Georges Cuvier studied fossilized bones from Big Bone Lick and other parts of the world, using the bones to define and interpret mastodons as a type of extinct elephant. Georges Cuvier by James Thompson, c. 1800 engraving, Smithsonian libraries image. Part of Filson’s (1785) map of the Ohio River, showing Big Bone Lick, from Lafon Allen Maps Collection, University of Louisville, Louisville, Ky. Drawing of a mastodon molar from Big Bone Lick in Cuvier’s 1806 manuscript on mastodons.

Georges Cuvier studied fossilized bones from Big Bone Lick and other parts of the world, using the bones to define and interpret mastodons as a type of extinct elephant.  Georges Cuvier by James Thompson, c. 1800 engraving, Smithsonian libraries image. Part of Filson’s (1785) map of the Ohio River, showing Big Bone Lick, from Lafon Allen Maps Collection, University of Louisville, Louisville, Ky. Drawing of a mastodon molar from Big Bone Lick in Cuvier’s 1806 manuscript on mastodons.

In the late 1700s, the concept of extinction was a novel idea. Growing evidence from fossil bones was leading to the idea that some of the bones might represent organisms that no longer existed, however. Georges Cuvier was a naturalist and scholar at the National Museum in Paris. He was the right person at the right place at the right time. Cuvier developed the concept of comparative anatomy and began to compare body parts and functions of body parts in the vast array of vertebrate bones that had been brought from around the world by French ships to the museum in Paris. Because of the large number of modern bones at his disposal, he could make detailed comparisons, not only between the different bones of modern animals, but also with fossilized bones being brought to his museum.

In 1796, Cuvier presented a paper comparing the bones of modern African and Indian elephants with fossil bones of elephants (now called mammoths) from Europe and Siberia and the “animal de l’Ohio” from Big Bone Lick. He concluded that the fossil bones were not the same as those from living elephants, and hence were from extinct animals. They must have been extinct, because much of the world had been explored by the late 1700s and these animals were too large to have remained hidden.  In subsequent years he published on other extinct animals, including ground sloths, pteradactyls, and mososaurs, cementing extinction as a valid scientific concept.

In 1806, Cuvier published a study on the “animal from the Ohio” in which he gave it the name Mastodonte, which means “breast” or “nipple” tooth in Latin. The name was derived from the conical protusions on the molar teeth of what we now call a mastodon. The report was reprinted in Cuvier’s 1812 “Research on Fossil Bones.” Fossils from Big Bone Lick had actually been given the scientific name Mammut Ohioticum [in modern scientific notation, species are lower case, but in the 1700s and 1800s species names were often capitalized] a few years earlier by the German scientist Johann Blumenbach (1797). (Also see Jillson [1968]). Because the first scientific name published has precedence, the modern scientific name for the mastodon is Mammut, although informally the name “mastodon” is still used. The informal name helps to make a clear distinction between the mastodon and the other type of ice age elephant found at Big Bone Lick, the mammoth (scientific name: Mammuthus, which is similar in spelling to Mammut). Many species of mastodons and mammoths are now known.

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Last Modified on 2019-03-14
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