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Thomas Jefferson Built This Country On Mastodons


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We all knew Thomas Jefferson was into science, but turns out he was OBSESSED with mammoths and believed they still lived in the western part of North America.

Is it possible he bought the Louisiana Purchase so Americans could look for mammoths?!

In reality, of course, there weren’t any. In fact, some experts think that early humans hunted them to death, making mammoths the first entry on a different chart: that of animals killed off by people. But conviction, patriotism, and loyalty sometimes outmuscle truth. Soon before his death, Jefferson wrote to John Adams, and said he could accept that “certain races of animals are become extinct.” But he never mentioned the mammoth.

I had no idea Thomas Jefferson was the founder of North American paleontology.

Jefferson liked science more than he liked politics. He was a fastidious vegetable breeder and weather recorder, he led the American Philosophical Society for eighteen years, and he once spent a while re-engineering the plow according to Newtonian principals. He particularly loved fossils, and collected and speculated on them so avidly that he is considered “the founder of North American paleontology,” says Dr. Mark Barrow, an environmental history professor at Virginia Tech. 

Like the rest of the country, he was particularly enamored with one huge, mysterious type of fossil—the seven-foot tusks and and crate-sized jawbones that kept being dragged out of American salt licks and riverbeds. Mammoths and mastodons roamed the United States for millions of years, and when they went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, they left plenty of forensic evidence behind. They first stampeded into the colonial imagination in 1705, when a tenant farmer in New York came across a molar “the size of a man’s fist.” This “tooth of a Giant” was sold, traded, and gifted around until it was famous on both sides of the ocean, and everyone was talking about the huge, mysterious “incognitum,” or “unknowable,” that had dropped its bones all over the continent and disappeared.

The incognitum slowly became more knowable, thanks partially to efforts of Jefferson and other big fans, who sent bits of it overseas to European scientists who could compare them to similar fossils. Experts debated whether it was a gentle grazer, or a terrifying carnivore capable of "mighty leaps."  

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