Huge as the frowning Precipice, cruel as the bloody Panther
June 27, 2017 4:22 PM   Subscribe

Early American natural historians struggled to establish the validity of their discipline. Europeans such as Count George-Louis Leclerc Buffon, curator of the King’s Natural History Cabinet in France, opined that American species were inherently degenerate and inferior. Thomas Jefferson attempted to change Buffon’s mind by sending him the remains of a large moose. Then, in 1801, the remains of an enormous animal were unearthed on a farm in New York state. It was the Incognitum.

Or rather, it was an Incognitum - the term had previously been applied to various large remains uncovered in North America. This particular Incognitum was however the most famous, and was exhibited at the early museum of Philadelphia polymath Charles Willson Peale. As the museum foundered, it was eventually sold, and is now on display in Darmstadt, Germany.

Rembrandt Peale: An historical disquisition on the mammoth : or, great American incognitum, an extinct, immense, carnivorous animal, whose fossil remains have been found in North America.
Charles Wilson Peale: The Exhumation of the Mastodon.
posted by carter (10 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

I'll put up our North American Swallow against any damn European Swallow any time.
posted by shockingbluamp at 5:21 PM on June 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

On the other hand European robins are way better than American ones
posted by Flashman at 6:40 PM on June 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

As amusing as the refutation of a moose certainly is, Buffon's idea of American species as "degenerate" stemmed from a weird meshing of early modern scientific principles fused with a biblical worldview. American species (especially Native Americans) had to be degenerate forms of "Old World" species because he believed in a Biblically literal form of creation where all of life and humanity was created in the Garden of Eden and diffused across the world from there.

While Buffon may have been one of the most widely read proponent of a sort of naturalistic Biblical world, he was far from alone. Jefferson himself instructed Lewis and Clark to investigate whether Native Americans might be the lost tribes of Israel in their journey out west.

There were more pernicious ramifications of this worldview as well. Cornelius de Pauw, for instance, doubled down on the degenerate nature of the Americas to the point that he stated that Native American men were naturally homosexual and impotent, requiring insect bites to swell their penises in order to reproduce. Thus, Native American women "naturally" gravitated to the more virile European men. Now seems like the time to note that neither Buffon nor De Pauw ever set foot in the Americas.

Anyway, the Biblical worldview would eventually give way to a more "scientific" post hoc justification of European exploitation of the Americas, a polygenic model which still placed the Americas as less developed than Europe.

As long as I'm rambling, the Valley of Mexico is a rich source of mammoth fossils, which led to a rich strain of stories about giants in Nahua creation/migration myths. This was even remarked upon by Friar Diego Duran in his History of the Indies of New Spain (though he also thought that Native Americans were lost Jews). There's actually a tiny museum dedicated to locally found mammoth fossils outside of Mexico City
posted by Panjandrum at 7:10 PM on June 27, 2017 [12 favorites]

The excavation of this mammoth fossil actually inspired a "mammoth craze" in Jeffersonian America at the time. The use of the word "mammoth" to describe anything enormous originally dates to this time period. One example of the craze is the Cheshire Mammoth Cheese, a 1,234 pound block of cheese that was presented to Thomas Jefferson on New Years' Day in 1802. I wrote a post almost ten years ago about the cheese, but it's nice to see somebody posting about the giant mammoth fossil too.
posted by jonp72 at 7:17 PM on June 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

though he also thought that Native Americans were lost Jews

I had no idea that the concept that Native Americans are the lost tribes of Israel was so ubiquitous. Certainly helps puts the Mormon claims to that effect in context.
posted by vorpal bunny at 8:10 PM on June 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

I have no thoughts on mammoths, but there are a couple of pictures of moose that float around tumblr: they are huge.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:30 PM on June 27, 2017

Here's a picture of Peale's Incognitum, found on the German museum's website.
posted by eye of newt at 10:27 PM on June 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

It looks like the farm where the mastodon was found was located in the town of Shawangunk, at the southern end of Ulster County.
posted by gubo at 6:24 AM on June 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

though he also thought that Native Americans were lost Jews

I wonder if Mel Brooks was aware of this when portraying a Native American in Blazing Saddles. It seemed like an odd choice but it was a comedy.
posted by Green With You at 10:06 AM on June 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

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