Friday, September 7, 2012
At The Margins Of Cryptozoology: Mastodons and Amerinds.
Hello again, folks. I've made my trek back to WVA, and am trying to get settled in. Weather hasn't cooperated and the old body aches too long into the day, but let's try to post something, despite feeling like that sleepy old mammoth in the picture.
Actually, I've probably picked a bad subject --- too big and complicated a mystery. But --- faithfully on!
The post was inspired by one of the articles that came from one of those bound old journals from the 19th century that I bought a few months ago. This was from the very first volume of Scribners Magazine 1897, "American Elephant Myths", by William Berryman Scott. Two things about this were immediately intriguing: this is probably the first review of this subject in the American intellectual press, and it is by an absolutely first class palaeontologist. In it Scott collects a large amount of soft evidence that indicates that human/mastodon or mammoth interactions were a real possibility, despite the accepted opinion that no such thing was possible [in America, anyway].
This whole story is a big messy tale, so beginning it is a problem. We'll save WB Scott's article for later and say some background things.
Once upon a time there were [at least] two types of big hairy elephant-like things [one hairier than the other] and they migrated into the Americas over the Bering Strait landbridge way back when. There were an awfully large number of these behemoths and the map above shows just some of the palaeontology digs which have unearthed their bones. Please note that "my" state, Michigan, is the Mastodon Center of the Universe. Archaeologists from my old school WMU used to go on digs to Native American sites and just as likely discover Mastodons instead.
The flourishing of the species is supposed to be about 20,000 years ago. Lower ocean levels at that time meant that the coast extended further outwards and bones have been found as much as 300km off shore. The beasts could stand as much as three man-heights tall and some dig sites have produced copious amounts of long hair, dun brown to amber in color, which apparently covered most of the body. They seem to have been, amazingly, tree-eaters, munching away at almost all parts of the pine trees, but favoring the bark. If climate changed sufficiently, they would either have to migrate to more densely forested land or die.
So, how'd they die... and when?
The death of the Mammoths/Mastodons is almost as complicated a mess as the alleged reasons for the death of the dinosaurs. Some say that the climate changed slowly but significantly enough that food was scarce and competition among themselves killed too many of a slowly reproducing species. Some say that climate changed so rapidly that the "clumsy" monsters fell down cliffs and pits and got mired in bogs and just couldn't move fast enough to find the remaining trees. I always have puzzled over how these animals could have been completely overtaken by snow and ice in Siberia so as to be frozen in state by the thousands. No B.S. that I've heard sounds realistic to me. And, as a grudging concession to commonsense, some academics think that we humans gradually hunted them to death, BUT ONLY VERY OLD HUMANS --- moderns need not apply. These extinctions, however they occurred, had to take place long ago circa 10,000 years BP, or the establishment cannot sleep well at night.
So now that we've been told what we must believe in order to pass the test, let's step back into time when the Big Bones began coming out of the ground and the battle to find orthodoxy was on.
In 1705 a five pound tooth was found near the Hudson River [NY] and immediately was seen as a Giant's tooth, Pre-Noachian, and therefore proof of the Genesis story. Others of course disagreed. The tooth and some subsequent big bones were viewed by them as being from some unknown creature of great size, which was dubbed the "Incognitum". Cotton Mather, however, stuck to the Biblical interpretation and viewed the species as the equivalent of the monstrous Og or at the least Goliath.
Sooner or later more complete amounts of bones came forward and it became impossible to rationally see this thing as humanoid. Finally a near complete specimen of a mammoth was reconstructed and put on show [for cash viewing] by a man named Peale. Although some still wanted to believe that this thing was either something entirely different on one hand, or merely a huge elephant on the other, the great palaeontologist Cuvier finally put a stop to that by showing why the animal was of the family of the pachyderms, but NOT a modern elephant. He viewed it as an ancient now extinct beast.
Thomas Jefferson and George Washington thought differently in part. Cuvier's analysis was fine, but both thought that, partly for theological reasons, this animal probably still existed in the American West. Some people say that the funding of the Lewis and Clark expedition was in part to discover these beasts.
"In the present interior of our continent, there is surely space and range enough for elephants and lions". Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson had more than just theology and big bones to buttress his beliefs. He knew that native american folklore of the Big Bone Lick area of the Ohio River [and elsewhere] believed that some very large and violent beast had interacted with tribes and wildlife, and accounted for the carnage that they felt the bonepiles at places like Big Bone Lick represented. The legend told that these animals were too powerful to defeat en masse and that it took a charitable and angry destruction by the high spirit [probably viewed by most of these tribes as Manitou, the Life-bringer] to do so. Interestingly to me, they have the only surviving beasts going back to Michigan, where all those mastodon bone finds occur. Jefferson also may have known about the ancient and still continuing Mammoth ivory trade coming out of Siberia, and the legends of living beasts there.
Somewhere during all of this a few "recent" tales begin to come out. The tale of David Ingram, from far back in 1586, surfaced again. More of that later. It is reported to Jefferson that a person back near those same times was captured by indians, and transported to a location where tales were told to him about existing mastodon-like beasts. A French officer in Louisiana in 1748 had heard a tale of a great beast terrorizing persons in Indiana at that time. And so wisps of smoke were out there on the horizons. Was there any fire?
