Valentine’s Day conjures up sweet images of romance that humans typically associate with roses and chocolate. Casanova, however, had his own ideas about heightening sexual desire and shared large platters of raw oysters with his lovers, even though no solid evidence supported or supports this indulgence. “We sucked them in, one by one, after placing them on the other’s tongue. Voluptuous reader, try it, and tell me whether it is not the nectar of the gods!” Imagine, however, how much easier it would be to consume oysters unshucked and just crush the shells in your throat before swallowing the treat.
Perhaps efficient, but unappetizing and certainly not sexy, you say. Nevertheless, many fish perform these feats, thanks to teeth embedded in a second set of jaws that is located in their throat. These bones and teeth have likely developed independently in various types of fish, including flying fish, tilapia, and sunfish as well as in common aquarium dwellers such as angelfish.
Two adaptations of pharangeal jaws are particularly remarkable. Mobility characterizes the first. After a moray eel captures a meal with its oral teeth, it opens its pharangeal jaws, moves them forward to grasp the prize, and pulls it irreversibly into the eel’s digestive system. Researchers think that morays developed this mechanism as a result of living in tight burrows where they could not expand their bodies sufficiently to create negative pressure, necessary to draw prey deep into their mouths. Fortunately, that is not an issue with humans consuming chocolate, at least not until clothes become too tight.
An even more amazing adaptation is one characterized by strength. Black drums, also known as drums and drummers, are common along the East Coast of the United States and in the Gulf of Mexico. They typically weigh five to thirty pounds but can grow to over one hundred. Their hardened pharangeal jawbones and accompanying strong muscles are adapted to crushing crabs and other shellfish, and drums find oysters particularly delectable. Fishermen look for drums in oyster beds and sometimes see their tails sticking out of the water, which results from the drums’ habit of bottom feeding in shallow areas. And feed they do. In a day a drum can consume roughly one commercially sized oyster per pound of body weight. For me, that would be 170 oysters, far more then I would either want to shuck or to crush and spit out the shells.
Whether black drums are affected romantically by sharing a bed of raw oysters is yet to be determined. But without a pharangeal jaw, I’m sticking with chocolate and a sentimental card, both safely obtained online. Happy Valentine’s Day.
When he wasn’t hating his paleontology archrival in some tangible way, Edward Drinker Cope* was discovering and naming fossil fauna. In 1892 he found a dog-like creature with skeletal features suggesting its jaws could crush bones with impunity. These features included oversized premolars placed in a short, robust jaw, which provided wide attachment areas for muscles. Drinker named the beast Borophagus (gluttonous eater). Based on the presence and measurements of other skeletal parts found across North America, it roamed widely between 16 and 2 million years ago and weighed about 50 pounds. Its mighty bite force allowed it to occupy a unique ecological niche, presently represented in Africa by the spotted hyena. Because “Boro” could crack open large bones and savor the marrow within, it could stay back and let other large carnivores finish their meal and then enjoy their leftovers. Or maybe they hunted in packs as hyenas do, devouring large prey, bones and all, within a few frenzied minutes. In that case, Boro would have an advantage if it could snap off an entire leg and trot off to enjoy it in peace.
Because Drinker and subsequent paleontologists had just the bones, they were unable to determine anything about Boro’s behavior. Was it a hyena-like pack animal? A scavenger? A predator? Answers have come recently from a surprising source—its fossilized poop.
While boating on Turlock Lake, east of Modesto, California, an amateur fossil collector recognized a blob on the shore as a coprolite, scientific parlance for feces turned to stone. It had fragments of bone visible near the surface, so the collector surmised that the donor was a large carnivore, and Boro was the only known carnivore from that time in that area. He dug around and recovered 14 coprolites, which became the material for a 42-page scientific publication.
The fact that Boro and company dropped feces in clusters, which is how wolves and spotted hyenas mark territory, implied to the investigators that they were social animals and that the fossil collector had come across their outhouse. Computed tomography analysis of the coprolites revealed bone fragments that came from ribs or limbs of animals as large as 220 pounds, the size of today’s mule deer. Although some of the bone fragments were nearly 2 ½ inches long, most were in the quarter-to-half-inch range, which made the source generally unidentifiable, although one clearly came from a bird wing and another from a beaver jaw. The investigators suggest that Boro’s habit of crushing bone accelerated recycling of the contained nutrients into the food web and remark that no animal took Boro’s place following its extinction. Modern day carnivores living in the area (coyotes, foxes, cougars) do not have Boro’s bone-crushing capabilities, which indicates a fundamental shift in food web dynamics—quite a lesson derived from a latrine.
