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.