The First Fossil Finders in North America Were Enslaved and Indigenous People

Decades before paleontology’s formal establishment, Black and Native Americans discovered—and correctly identified—millennia-old fossils

Illustration of mammoth and mastodon bones overlaid on a map of the Ohio River
Stories of the enslaved people who helped kick-start paleontology and the Native American guides who led naturalists to fossils around the continent have long been suppressed. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Wikimedia Commons under public domain

Around 1725, a crew of enslaved people digging in swampy ground along South Carolina’s Stono River discovered something unusual: an enormous fossilized tooth. The find puzzled the group’s enslavers, who suggested it was a remnant from the biblical great flood. But it looked familiar to the excavators, who noted its resemblance to the molar of an African elephant—an animal they’d encountered back home in the Kingdom of Kongo.

“They must have thought, ‘Well, we have them in Africa, [and] I guess they have them here, too,’” says Adrienne Mayor, a folklorist and historian of ancient science at Stanford University. “It must have been exciting for them.”

Scholars don’t know these individuals’ names or any other details of their lives. It’s possible some participated in the Stono Rebellion, the largest uprising by enslaved people in British North America, which took place on the river’s banks in 1739. But they unearthed and essentially correctly identified some of the first mammoth fossils discovered in the Americas. (Later analyses indicated the tooth, one of several found at Stono, belonged to an extinct Columbian mammoth, a relative of modern-day elephants.) These molars became key evidence in scientists’ nascent theories of extinction and evolution, decades before paleontology—the study of fossilized plants and animals—was formally established as a discipline.

Drawing of an enslaved African holding a mammoth molar
Drawing of an enslaved African holding a mammoth molar Illustration by Michele Angel / Courtesy of Adrienne Mayor

Enslaved people’s contributions to paleontology continued well past the Stono dig. Similar teeth dug up by enslaved workers in Virginia in 1782 made their way to Thomas Jefferson’s desk at Monticello. The president later directed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to search for living examples of gigantic creatures on their 1804 voyage to the Pacific Northwest.

Stories like these, of the enslaved people who helped kick-start paleontology and the Native American guides who led naturalists to fossils around the continent, have long been suppressed. In recent years, however, young paleontologists have pushed their field to reckon with its whitewashed history by recognizing early finds made by Black and Indigenous people.

“Looking into the past at this history of how early paleontology was conducted and how the original discoverers’ voices are almost lost, … I want to give credit where credit is due to all the folks [who] assisted in making those amazing discoveries,” says Pedro M. Monarrez, a paleobiologist at Stanford University and the lead author of a 2021 paper on racism and colonialism in Western paleontology.

Mayor first learned about the Stono discovery while writing Fossil Legends of the First Americans, a 2005 book on pre-Darwinian fossil knowledge—what she likes to call “science before science.” In a 1731 account, British botanist Mark Catesby detailed his recent trip to Virginia to study native plants. When word reached him of the colossal teeth dug up at Stono, Catesby decided to make the trip south to see the fossils for himself. Unconvinced by the landowners’ proposed identification, he decided to ask the discoverers what they thought, too.

“By the concurring opinion of all the … native Africans that saw them, [the teeth] were the grinders of an elephant,” Catesby recalled. The botanist agreed with the assessment based on the fossils’ similarities to elephant teeth he’d recently seen on display in London.

An illustration of a magnolia tree from Mark Catesby's The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands
An illustration of a magnolia tree from Mark Catesby's The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Around 1782, enslaved people digging in a salt marsh in Virginia uncovered a separate set of mammoth molars and bones. Arthur Campbell, a Continental Army commander who’d recently waged a military campaign against the Cherokee, sent the fossils on to Jefferson. “Several sensible Africans have seen the tooth,” Campbell wrote in a letter accompanying the finds. “All … pronounced it an elephant.”

Indigenous people similarly enriched Europeans’ understanding of fossils. In 1739, Abenaki guides accompanying French Canadian military commander Charles Le Moyne, Second Baron de Longueuil, retrieved mastodon femurs, tusks and molars—described by French naturalist Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton as “the bones of three big animals”—from a marsh along the Ohio River, near present-day Louisville, Kentucky. The guides’ reasons for bringing these remains to Longueuil’s attention went unrecorded, but Mayor notes that they would’ve recognized the ivory tusks’ value. The Abenaki, like many other Native groups, also associated such prehistoric finds with traditional tales of water monsters.