This year’s suggestion spans the entire gambit from frugality to extravagance. You will find it particularly helpful for those discerning, curious individuals on your gift list who like to learn, and smile a bit in the process, i.e., nearly everybody!
Choose between the traditional, Kindle, and Audiobook versions. For the hard-to-please linguists on your list, consider the Russian or Korean translation.
If the recipient responds with a quizzical, “Why me? Why this?” when they open the gift, explain that
Amazon readers have given the choice five stars and included comments such as “this is how science writing should be done,” “entertaining and informative,” and “a wonderful read for anyone with a backbone.”
Radio interviewers and podcasters have clambered for opportunities to interview the author. These include KERA Think, NPR Cool Science, and Talk Nerdy. (If any of your giftees have been naughty this year, consider just sending them the links to these interviews!)
Linguistics: Pater or faeder? Jawbone size affects speech.
Paleontology: Boro, the Bone Crusher
Geology: What bones have to say about earthquakes.
and topics on anatomy, strontium, hibernation
To end the suspense, here’s the recommended gift. Happy Holidays. To make your first-edition gift even more precious, contact us with the lucky recipient’s name and your snail mail address to receive an autographed bookplate.
Consider gifting BONES to yourself if you haven’t already.
For thousands of years, bone setters and doctors could not accurately diagnosis broken bones or differentiate such injuries from joint dislocations and torn ligaments. That all began to change with a chance discovery 125 years ago this month. Subsequently, perhaps with equal parts of chagrin and enlightenment, doctors began using the new discovery to discount many of their long-held assumptions and begin to accurately diagnose skeletal diseases.
In his darkened laboratory on November 8, 1895, a German mechanical engineer and physicist, Wilhelm Röntgen, electrified a vacuum tube and happened to observe a strange glow coming from a nearby card, one that he had coated with a photosensitive chemical. He turned the electricity off. The glow disappeared. He flipped the switch on and placed his hand in front of the card. A shadow of his hand appeared on the card. Astounded, he ate and slept in his laboratory over the following weeks and studied this unknown ray, which he labeled “X,” the mathematical symbol for an unknown.
He learned that X-rays passed through books, no matter how thick, and that coins cast a shadow on the photosensitive board. Six weeks later Röntgen shared the secret with his wife, who allowed him to take a fifteen-minute exposure of her hand, the first orthopedic X-ray. When she saw the image of her hand skeleton, she exclaimed, “I have seen my death.” Far more broadly, she was witnessing the advent of diagnostic radiology and modern orthopedic surgery.
A week later, Röntgen presented his findings in a scientific paper titled, “On a New Type of Rays.” This caught the immediate attention of physicists, who alerted the lay press. The discovery made the front-page headline news within a week of Röntgen’s public presentation.
At the time, vacuum tubes were well known and easy to make. After Röntgen’s discovery and announcement, many investigators contributed to the understanding and practical applications of X-rays. Interest was intense and advances were rapid. Less than three months after Röntgen’s public announcement, an enterprising electrical contractor and avid photographer opened a laboratory and offered diagnostic services.
Röntgen received the Nobel Prize in 1901, the first one ever awarded for physics. Röntgen not only gave the reward money to his university, he also refused to take out patents on his discovery in order to promote wide-spread application.
I suppose when X-rays were in their infancy, patients were asking, “Now that you have finished obtaining a thorough medical history, performing a careful physical examination, and telling me that you know with assurance what is wrong, aren’t you going to order an X-ray, Doctor?” This question implied a lack of trust in the doctor’s diagnosis unless he threw in a high-tech, oh-so-modern X-ray evaluation. Gradually, doctors and patients came to understand when an X-ray study could help with the diagnosis or treatment and when one would be superfluous. For instance, today it is intuitive that a sore tooth most likely deserves an X-ray while a sore throat does not. In general, X-rays reveal calcium-rich structures—those containing enough calcium to cast a shadow in the X-ray beam. Examples are bones, teeth, hardened arteries, and kidney stones.
