Book review: Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology

Big Bone LickBig Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology
by Stanley Hedeen
Published by The University Press of Kentucky (February 22, 2008)
Buy it at: Amazon

The best trivia

  • In 1780, a ditch digger in New York found four giant molars and some slightly decayed bones. News of similar bones in Claverack, New York attracted curious onlookers, including George Washington. Reverend Edward Taylor declared they were the bones of a giant, but they turned out to be the remains of the mastodon.
  • In 1796, Thomas Jefferson acquired some bones from a mysterious giant animal. He proudly named it megalonyx (Greek for giant claw) and assumed it was a giant lion. It was actually a giant ground sloth, whose South American cousins are known for living in trees.
  • Thomas Jefferson collected over 300 mastodon bones for examination at the White House.

Paleontology as the wild frontier of science

Paleontology used to be the bleeding edge of science, and Big Bone Lick was the frontier. Stanley Hedeen’s book describes the history of of the site, a fount of fossils that were highly influential in early paleontology. Among the big finds were the American mammoth, the mastodon.

It was an era that was as much mystical as rational. Thomas Jefferson, for example, didn’t just believe his tree sloth was a lion—he also believed it was still alive. Like many at the time, Jefferson didn’t believe animals could become extinct. “In fine, the bones exist,” he wrote. “Therefore the animal has existed. The movements of nature are in a never ending circle.” He also believed the mastodon roamed the Western areas of America, which was one of the reasons he sent Lewis and Clark to explore the West.

Big Bone Lick is intended for readers interested in the history of paleontology, so it occasionally gets into the prehistoric weeds. But the new perspective the book gives to science and, incidentally, early American leaders, is worth the journey.

What the book is

Big Bone Lick is a slightly dense, academic look at an utterly fascinating site in early paleontology.

What the book isn’t

The book isn’t a poppy Indiana Jones story set in America—it’s a work of history that happens to have some very interesting characters.

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