First published in The Record on Feb. 21, 2019
Mastodon: How one extinct mammal keeps expanding notions of America
Manny may not seem like a citizen of America, being that he stands nearly 13 feet tall and measures 18 feet from his tail to the tip of his tusks. Make no mistake, however. Manny is as American as they come, right down to his name: mammut americanum. Which, for those of us not trained in Latin, can mean only one thing.
Mastodon. North American mastodon. Apex herbivore of the Pleistocene Era. Largest fuzzy mammal ever to roam the spruce forests of North America. After he was born 11,000 years ago, Manny’s bones were unearthed from a Salem County farm in Mannington in 1869 and mounted in the Rutgers Geological Museum, the oldest museum of its kind in America.
Not to brag, but New Jersey's Manny is a member of the species that proved animals in North America were just as formidable as any in Europe.
Here is an animal that inspired the famous expedition by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, whose orders from President Thomas Jefferson in 1804 included instructions to find a mastodon in the uncharted American West and wrestle it back to Washington, D.C., alive if possible.
Here is the species whose bones, when discovered in 1929 alongside human tools in Clovis, New Mexico, helped establish the dominant scientific theory that the first Americans crossed a land bridge from Siberia 15,000 years ago.
Surely Manny and his fellow mastodons hide no more secrets? Surely they’ve done enough already to prove what it means to be American?
It’s not enough.
Mastodons, it appears, can do so much more.
Because every time we think we understand the early history of America, along comes another mastodon bone to prove us wrong. Mastodons have played outsized roles in America’s conception of itself since the earliest days of the republic.
And they keep doing it today, exploding and expanding our notions of what it means to be an American.
The official (extinct) animal of the American Revolution
Gen. George Washington was camped at Newburgh, New York, 20 miles north of the New Jersey border, when he learned someone nearby had discovered a 9-pound tooth. It was the winter of 1780, and the Continental Army was running low on meat, flour, shoes and blankets. Regardless, Washington considered the find so important to the American cause that he left his troops, gathered his lieutenants into sleighs, and ventured miles across the snow to check it out.
Two hundred and thirty-seven years later, a mastodon tooth still draws a crowd. It was 6 degrees outside when Jeffrey Hoffman walked to the shore of Mastodon Lake one recent day in Vernon Township, in Sussex County. He held a black tooth nearly as big as his head.
“This is an excellent example of what used to wander in New Jersey,” said Hoffman, New Jersey’s state geologist. “We had very large mastodons, 7 to 10 feet tall, eating trees and leaves.”
A typical mastodon could weigh up to 6 tons, or 12,000 pounds.
Around Hoffman stood three journalists, who seemed dressed for the cold, plus two of Hoffman’s fellow scientists, who did not. One was Ted Pallis, author of a recent report detailing every mastodon tooth, tusk and bone found in the state.
“We realized we had mastodon finds stretching back into the early 19th century, and bones scattered in museums and historical societies all across the state,” said Pallis, a specialist with the state Department of Environmental Protection, whose teeth chattered as he spoke. “We wanted to put all that stuff in one place.”
Mastodons have been discovered in 13 of New Jersey’s 21 counties. Two kids playing in a ditch near Polifly Road in Hackensack in 1962 found a mastodon’s rump; scientists named it “Fanny.” Remains of a year-old mastodon were discovered in Holmdel Township, in Monmouth County, in 1999. Pitting inside the skull suggested it died 11,680 years ago, from tuberculosis.
At Mastodon Lake, Archibald McMurtry was dredging a pond in 1954 when he snagged something heavy. Early speculation suggested a stump.
“Can’t be a tree stump,” McMurtry said, according to Pallis’s report. “It’s got teeth.”
It became the best-documented and most complete mastodon ever found in New Jersey, attracting 2,000 sightseers plus scientists from Rutgers and Princeton universities.
“Having such a complete mastodon was a big deal,” Hoffman said.
Mastodons are a bigger deal than most people realize. Evidence of these huge beasts first appeared in 1705 in Claverack, New York, when a farmer found a tooth “with a fang that could hold a half pint of liquor,” according to an account at the time.
The tooth begat questions about the beginning of time. It was reported all the way to London, where the tooth seemed to prove Genesis 6:4 correct when it described the earth before Noah’s flood: “There were giants in the earth in those days.”
Cotton Mather, the powerful Puritan leader, argued the tooth proved America had been home to a race of “ante diluvial giant men.”
European scientists saw things differently. Georges-Louis Leclerc, a French naturalist and best-selling author, wrote in 1755 that America’s foul climate couldn’t support tall men and large animals like horses. Leclerc spun this hearsay into a theory called “American degeneracy.”