Doctors have learned to order X-rays with some caution because radiation damages living tissues and their DNA. That fact required discovery, and the harmful effects of early X-ray examinations were slow to reveal themselves. Since X-rays could not be seen or felt, investigators had no reason to consider them harmful. Both Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison experimented with X-rays, and both observed that their eyes became irritated; but neither drew a connection between the radiation and their symptoms.
For convenience, dentists originally held the film inside the patient’s mouth with their fingers when shooting dental X-rays. Decades later the skin on their hands dried, cracked, and became cancerous. I have been fortunate to escape similar problems. In the 1950s I watched my toe bones wiggle under fluoroscopy in the shoe department at Sears, and in the 1960s I received enough radiation for acne that it left me “sunburned.” Nowadays the radiology tech steps behind a lead shield before shooting the film, and there are generally accepted standards for how much radiation a person can receive on an annual and lifetime basis without incurring undue risk.
Despite our best efforts, we cannot avoid radiation exposure entirely. Some comes naturally from the sun and some from the ground. We get more during a plane flight because the thinner air at high altitude blocks less of the sun’s radiation. This fact poses a major, unsolved problem for interplanetary travel because of the absence of Earth’s radiation-shielding atmosphere and because of the impracticality of armoring spaceships with lead. Stay tuned, or maybe just stay earthbound.
Most would agree, however, that the potential benefits of a timely chest X-ray or mammogram far outweigh the risks. Even an occasional and judiciously planned CT scan may help maintain or restore your health; but avoid advice such as, “I don’t have a clue about what’s wrong, so let’s get a CT scan.” A second opinion is safer. Remember, it took decades for the damaged DNA in dentists to turn into skin cancers. Similarly, avoid being your own doctor and proclaiming, “I would just feel better, Doctor, if you ordered a CT scan.”
Röntgen discovered his new type of ray a few decades after the introduction of general anesthesia and the acceptance of aseptic surgical techniques. These developments, along with the invention of stainless steel, ushered into the modern era orthopedic surgery and the practicality of operative fixation of fractures. Looking ahead 125 years, fractures will still exist. Arthritis and osteoporosis may be fully preventable. Bone imaging techniques will be even more sophisticated than they are today. X-ray imaging may be obsolete, replaced completely by magnetic resonance imaging, ultrasound, or some yet-to-be-discovered alternative. Nevertheless, Röntgen’s discovery and its enduring 125-year legacy deserves recognition and respect.
Nothing is more evocative of Halloween than pumpkins, black cats, and skeletons. Should you want to dress up for maximum effect this season, consider that nobody looks good in a pumpkin outfit and only certain, lovely shaped bodies should go out as cat women. For most of us, that leaves skeletons, which not only allows us to reveal our inner selves but also to reenact a bit of history.
Frescos, paintings, and woodcuts depicting dancing skeletons appeared in the 15th century. There were many of them, so they must have been popular. Artists portrayed royalty and commoners cavorting with corpses and skeletons to remind the living of life’s fragility and the inevitability and universality of death. This allegorical genre became known as danse macabre—dance of death.
Over the following centuries, many musicians adopted the theme, the most famous of which was Camille Saint-Saens’ symphonic poem by the same name. It prominently features the xylophone to simulate the dancers’ rattling bones.
The descriptions so far are representations of skeletons dancing, sometimes naked, sometimes clothed. Far less well documented is the converse—live people dressing up as skeletons. One early depiction comes from an 1831 French lithograph titled the Political Carnival. (Any resemblance to current affairs is purely coincidental.)
Another representation appeared in 1896 newspapers, only weeks after the discovery of X-rays. The article notes that a reigning beauty showed up to a ball in Munich wearing “…a watered silk skirt and close-fitting basque, upon which had been deftly painted the principal bones of the human frame. The ribs, collar bones, arms, thigh bones and spine were outlined in black upon the white background. The idea was not carried above the neck, nor below the knees, and a pair of roguish eyes peeped through a satin mask. The whole thing was dainty in its conception and execution.” At about the same time came the costume depicted above in the lower right, certainly not dainty, from Tibet. A Buddhist monk danced in it to illustrate the impermanence of life, and by extension, of everything.