Catesby and Longueuil’s accounts eventually reached the famed French naturalist Georges Cuvier. Sometimes called the “father of paleontology,” Cuvier was collecting as many firsthand accounts of fossilized bones that he could find, with a particular emphasis on testimony from Indigenous peoples.

“Cuvier has several long sections in his original writings in French about all the accounts he gathered from North and South America from various tribes about their discoveries of gigantic fossils of unknown animals and their interpretations of them,” Mayor says. “He was trying to establish paleontology and figure out extinction, so he had a great respect for these stories.”

Georges Cuvier holding a fish fossil
Georges Cuvier holding a fish fossil Wellcome Collection under CC BY 4.0

Before Cuvier published his findings at the turn of the 19th century, Europeans and American colonists believed the massive bones that occasionally turned up across North America belonged to giants killed by Noah’s biblical flood. Some individuals—Jefferson among them—speculated that relatives of these enormous creatures still lived in the unexplored American West.

Cuvier thought otherwise. The Stono teeth and Ohio River mastodon bones, which he saw in person at a Paris museum, helped shore up his theory of catastrophic extinction, which argued that great beasts had once roamed the Earth but died out, leaving only fossilized remains. This view was shared by many Native American groups, some of whom collected fossils for a range of cultural purposes. As Mayor explains in a 2022 essay, “Long before Europeans arrived, the original inhabitants of the Americas understood that the land had once been populated [by] colossal creatures of earth, water and sky, beings no longer seen alive.” Their ancestors had walked alongside Pleistocene megafauna—mammoths and mastodons, giant sloths, saber-toothed tigers, and giant bison—and those extinct animals lived on in oral histories backed up by fossils.

Some of these stories identified mastodons as the “grandfathers of the buffalo.” One such tale tells of a wounded warrior who has a vision of the Little People—spirits responsible for protecting humanity—sailing to a swamp, where they ambush a group of giant beasts as the animals rise up from the earth. When the warrior returns home, he shares his vision, inspiring his people to visit the site for themselves. There, they find the bones of the buffalo-like creatures killed by the Little People. That same swamp, now called Big Bone Lick State Historic Site, is where the Abenaki guides traveling with Longueuil discovered mastodon fossils in 1739.

Cuvier also found that many Native American theories of deep time, or the history of Earth before the arrival of humans, were broadly accurate. Indigenous groups generally believed in successive ages marked by mass extinctions of flora and fauna, as reflected in the fossil record. Zuni, Navajo, Apache and Hopi creation stories all cover a vast timeframe; the Zuni, for instance, describe volcanic eruptions that dried out primeval oceans full of monsters and giant lizards that were eventually replaced by huge mammals. Native Americans also posited that megafauna like giant beavers and bison had shrunk to their present sizes over time. And they came up with these explanations long before European scientists had any comprehension of deep time, centuries before the development of Cuvier’s theory of extinction and Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Drawing of two Native Americans discovering a mastodon fossil
An engraving of two Native Americans discovering a fossilized mastodon skeleton along a river, from Thomas Bewick’s A General History of Quadrupeds Public domain via Internet Archive

Jefferson, for his part, didn’t believe either Cuvier or the Indigenous people who asserted that the fossils’ owners were long gone. He instructed Lewis and Clark to find the animals the mammoth teeth belonged to. Instead, they found bison, some of the most recent megafauna to roam the Great Plains.

When British paleontologist Martin Rudwick translated Cuvier’s works into English in 1997, he left out the sections on fossil myths as irrelevant to science, arguing that “it is only within Western civilization, during the period since the Renaissance, that paleontology has emerged from this diffuse awareness of fossils and developed into a coherent scientific discipline.”

This erasure was part of a much broader, older trend, with many 20th-century paleontologists seeking to define their field as a highly scientific enterprise undertaken exclusively by white, male Europeans—one that had no room for mythical language or pre-Enlightenment theories.

George Gaylord Simpson, who was the eminent modern paleontologist and wrote the first history of paleontology in the 1940s, went out of his way to denigrate anyone who would even pay attention to Indigenous fossil legends,” says Mayor. “Simpson considered himself extremely scientific and a sort of gatekeeper. Now that the discipline was established, he wanted to keep it based on scientific, rigorous methods.”