As the 19th century progressed, and no Mastodons attacked, the establishment position firmed: Although there were mammoths and mastodons way back in pre-human-occupancy times, they all died off many years ago, and all we see are spectacular bones leading to made up stories. Then, in the latter part of the 19th century, the arguments opened up again.
All the above stuff seems pretty straightforward to me [though I've written it way too briefly], but now I'll probably get into personally-ignorant waters. My "study" of this stuff says to me that the reason that the late-surviving mastodon idea arose with any strength was the appearance of the Lenape Stone [above]. The stone was found in two sections at two widely separate dates in the same field by a young man [son of the farmer]. The dates of finding were 1872 and 1881. [The left two-thirds was found first and spent most of the intervening years in an indian-artifact "shoebox", of things which the boy found while farming these fields; all this in Pennsylvania's Bucks County]. Despite this being found by a completely naive amateur, the "provenance" is otherwise extremely good. This is because serious people interviewed everyone involved just like a good UFO field investigation would.
We owe this good work, regardless if it points to a genuine anomaly or not, to a fine early palaeontologist named Henry Chipman Mercer. Mercer was made aware of this peculiar stone gorget by the president [I believe] of the Bucks County Historical Society, which had acquired the artifact for two and a half bucks, and had it on display. This man, Captain J.S. Bailey, read a paper on the Stone in 1882, and Mercer became fascinated. By 1885 Mercer had collected information on this and related facts to the possible human/mastodon interactions occurring in recent past times, and published a short monograph, The Lenape Stone, or The Indian and the Mammoth.
You can read the monograph for yourself on the internet. In it Mercer gives a plausible scenario for buying the idea that:
#1: the stone is a genuine Delaware Indian, or predecessor, artifact, and not hoaxed by the farm family in whose field it was found.
#2: that Jefferson may have had good reason to believe the tale of a "Mr.Stanley" who was told by Indians of a beast much like an elephant that they had to fight.
#3: that other legends such as that of the Big Quis-quis monster of the Iroquois, the Oyahguaharh of the Tuscarora, the "Father of Oxen" of the Wyandot, and the Great Elk tradition of French Canada, all could be interpreted as memories of a very large and potent animal unlike those typically seen in those areas today.
#4: that the stone drawing eerily resembles the prehistoric drawing from La Madeliene in France. [shown in the picture above].
Mercer mentions the "recently excavated" elephant pipes from Louisa County Iowa [without confidence] and the Elephant Mound from Wisconsin [with]. He is completely aware of the objections to the stone's authenticity, and proceeds to address those issues objectively. The book is a good read by an honest seeker and a man enough within the establishment that it garnered genuine interest.
Lets look at the stone again.
Objections were made that the sketch did not seem like legitimate native american drawing. This, it turned out, was "white man talk", as when real native americans were asked about the drawing they said: yes, they could see an indian drawing that, but not the elephant --- that didn't belong there [because at Mercer's time, the local tribal people knew of no such thing in the environment].
A more serious objection was that the cuts seemed drawn with a metal instrument. This didn't hold up either because you can draw on such a sandstone with flint tools just fine with sharp cut accuracy... and although it wasn't mentioned, why couldn't the locals have had some fine piece of Great Lakes native copper to work with?
The last actual real objection was that the drawing seemed to be placed on the gorget after it was broken. This implied to the skeptics that someone found a broken plain indian gorget and, for reasons unknown, decided to sketch an indian/mastodon confrontation on it [bridging the break with a lightning bolt] and then throwing the pieces away in modern times, later to be found on turning soil up by the farmer. Well, that's a lot of dancing but not impossible. For someone who believes the scene portrayed to be the impossibility in the story, that dance will do to make the impossible go away.
Mercer knew about this. He accepted that the drawing DID look like it had occurred at least in part after the stone had broken. Mercer also realized that he was theorizing [but that everyone else was too] when he gave his own hypothesis: Gorgets are often found broken and almost always through one of the holes. Gorgets are usually plain, but some do have sketches on them. What if the "artist" was sketching on an intact gorget, say left to right, and when he got near the right hand hole, the thing broke? Maybe he throws it away. Maybe he's put enough work into it that he attempts to save it. Perhaps he uses one of the crude "glues" [sometimes even blood was used] to put the thing back together and continue to finish the sketch and the other side. The critics could then be correct: some of the sketch WAS done after the break, but the whole thing was conceived beforehand and so the objection may be irrelevant.
Mercer continued, therefore, to insist that the Lenape Stone was genuine and that it convincingly showed a fight between a "prehistoric" elephant and "recent" native americans, precisely in concert with the set of legends and tales which had surfaced during the past century.
Of course the establishment couldn't swallow it, but Mercer had argued so well that his unaccepted views never hindered his career. And shortly another even greater heavyweight, William Berryman Scott, would put his oar in the water to get this boat moving again. That story next time....
The Iowa Elephant Pipes--- more vehemently opposed by academia, and unhelpful to Mercer's cause.
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