From my viewpoint as an orthopedic surgeon, I find each of these skeleton costumes wanting in anatomical correctness and completeness, and I cannot recommend any of them to you for your Halloween costume. Rather, I would like to help you choose from current options at Amazon. Possibilities abound, and to ease the burden of the discriminating buyer, I have restricted my selection to costumes for adult humans. Children and dogs are so cute that they can get away with styling cartoonish, anatomically incorrect bones. Adults who want to pay proper respect to the dead and to the beauty of the human skeleton need costumes that to some extent simulate nature, at least enough to keep orthopedist and radiologist party-goers and trick-or-treaters from shuddering.
To begin with, the bones must be white, not multicolored or decorated with psychedelic patterns or bogus arterial patterns. You can select among costumes that are printed just on the front, which I guess are OK if you are staying home and dispensing treats to neighborhood children while just facing forward. For party goers who plan to shout and twist, I advise an outfit that is printed front and back. Some have paint that glows in the dark. Whether this is a plus or a minus is up to you. As a bone lover, I insist that your costume extend at least to your wrists and ankles. You will score extra points with all bone aficionados if your outfit also covers your hands and feet. Get even more points if it has an all-in-one hoodie with a see-through and Covid-approved mask displaying a frightening skull. I know the following are available, but please, no open shoulders, short sleeves, T-shirt dresses, fishtail skirts, body suits with thigh-high stockings and garters, or plunging necklines. One description says “from naked to awesome in just one zip.” You decide whether that’s for you. Another description indicates “concealed fly.” At least that one has an out. Not explicitly described, but other offerings appear to require pretty much stripping the onesie to the knees to relieve oneself.
The fabric is typically nylon or polyester. Some include Spandex. One description indicates “stretchy to fit most builds.” Another says, “shows your figure.” Think seriously about these likely true statements and decide if that is what you want. Also, assess your height in comparison to the costume’s size. Several of the Amazon ads depict models who are height-challenged when compared to the length of their costume’s legs, which gives the leg bones down near the ankles an extremely unnatural, crumpled up appearance.
Finally, the devil is in the details—anatomical correctness. For example, the historical images depicted above are all wanting. Regarding the first image, humans have twelve pairs of ribs, not six. In the second, the rib cage is naturally oval, not busting out in front as on the beautiful Munich fraulein. In the third, a monk with upper arm bones that thick would be weighted down too much to dance.
Among the current offerings, some have no cervical vertebrae at all. You would risk your head falling off. I can cut some slack to the artists that did not get the ball-and-socket nature of the shoulder and hips exactly right, but those joints should be at least at the proper level, not half way up the neck, half way down the chest, or at the waist line. The knees are equally problematic and give me the creeps because in reality the kneecaps are in front of the leg and thigh bones. (Remember the song. It is not “ … the leg bone connects to the kneecap, the kneecap connects to the thigh bone, …). Some artists missed that day in health class and have positioned the kneecap between the two main lower limb bones like a big dot separating two dashes. And then there are the hands and feet. True, the numerous ankle and wrist bones are complexly arranged in nature, and probably nobody will notice any errors if you keep gyrating, but please, at least let’s have five digits on each foot and hand. Then there are several subtleties. From the internet I can’t tell that any of the available costumes have included the hammer, anvil, and stirrup bones residing in our ears; but I can overlook that, since they are too small to concern anybody other than ear doctors. Of great interest to bone doctors, however, is one costume that depicts a broken thigh bone, which has been anatomically aligned and surgically secured with a metal rod. This would support an early return to dancing and would definitely be a conversation starter with any bonehead, especially if the costume is just one zip from awesome to naked.
A final note. This shopping guide is not just about preparing you for Halloween. Many of the advertisements say that your carefully selected skeleton costume is also suitable for theme parties, Mardi Gras, clubbing, and even Christmas. Wouldn’t that be a surprise for Santa. In the meantime, Happy Halloween.
Launching October 20. Available now for pre-order.
“This is how science writing should be done. I loved this book. It has everything I want in science writing: plain explanations, conversational tone, a little bit of the author’s journey, and a fair amount of humor. The book was hard to put down … “Goodreads.
