Mastodons, Giant Squid Beaks and “The National Thing”

by Tom Jacobs

As almost every individual possesses some article which in itself is of little value, but in a collective view, becomes of real importance, the patrons of this institution solicit the attention of their fellow-citizens to the Museum, and request their aid towards forming a collection which promises fair to become an object of public utility.

–John Pintard, writing on behalf of the Tammany society, 1791

ScreenHunter_11 Sep. 19 08.59 I am staring at a mastodon tooth and a squid beak. I bought them on ebay a few years back and they have become among my most prized possessions. This tooth was once in the jaw of a creature that lumbered through Kentucky around ten to twenty thousand years ago. This beak once in the body of a creature that inhabited the abyss where we can’t go (at least not without considerable applications of technology). We aren’t meant to be there, in those dark spaces of the earth. Yet they call to us, they interpellate us. We can’t not respond.

Let me begin with a story.

The first reported discovery of the bones of what would come to be known as the Mastodon was in 1705 in the little village of Claverack, right off the Hudson River and about seventy miles north of New York City. No one knew quite what to make of it, but the skull was itself interesting on many fronts—it had a strange looking hole in the middle of it, suggesting cyclopean possibilities.

Unearthed bones of the mastodon had been a point of considerable interest to American natural philosophers since the time of Cotton Mather, who speculated about their origins in a series of letters he sent to the Royal Society in 1712. Mather maintained that the fossil teeth were scientific proof of the existence of the human giants mentioned in the Bible, of the giants who walked in the earth, waaay back in the day. He writes in a letter of November 17, 1712.

The post-diluvian Giants mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, were puisny Things in comparision of One above Seventy Foot High, and yet we have here the undoubted Reliques of Such a One.

There is a Prodigious Tooth brought hither, supposed from the Shape of it, to be One of the Great Teeth of a MAN. It weights Four Pounds and Three Quarters, The Tope of it, as Sound and White, as Tooth Can be; but the Rest is much Decay’d. Yett one of the Fangs of it, holds Half a pint of Liquor! It was lately Dug up, a Great Way under ground, in the Side of a Bank or Hill, Thirty or Forty Foot above it; at or near a place called Calvarack; about Thirty Miles on this Side Albany.

Later scientists would come to understand that this peculiar cyclopean hole was part of the creature’s nasal breathing apparatus. Of greater interest, however, were the teeth of the thing, and the molars in particular. Unlike its cousin, the mammoth, whose teeth are rippled with ridges, the mastodon tooth is not so terribly unlike ours, except much, much bigger.

Mysterious and mystifying, the remains of the mastodon, the Incognitum, as it was dubbed at the time, would become a point of particular interest and contestation for a variety of reasons in 18th centu 1-2-26C-25-ExplorePAHistory-a0b2i4-a_349 ry America. One of the reasons for this fascination had to do with an idea put forth by the French naturalist George Louis Leclerc de Buffon in 1766. In volume five of his Histoire Naturelle, which was a massive thirty six volume attempt to provide a classificatory system that would rectify Linnaeus’s wrong-headed arbitrary classifications of species and genuses (Buffon’s system, of course, never caught on), Buffon drops the following remark, no doubt meant to incense his colleagues in the New World:

In America, therefore, animated Nature is weaker, less active, and more circumscribed in the variety of her productions; for we perceive, from the enumeration of the American animals, that the numbers of species is not only fewer, but that, in general, all the animals are much smaller than those of the Old Continent. No American animal can be compared with the elephant, the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the dromedary, the camelopard [giraffe], the buffalo, the lion, the tiger, &c.

In essence, Buffon claims that the conditions and environment of the New World suck in comparison to those of Europe and the “Old World” in general. What with our humidity and hairless and limp-wristed indigenous savages, we could never produce the types of vital creatures characteristic of his parts of the woods.

In the savage, the organs of generation are small and feeble. He has no hair, no beard, no ardour for the female. Though nimbler than the European, because more accustomed to running, his strength is not so great. His sensations are less acute; and yet he is more timid and cowardly. He has no vivacity, no activity of mind.

This would come to be known as his theory of “American degeneracy,” and it went so far as to say that if you brought a European dog over on a boat to America, it would probably stop barking and get smaller.

This paper bullet, shot over the bows of various ships following the currents of transatlantic philosophical exchanges, had its intended effect. It stirred things up. And it pissed off a lot of American intellectuals off, not the least of whom was Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson summarily sent the skin and antlers of a moose, a deer, a caribou, an elk, as well as the pelt of a panther to Buffon, hoping to convince him of the vitality of creatures in the Americas. Jefferson and Buffon were pally, but still, Jefferson devoted the longest portion of his extraordinary Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) to the Mastodon, and it is clearly an attempt to refute Buffon. Jefferson makes the following, somewhat chilling claim:

Our quadrupeds have been mostly described by Linnaeus and Mons. De Buffon. Of these, the Mammoth, or big buffalo, as called by the Indians, must certainly have been the largest. 225px-Buffon_1707-1788

So the Mastodon (which Jefferson refers to here as the “mammoth”) became a creature of national intrigue. He thought it might still be lurking out there somewhere in the wilds. A totally fascinating idea.

