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.
10/13/2018 09:23:03 am
Hi Jason -
10/13/2018 10:51:46 am
10/14/2018 04:16:36 pm
10/14/2018 08:44:48 pm
BUT MORRISON!!! And he named the illustrator! Which is the standard way you cite a book as a source!!!!
10/15/2018 11:16:19 am
I wish I could give you a better citation for that data, but my copy of the book was destroyed in a flash flood. That data was what the book reported, and it did so before .Firestone and Kennett. I suppose I am going to have to track down another copy.
10/15/2018 11:26:17 am
My infomercial for Chris Wilson Native American themed Bic lighter covers:
10/15/2018 11:35:15 am
Since you're in Hibben's corner my default assumption is that he's a fraud. You are the opposite of a good reference.
10/15/2018 11:35:53 am
Here we go:
10/16/2018 10:11:59 am
Hey asshole -
10/16/2018 05:44:55 pm
Below are the dates and citations for major mammoth mummies. Where are the 10,850 BCE mammoths?
10/16/2018 06:43:15 pm
10/17/2018 10:41:39 am
HI Bill -
Oog the Cave Man
10/13/2018 12:24:12 pm
American Cool "Disco " Dan/ Americanegro. Village called, wish you would return. The job of village idiot vacant since you wandered away.
10/13/2018 01:10:12 pm
When Chief go Happy Hunting Grounds me go'um back village. Him use heapum bad words.
OOG THE CAVE MAN
10/14/2018 01:08:42 pm
Americancool "Disco"Dan/ Americanegro. Just follow trail of buffalo turds back to village. Remember, do not eat turds along the way, wait until you return to village, fresh human turds available.
1/18/2023 04:00:47 pm
It's spelled "douchebag" not "disco".
10/13/2018 02:33:32 pm
"...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."
10/13/2018 05:58:36 pm
"We need synthesizers, who can bridge the gaps in paleontology, archaeology, geology, history, astronomy, etc."
10/13/2018 07:13:39 pm
"...struggles for funding..."
10/14/2018 08:42:04 am
"How do we get these 50 year old children who can't handle stewardship to grow the fuck up?"
10/14/2018 11:43:50 am
"I think that your opinion of religion..."
10/16/2018 12:34:59 pm
Hi E.P. Grondine, Would you mind shooting me source(s) for the 43 species/date for the disappearance? I've been following the comments on Jason's Blog for some time and I'm interested in the commentary on the Younger Dryas. Thanks much!
10/16/2018 12:53:02 pm
Btw, the Hagstrum, et al. article in Nature that you referenced is a good one. Just curious to know if you've something specific that refers to the simultaneity you mention? Thanks!
10/16/2018 02:42:23 pm
Hi Jocko -
10/16/2018 04:13:49 pm
Thank you, Sir! I look forward to it. I've been intrigued by the 'weather' during that period since this all heated up in, what, 2005, ish? Somewhere in there. A solid geosciences squabble with a goodly dose of catastrophe.
10/17/2018 12:28:08 pm
Hi Jocko -
10/18/2018 11:13:37 am
Hi Bill, Jocko -
10/18/2018 09:00:10 pm
Based on Chief's apparent belief that eating human pituitary glands can make people taller and his phrase "a simple case of quantum mechanics" it's time for an enormous grain of salt. Him not know science good.
10/21/2018 12:27:41 am
Hi Jason -
10/13/2018 10:12:56 pm
I have to admit that I get a chuckle every time I read "Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel" (the title, not the book). Fire and Ice could be a romance. Fire and Brimstone could be an adventure. Fire and Blood would be a good bodice ripper. But Fire and Gravel? Sounds like someone is paving their driveway.
10/13/2018 11:02:46 pm
"The Age of Fire and Gavel" - a novel about the auction industry.
10/13/2018 11:25:40 pm
It just goes to show you, if you want your title to be not-lame, you have to make sure *all* of the words are not-lame, not just most of the words. The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers could have told us that.
10/15/2018 05:29:04 am
"The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers could have told us that."
10/14/2018 11:16:40 am
But, but, but, Uncle Ron,
10/14/2018 10:40:25 am
Outstanding article - thanks for posting that.
10/14/2018 11:07:07 pm
The original source of the claim seems to be somewhat credible...
1/15/2020 01:27:33 pm
Accept the credible accounts don't actually reference French investigations and said they reference real investigation done for the 1960s through to present.
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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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