The inaugural post concluded with: “I will compare bone to sewing thread, Tootsie Pops, licorice sticks, and jazz. … Learning should always be fun, which is easy when telling this story. … The blog is an opportunity to extol the wonders of bone as it supports life and captures history. Let me know if you have questions or if there is some aspect of this wonderful substance that you would like to learn more about.”
Now 79 posts later, AboutBone remains true to its original vision. Early on, I was concerned about eventually running out of topics. No way! Between the leads I find and ones that readers send me, I have enough topics that I could hammer your in box with a new announcement weekly. But as enduring and endearing as bone is, we DO have other things to attend to. So I plan to continue to post a new article every 2-3 weeks.
Looking back: Here are five of the most popular posts, whose topics span 3.2 million years from anthropology and the history of anatomy to a thriving 19th century bone business, a 20th century orthopedic mistake with serendipitous results, and a space-age interplanetary application.
Looking forward: After an eight-year incubation, BONES, Inside and Out, will launch October 20. An audiobook version and translations into Korean and Russian will soon follow along with several podcast interviews and virtual book signings. Advance praise for BONES includes:
I loved this book. It has everything I want in science writing: plain explanations, conversational tone, a little bit of the author’s journey, and a fair amount of humor. Goodreads
An expansive and lively treatment of a material most of us take for granted. Kirkus, starred review
Naturally we tend to take things for granted unless something is amiss, and so it is with our bones. Sure, people take note when they have arthritis or osteoporosis, and a fracture commands the bone owner’s complete attention. For the moment, however, appreciate how close to normal your bones are. A good way to do so is to understand that normality is not universal and that there are some amazing and strange ways that bone can go bad—so strange and rare that most orthopedists, myself included, have never encountered a patient so afflicted. However, we do read about these diseases in journal articles, and the topics may appear on certification exams. Here is a brief overview of three rare conditions that will definitely heighten your appreciation of normal bones.
The first is the genetic deficiency of an enzyme, alkaline phosphatase, which bone-building cells need to function. Bone growth and turnover are normally a balance between bone production and degradation; but in this condition, hypophosphatasia, bone is slowly resorbed and not replaced. In the severe early-childhood form of this disease, the ribs melt away, and the patient requires mechanical assistance for breathing. Early death ensues, at least until recently. Now the disease can be thwarted by periodic, lifelong injections of a synthetic form of the missing enzyme.
Although not fatal, the second condition, vanishing bone disease, is even more vexatious because nobody knows its cause. It can occur at any age but shows up most commonly in young adults where large segments of bone in a given region, typically face or upper arm, just gradually disappear. When it attacks the ribs, it can be fatal, otherwise it is just disabling, since the affected part of the skeleton lacks stability. For instance, contracting the muscles in a transformed arm just telescope the limb rather than bend and straighten the joints. Sometimes the process stops spontaneously, but it is not known to reverse. Radiation may provide some benefit but risks later malignant transformation. At times grafted bone can span the defect and improve stability and function.
In the third condition, an overabundance of bone rather than a dearth causes problems. It’s called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive (FOP). A chemical messenger, bone morphogenetic protein, normally stimulates bone cells to make bone, which is a process integral to bone growth and fracture healing. In FOP, bone morphogenetic protein does not get switched off, and it stimulates bone formation in extra-skeletal locations, starting in the neck and shoulder muscles and gradually working its way down the spine and into the limbs. Any muscle irritation, an injection or bruise for instance, leads to the local formation of an extra-skeletal lump of bone. Surgical excision of the knot leads to more bone formation. The condition begins in childhood, gradually stiffens all joints in the spine and limbs, and makes even self-care activities impossible. Sadly, chewing and chest expansion become restricted, so either malnutrition or pneumonia causes early death.
The first malady discussed, hypophosphatasia, is far more common than the other two and is treatable. The others are exceedingly rare. Total worldwide cases number no more than a few hundred. Awareness of the three allows a glimpse into the amazing and complex life of normal bone, which is worthy of our utmost appreciation.
The Loire River, the longest in France, empties into the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean near Nantes. There, the second longest sea serpent ever seen, 425 feet, morphs twice daily into a giant beach snake according to the level of the tide. Well, it’s not an entire dragon, but its skeleton leaves little other than skin color and a forked tongue to the imagination.