The most publicly recognized Mastodon display was in the Tammany Musuem, founded by John Pintard, who asked the general public for donations. He rightly figured that there was a direct relationship between public institutions and the citizenry, and that the latter could make the former vital. And the casual reference to the notion that this creature might still exist in the wildernesses somewhere must have given Lewis and Clark pause before they embarked. Peale had mounted the first full skeleton of the beast in his American Museum in Philadelphia, and there seems little question that Lewis and Clark must have seen it before they departed.

What makes this moment particularly interesting is that, a) here were the bones of the creature that might still be lurking out there somewhere, and b) its teeth seemed to suggest that this still possibly existing large being was/is carnivorous. Museums that couldn’t swing the entire skeleton made due with the molar (a specimen of which I have).

Massive beasts might still lie in uncharted territory. Go there. See if this is true. Oh, and good luck. Or something like that.


The faster we are pushed into a global future that does not inspire confidence, the stronger we feel the desire to slow down, the more we turn to memory for comfort. But what comfort from memories of the twentieth century? And what are the alternatives? How are we to negotiate the rapid change and turnover in what Georg Simmel called “objective culture” while at the same time satisfying what I take to be the fundamental need of modern societies to live in extended forms of temporality and to secure a space, however permeable, from which to speak and to act? Surely, there is no one simple answer to such a question, but memory–individual, generational, public, cultural, and, still inevitably, national memory–surely is part of it. Perhaps one day there will even emerge something like a global memory as the different parts of the world are drawn ever tighter together. But any such global memory will always be prismatic and heterogeneous rather than holistic or universal.

–Andreas Huyssen, “Present Pasts: Media, Politics, Amnesia”

We select from all the stimuli falling on our senses only those which interest us; our interests are governed by a pattern-making tendency, sometimes called schema. In a mad buzzing chaos of shifting impressions, each of us constructs a stable world in which objects have recognizable shapes. We take some cues and reject others. Some of these cues, or clues, shore up the existing patterns that make sense of the world. Those that don’t are either discarded or made to fit the existing patterns of meaning. As Mary Douglas notes, “as learning proceeds objects are named. Their names then affect the way they are perceived next time: once labeled they are more speedily slotted into pigeon-holes in the future. As time goes on and experiences pile up, we make a greater and greater investment in our system of labels.” We inhabit these woods of our own making, but lose sense of our maps. The labels or names become things in a way, and we lose our way. Yet old things, things that defy commodification, or at least, offer a way out. They remain mysterious. They are “old” commodities, things that don’t fit exactly into our regimes of classification, things that trail mysterious social histories that we don’t always know or understand. This makes them interesting. They don’t make “sense” in the normal ways that objects do.

Inanimate objects and signs of otherness unsettle, they require us either to flee or to confront the challenge, both of which imply an acknowledgement of the presence of the other within us, to see that we, too, embody otherness. I believe that these little objects that the world casts our way, in thrift shops, in garage sales, in things you find on the street, matter. They bind us each to the other. Where did my bike come from? Its previous owner was a kid in Colorado, and I when I grab the handles to hop on the thing, I feel the impress of lost memories, of other lives, other rooms, other everything. I don’t really understand it, but it intrigues me every time.


So I have my little cabinet of curiosities. A mastodon tooth, a giant squid beak, the dirt from Edgar Allan Poe’s basement in Baltimore (I know, I know). These things bring into contact with other worlds, other times, other places. The role of the non-discursive, tactile, and experiential aspect of everyday life in social relations has never been fully theorized nor understood, but, as Barbara Maria Stafford has argued in her work on the sensory forms of knowing, “uncovering this lost epistemological dimension of the informed and performative gaze, and with it the complex interface of early modern nature and artifice revealed in moments of enlightening recreations” like the museum or cabinet, provides an important alternative means of understanding history.

We need things, objects, to keep us connected to larger tendons of history Mastodon teeth and giant squid beaks matter. They don’t resolve themselves into coherency. But they suggest other, stranger worlds. We can’t help but imagine ourselves into those moments in history, those abysses. And without these uberobjects, without these things that provide a window to the past, to otherness, to other worlds, we live an impoverished life. What does it mean to hold the beak of a giant squid in your very hands? I don’t know, but it’s exhilarating.

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