarcely recognised by the naturalist. (anonymous 1831 trans.)
From there, the claim was picked up by none other than Louis Figuier, the geologist who later identified the eruption of the Thera volcano with the destruction of Atlantis. Figuier explicitly cites Cuvier among his sources, but in his World Before the Deluge, he is decidedly less catastrophist in explaining the origins of the frozen mammoths than his predecessor:
We cannot doubt, after such testimony, of the existence in the frozen north, of the almost entire remains of the Mammoth. The animals seem to have perished suddenly; seized by the ice at the moment of their death, their bodies have been preserved from decomposition by the continued action of the cold. If we suppose that one of those animals had sunk into a marsh which froze soon afterwards, or had fallen accidentally into the crevasse of some glacier, it would be easy for us to understand how its body, buried immediately under eternal ice, had remained there for thousands of years, without undergoing decomposition. (trans. H. W. Bristow)
So how did these nineteenth century ideas end up in Velikovsky’s work and Sanderson’s? That answer is depressingly familiar. Ignatius Donnelly selectively cited both accounts in his lesser-read book Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel. He omits the last half of the Figuier quotation to eliminate the reasonable explanation for the mammoths’ frozen state, and he places this before a part of the quotation from Cuvier, suggesting (wrongly) that Cuvier was right and a great catastrophe—a comet strike, whose effects he calls “the Drift”—instantly flash-froze the mammoths. “These citations place it beyond question that the Drift came suddenly upon the world, slaughtering the animals…” he wrote.
From here it is child’s play to see how generations of fringe writers have recycled Donnelly’s deceptive presentation of evidence and thus reproduced Cuvier’s archaic catastrophism by ignoring the two centuries of scholarship that followed.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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