The aluminum sculpture is the creation of Huang Yong Ping, a compelling avant-garde artist. He was just the sort of original thinker who would make a sculpture that is partially submerged half the time. Ping made a similar reptilian sculpture, nearly twice as long, that he could fit into Paris’s Grand Palais only after snaking it around and over stacked shipping containers.
Ping, born in China, was a key figure in avant-garde art there. He moved to Paris in 1989, and in due time, both countries claimed him as their own. He lived in France until his death in 2019 at age 64. Just as his experience spanned continents, his giant serpents, central symbols in Chinese culture, blend cross-cultural concepts of creation, temptation, wisdom, deception, sexuality, good luck, prosperity, and rebirth. They link East with West as well as sky with water in ways that are open to personal interpretation.
Ping felt that “art could not be detached from real life, but should instead take a stand on everything” and that “it was the ideas rather than the objects that were the real works of art.”* To make this point, he and his fellow avant-gardians once assembled a show and then at the end set it afire. At other times, they would organize a museum exhibit and cancel at the last minute, undermining the curator’s authority on what was exhibited and when. Or consider his 20-ton replica of a British bank in China that later became a Communist government building. It was cast of sand mixed with thin cement and designed to slowly crumble, which it did. Westerners saw it as a critique of capitalism. The Chinese could interpret it as a sign of colonial weakness. A further example of his iconoclastic style was his A Concise History of Modern Art after Two Minutes in the Washing Machine. Ping literally churned two famous textbooks on Chinese art, one by a Chinese expert and the other by a Brit, and displayed the soggy mess on a wooden box.
Fortunately for bone lovers, his French beach serpent, Ressort 2012, is less ephemeral than some of his entirely outlandish works. Ressort in French means spring, in the sense of resilience and energy—aspirational qualities for our times, regardless of the tide.
To begin answering this question, let’s start in 1948, the year that American automotive entrepreneur Preston Tucker introduced his Tucker 48. At a time when the major car manufacturers had not introduced new models since 1941, Tucker offered consumers previously unheard-of features on an American car. These included a padded dashboard, a rear engine, and a pop-out windshield made of shatterproof glass. The most distinctive feature was the central, directional headlight that would brighten the 48’s course around bends in the road.
The following year, the British car manufacturer, Rover, brought out its 75, an upmarket sedan, which also featured a centrally mounted headlight. Then in 1952, Italian car manufacturer Bertone showcased the Abarth 1500 Biposto (two-seater) at the Turin Motor Show. The car’s futuristic, aerodynamic styling included a central headlight and fins in the rear. The Packard Motor Company bought it, took it back to Detroit, and used it as design inspiration. Other manufacturers picked up on the styling, most notably Alfa Romeo, which made three concept cars named BAT (Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica or Technically Aerodynamic Sports Coup) and displayed them in the 1950s. Other BAT concept cars followed, most recently in 2008. None, however, sported the Cyclops eye that distinguished the Tucker 48, Rover 75, and Abarth 1500.
Of course, the headlight was named for the Cyclopes, a tribe of one-eyed, uncouth, cave-dwelling giants who stood tall and fearsome in Greek and Roman mythology. Belief held that they lived in the Mediterranean region and built the ancient stone walls, which were otherwise unexplainable because the boulders were too large for men to maneuver. As told by Homer, the best remembered Cyclops is the man-eating Polyphemus, whom Odysseus outwitted and blinded by driving a stake through its eye.
How do myths like this get started? Rather than just an entire fabrication, a thread of truth may become embellished with multiple retellings across generations. For instance, the legend of King Arthur probably started this way. The same may be true for Polyphemus and company. At the end of the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago, a species of five-to-seven feet tall dwarf elephant lived on Cyprus, Crete, Malta, and Sicily, among other Mediterranean islands. If an ancient shepherd stumbled across the skeleton of one of these junior jumbos and trundled its skull back to town, the opportunity for misinterpretation would be great. Compared to human skulls, which have well-defined, forward-facing bony eye sockets, an elephant’s eye sockets are open and are set farther back on the sides of its head. The purpose of these wide openings is not immediately clear. Furthermore, the dwarf elephant’s nasal opening is central and high on its skull in order to accommodate the trunk’s attachment.