A 19th-century drawing of a mastodon fossil
A 19th-century drawing of a mastodon fossil Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In his history, Simpson grudgingly admitted that enslaved people “made the first technical identification of an American fossil vertebrate.” He added, however, that this find marked “a lowly beginning for a pursuit that was to be graced by some of the most eminent men in American and in scientific history.” Simpson credited Catesby with the actual scientific discovery.

Similarly, Simpson rejected paleontologist Edward Kindle’s suggestion that scientists should credit Native Americans for their discoveries of vertebrate fossils. Simpson acknowledged that “even relatively savage tribes did know and pick up fossils” but claimed that these discoveries played no real part in paleontological history. He even ignored documented accounts of Indigenous people’s participation in fossil discoveries, like the Abenaki guides who brought mastodon teeth and bones to Longueil.

According to Simpson, “These prediscovery finds have great sentimental and literary interest, but they had no scientific result. The temptation to consider them in more detail must be resisted in order to devote adequate space to the true discovery.”

“It’s almost wistful,” says Mayor of Simpson’s response to Native American fossil legends, “like he’s interested in them but has to suppress them at the same time.”

Today, the geosciences, to which paleontology belongs, are by far the least diverse of all STEM fields. Between 1973 and 2016, almost 90 percent of PhDs awarded in earth, atmospheric and ocean sciences in the United States went to white scientists. Harassment and a continued lack of diversity are key drivers of this disparity. But the past plays a role in contemporary inequity, too. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic and the reckoning with systemic racism that followed George Floyd’s murder led Monarrez and colleagues from across the country to dig into paleontology’s history and get to the root of the field’s present-day diversity problems. To Monarrez, this approach just made sense. “As geologists, we’re all historians,” he says. “It’s just a different kind of history.”

Pedro M. Monarrez
Pedro M. Monarrez, a paleobiologist at Stanford, on his latest fieldwork expedition Pedro M. Monarrez

The team’s goal was to show paleontology’s history—good and bad—to the old guard and young students alike. But Monarrez wasn’t prepared for how much he’d uncover. Early in the research process, he came across Mayor’s book, which features a section on the Stono Plantation finds.

“I had an ‘aha’ moment,” Monarrez says. “If these slaves found these fossils and identified what they were, and that led to this amazing change in how people thought about extinction, what about the next person of color who hasn’t shown up to paleontology yet, but might potentially make a discovery as well? If we don’t make things more inclusive, then they might never join.”

Monarrez’s research reminded him of paleontology’s links to colonialism, with white scientists traveling across the global south to extract fossils and knowledge from Indigenous people. He learned that the petroleum industry funded much of the discipline’s development, as oil companies needed fossils to accurately date rocks and find fossil fuel deposits. And he discovered a more complex story about the Bone Wars of 1877 to 1892, in which paleontologists with armed escorts stole fossils from Native American lands as the tribes—the same ones whose fossil myths contributed to paleontology’s formation—were being driven from their homes.

In 2021, Monarrez’s team published a paper detailing its findings. The group also presented its work last December at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting. Monarrez says he’s received some pushback from older scientists who argue that focusing on laypeople’s contributions to paleontology “isn’t science”—the same complaint paleontology’s gatekeepers have made for nearly a century. But in the introductory classes he teaches, as well as the outreach he and his colleagues perform, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I get a lot of smiles,” Monarrez says. “To see students actually engage with this and to have really excited looks on their faces, I think that’s really cool. And to me it just bodes well.”

Lisa White (right), assistant director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology, with specimens from Kettleman Hills
Lisa White (right), assistant director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology, studies specimens from Kettleman Hills. Courtesy of Lisa White

Lisa White, assistant director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology, says her initial reaction to the erasure of the Stono Plantation story was frustration and exasperation. But then she chose to be inspired instead.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, look at the power of making observations,’” says White, a Black paleontologist and the head of the American Geophysical Union’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee. “There can be everyday discoveries by people who aren’t necessarily trained in paleontology but can still make significant contributions if they’re allowed, and if people are paying attention to what they’re doing.”

Mayor echoes White’s admiration for the anonymous Stono Plantation workers. “It’s exciting to know that humans were trying to make sense of fossils long before the discipline of paleontology existed,” she says. “They made great discoveries, and their insights were pretty accurate. [Their contributions are] really starting to be taken seriously now, and it really warms my heart.”

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