After a few generations on American soil, he argued, even large and intelligent Europeans would devolve into mentally deficient shrimps.\
“He has no hair, no beard, no ardour for the female,” Leclerc wrote, doltishly, of the average Native American man. “He has no vivacity, no activity of mind.”
This explains why George Washington was so keen to see the 9-pound tooth near Newburgh for himself, according to Thomas C. Patterson, an anthropologist at the University of California Riverside. If Europeans viewed Americans as degenerate, leaders including Washington and Thomas Jefferson worried they might cut off funds to the Continental Army.
Jefferson had an “almost visceral need to describe American creatures in terms of their ferocity and power,” Keith Thompson, professor emeritus of natural history at Oxford University, wrote in his book “The Legacy of the Mastodon.” If mastodon teeth could be found on farms along the Hudson River, Jefferson supposed, surely Lewis and Clark could find the beasts — alive — somewhere west of the Allegheny Mountains.
“It was the undercurrent of that entire expedition,” Gerald Johnson, professor emeritus of geology at the College of William and Mary, said of Lewis and Clark’s focus on mastodons.
Surprise! It’s a mastodon, again.
With our GPS satellites and pocket supercomputers, it’s tempting to dismiss Jefferson's and Leclerc’s mastodon musings as proto-scientific cave drawings.
Let’s not get cocky, however. The science of early America remains as controversial and mixed-up today as it was in 1804.
And just as in 1804, mastodons remain at the center of a fight that’s tearing the scientific community apart.
“There’s this cabal of self-appointed gatekeepers,” said Tom Deméré, a scientist at the San Diego Natural History Museum whose own mastodon discovery and related historical suppositions have stirred up the profession's traditionalists. “They don’t want to accept that what we’ve found is older than any other site. It just happens to be a mastodon.”
First, some backstory. In the 1930s, scientists uncovered spear points near Clovis, New Mexico. The stones were carved around 13,000 years ago. Other digs found them lodged in the bones of big animals, including mastodons. This became the basis of a theory that humans from Siberia walked into the Western Hemisphere across the Bering Land Bridge in Alaska about 16,500 years ago.
The theory, known in shorthand as “Clovis,” remains the dominant explanation for how and when humans first came to America.
“Clovis is certainly still the most uncontroversial position,” said Daniel Fisher, a paleontologist at the University of Michigan.
One problem for Clovis: Mastodon bones keep poking holes in it. At the Manis site in Washington State, researchers found the rib of a mastodon that died 13,800 years ago, 800 years older than the Clovis site.
Lodged in the rib was a sharpened spear point.
“It’s the first hunting weapon found pre-Clovis,” Michael R. Waters, the report’s lead author and an archaeologist at Texas A&M University, told The New York Times. “These people were hunting mastodons.”
In a sinkhole in southeast Florida, researchers found mastodon bones and tools associated with mastodon hunting. They dated back 14,550 years. Fishermen on board a boat called the Cinmar, trawling off Virginia in 1970, found mastodon bones and a sharpened blade, inspiring a theory that the first Americans arrived from Spain 20,000 years ago.
But the mastodon that really has scientists gnashing their teeth was discovered in the path of California State Highway 54 in 1992. The bones were broken in ways that look pre-planned, as if by an early human, said Deméré, who found them. Nearby lay rocks that may — or may not — have been used as hammers and anvils.
“To early people, a mastodon looked like a Home Depot,” Deméré said. “You have all this raw material” to use as food, clothing, tools and weapons.
What makes Deméré’s theory so radical is his mastodon’s age: it died 130,000 years ago.
“People say it’s impossible because it’s too old. That doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “It’s only too old because you think humans have only been here since 14,000 years ago. If this site were in Europe or Africa, they wouldn’t have any problem with it.”
That’s precisely the point, critics point out: This is America, not Europe. Before they can accept Neanderthals hunting mastodons in the San Diego valley 1,300 centuries ago, many scientists would like something more conclusive than broken mastodon bones.
“The earliest occupation of the Americas is a highly contentious subject,” John McNabb, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, told National Geographic when the San Diego mastodon was first reported. “The date of the find at 130,000 years ago is a really big ask for archaeologists who are used to talking about 12, 13, 14,000 years ago. It’s a big, big time difference.”
Deméré and his allies are not inclined to wait. Last month he organized a conference of rebel scientists, all of whom study sites centuries older than Clovis. Many were paleontologists, who study fossils, rather than archaeologists, who study human artifacts.
At a time when some people want to shrink the number of people who can call themselves Americans, mastodons keep pushing in the opposite direction. Their huge bones, buried from Hackensack to Virginia to San Diego, keep stretching the story of America to include more people from more places over a broader scope of time.
Washington and Jefferson would be proud.
“Some people say: What’s a paleontologist doing publishing papers on early man?” Deméré said. “Well, it’s a mastodon.”