Mammoths and Mastodons: All American Monsters

A mammoth discovery in 1705 sparked a fossil craze and gave the young United States a symbol of national might

Columbian mammoths were larger than mastodons. Both once roamed North America. (Velizar Simeonovski / The Field Museum, Chicago)
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In the blue shadows after dawn, the low hills in this stretch of South Dakota can look like a line of elephants trudging toward some distant water hole. It’s a geologic echo of the great herds of Col­umbian mammoths that used to wander here. They were like African elephants, only bigger. “A full-grown adult weighed ten tons. That’s as much as a school bus,” a guide tells the tourists on a sidewalk at the Mammoth Site, a paleontological dig and museum in the town of Hot Springs. She points out a set of brick-size teeth with corrugated surfaces like the soles of running shoes. With them, a mammoth ate 400 pounds of grasses and sedges a day.

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Directly below the sidewalk, a volunteer scratches up dirt in a niche formed largely by the bones of dead mammoths. She’s got a big shoulder blade sticking up out of the ground off her knees, the round end of a leg bone at her right elbow, ribs like stripes painted in the dirt wall just above, and behind her a sort of cascade of half-excavated skulls and tusks spilling down to the bottom of the dig. Altogether, parts of 58 mammoths lie exposed in an area about the size of a hockey rink, sheltered beneath a roof built to protect them. Larry Agenbroad, the paleontologist who helped discover this site 35 years ago, figures at least as many remain hidden underground.

This is one of the world’s largest sites that display the bones where mammoths died, and it has some of the horror and fascination of a slow-motion traffic pileup. About 26,000 years ago, Agenbroad says, a sinkhole formed here and filled with water from a hot spring, creating a vegetated oasis that lured many young mammoths to their death. In places, the bones have settled in the posture of the animal’s desperate struggle to get back up the slick, steep sides of the pond, a foreleg flung up, the back legs splayed out where they pawed for traction in the mud below. Occasionally a visitor will imagine the fear and trumpeting of the struggling animal and start to weep.

The guides, volunteers and paleontologists at the Mammoth Site are a bit more jaded. They’ve nicknamed one disarticulated skeleton Napoleon Bone-Apart. Another specimen, found minus its skull, started out as Marie Antoinette, after the guillotined French queen. It turned out to be a male, like all the other mammoths in this site. “So we renamed it Murray,” says Agenbroad, a soft-spoken, neighborly figure with bright, deep-set eyes behind rimless glasses.

It’s a venerable American tradition, this mix of science, show business and big hairy pachyderms. The same happy combination drives a new exhibition, “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age,” which just opened at Chicago’s Field Museum (and travels to Jersey City, Anchorage, St. Louis, Boston, Denver and San Diego). With Agenbroad as a consultant, one part of the exhibition aims to evoke the world of the mammoths in the South Dakota hills. Other parts explore the profound influence these creatures had in human history. Though dinosaurs now come to mind when we think about lost worlds, mammoths and mastodons provided the first persuasive evidence that one of God’s creatures could go extinct. (The idea had previously bordered on heresy, but we now know that the animals vanished mysteriously roughly 11,000 years ago.) And though we often associate them with Siberia, mammoths and mastodons played a huge role in establishing our national identity, as Americans struggled to climb out from under the shadow of Europe.

It started with a five-pound tooth. In the summer of 1705, in the Hudson River Valley village of Claverack, New York, a tooth the size of a man’s fist surfaced on a steep bluff, rolled downhill and landed at the feet of a Dutch tenant farmer, who promptly traded it to a local politician for a glass of rum. The politician made the tooth a gift to Lord Cornbury, then the eccentric governor of New York. (Cornbury liked to cross-dress as his cousin Queen Anne, or so his enemies said.) Cornbury sent the tooth to London labeled “tooth of a Giant,” after the statement in Genesis that “there were giants in the earth” in the days before the Flood.

Man or beast, this “monstrous creature,” as Cornbury called it, would soon become celebrated as the “incognitum,” the unknown species. The discovery of dinosaurs was more than a century in the future, but in terms of this creature’s grip on the popular imagination, it was “the dinosaur of the early American republic,” according to Paul Semonin, author of American Monster, a history of the incognitum. Some primal force in the American spirit embraced it, he says, as “in effect, the nation’s first prehistoric monster.”

Based on the size of bones discovered near the tooth, the Massachusetts poet Edward Taylor estimated the incognitum’s height at 60 or 70 feet (10 would have been closer to the mark) and wrote bad poetry about “Ribbs like Rafters” and arms “like limbs of trees.” The minister Cotton Mather boasted that the New World possessed biblical giants to make the Old World’s “Og and GOLIATH, and all the Sons of Anak” look like pygmies.

When similar teeth later turned up in South Carolina, slaves pointed out that they looked a lot like an African elephant’s. Early explorers also brought back whole tusks and bones from the Ohio River Valley. Americans soon started referring to the incognitum as a “mammoth,” after the woolly mammoths then being dug out of the ice in Siberia. It fact, it would turn out that North America had been home primarily to two different types of pachyderm—mammoths, like the ones at the dig in South Dakota, and mastodons, like the ones in the Hudson River Valley. Hardly anybody knew the difference.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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