Not being skilled in comparative osteology, perhaps ancient people misidentified this nasal opening as a single eye socket and named the mini behemoth Cyclops, “Round-eye”. Furthermore, the existence of a tribe of huge, one-eyed creatures roaming the Mediterranean region could explain the massive stone walls, still known as cyclopean walls. In 1914, an Austrian paleontologist and evolutionary biologist postulated such a factual basis for the Cyclops myth.
We will never know, but it is easy to imagine that the skull of a small, ancient elephant inspired automotive styling, which is reflected in modern sportscars’ aerodynamic styling even in absence of a central headlight. Maybe it’s a myth, but it’s a good story.
Frenchman George Louis Leclerc de Buffon was a preeminent naturalist of the late 18th century. Among his accomplishments, Buffon raised the ire of the Americans to an alarming level. He claimed that nature in the Americas was inferior to that in Europe, that the New World lacked large and powerful beasts, and that even the Native Americans were smaller, weaker, and generally inferior to Europeans. “There is not any animal in America that can be compared to the elephant, the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the dromedary, the giraffe, the buffalo, the lion, the tiger.” He attributed this lack of vigor to a foul climate where nothing could grow properly.
This came at a time when the Founding Fathers were encouraging Europeans to invest in the United States to strengthen the economy and support western expansion. Thomas Jefferson was livid and fought back by sending Buffon a New Hampshire moose to prove him wrong. Then he charged Meriwether Lewis to bring back evidence of mastodons from his discovery expedition to the Northwest. This stemmed from Jefferson’s interest in natural history and his awareness that, several years before Lewis’s and Clark’s departure, fossils of a nearly complete mastodon, previously unknown, had been unearthed in the Hudson River Valley. This discovery created quite a stir on two fronts. At the time the concept of extinction was incompletely formed and not widely supported. Scientists had trouble explaining these gigantic bones because there was an absence of any living counterpart. They named it American incognitum. Secondly and more importantly to the populace, the giant beast came to symbolize the United States’ conquering spirit and awesome power, particularly in face of Buffon’s vainglorious insult.
While Lewis and Clark were gone, portrait artist, naturalist, and entrepreneur Charles Wilson Peale purchased the mastodon’s fossils and then assembled and displayed them at his museum in Philadelphia. The creature became a public phenomenon, not so much for its scientific significance, but rather as an informal symbol of dominance and national identity for this new and psychologically insecure society.
At first Peale displayed the mastodon with its tusks pointed upwards, elephant-like. It was unknown whether incognitum was a carnivore or herbivore, but journal articles and pamphlets fanned the mania of its presumed terrifying nature. “Forests were laid waste at a meal, the groans of expiring animals were everywhere heard; and whole villages, inhabited by men, were destroyed in a moment.” Peale’s son, Rembrandt, remarked, “Gracious God, what a jaw! How many animals have been crushed by it?” He further described incognitum to museum visitors as “cruel as the bloody panther, swift as the descending eagle, and terrible as the Angel of Night.”
With such hyperbole, it should not be surprising that Rembrandt heightened incognitum’s box-office attraction by turning its tusks down and arguing that they might have been used for “striking down small animals, or in detaching shell-fish from the bottom of rivers, or even in ascending their banks.” The tusks remained so positioned for at least another ten years.
Yet the myth persisted for decades. An 1839 novel, The Behemoth, portrayed the mastodon laying waste to the wilderness “as if it had been recently trampled by some angry and barbaric puissance, that had swept it from end to end like a storm.”
Ultimately, the Peales went bankrupt and sold incognitum to European collectors. The skeleton ended up in a museum in Darmstadt, Germany, where it can be seen, tusks up, today. Buffon eventually admitted his mistake about New World vigor.
Incognitum’s popular appeal as an icon of power and dominance has endured, now having morphed into a fantasy appeal for other monster predators, including dinosaurs and sharks. Paul Semolina* suggests that we take the frenzy that incognitum stirred up to “question our own casual acceptance of the paradigm of dominance. Such myths and metaphors often express our most basic values and beliefs. They are the mental constructs that need to be reinvented if we are to give cultural life to values other than those of violent conquest and domination.” Sage words for our times. Happy Fourth of July.