Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Naming the Mammoth

When Karl Linné (Carolus Linnaeus) created his scheme for cataloging and naming everything in the natural world, he had to deal with some forms that defied easy categorization. One of these was the mammoth. The mammoth had been a hot topic of discussion for the Swedish Academy during the 1720s. When Linné attended Uppsala University, he lived for a time, with Olof Rudbeck the Younger who had been very active in the mammoth discussions. Rudbeck believed mammoth bones found in the Arctic were the remains of the elephants that had transported the lost tribes of Israel into the North where they founded the Swedish and Lapp nations. Linné did not adopt that theory. In the first edition of his Systema Naturae (1835), the mammoth as "Mammatowacost" appears in small Gothic script as the last entry in the mineral kingdom.

Linné's categorization reflected gradually evolving ideas about both fossils and mammoths. In both cases the questions involved were as much lexicological as they were scientific. The word "fossil" underwent a great transformation between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Around 1500, "fossil" meant anything unexpected found in the earth. As well as the petrified remains of former life forms, the word encompassed crystals, interestingly shaped rocks, old bones, amber, and human artifacts. A Roman coin was just as much a fossil as was a trilobite. A relic of this usage is the phrase "fossil fuel." For most of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, the scientific side of the question was whether stones that resembled shells and bones were truly petrified remains or whether they were just interestingly shaped rocks, jokes of nature. By Linné's time, the scientific question had been largely settled, but the linguistic one was still fuzzy. Linné divided his mineral kingdom into three parts: rocks, minerals and fossils. He further divided fossils into three parts: soil, concretions, and petrifications. It was in the last, under "Petrified Quadrupeds", that he placed Mammatowacost.

The problem with the word "mammoth" can be seen in a work written by a fellow Swede twenty years before Linné. While a POW in Siberia, Johann Bernard Müller was commissioned to write an ethnography of the Ostiak people. Müller was able to complete his work in record time, in part, because he ran into Gregory Novitsky, a religious exile who had already done a large part of his research for him, including collecting local legends about the mammoth. 
There is a Curiosity in Siberia, no where else to met with in any Part of the World, for ought I know. This is what the Inhabitants call Mamant, which is found in the Earth in several places, particularly in sandy Ground. It looks like Ivory both as to Colour and Grain. The common Opinion of the Inhabitants is that they are real Elephants Teeth, and have lain buried since the universal Deluge. Some of our Countrymen think it to be the Ebur fossile, and consequently a Product of the Earth, which was likewise my Opinion for a good while. 
Here Müller uses the word "Mamant" only to describe fossil ivory and not an animal. He says he did not initially think that it came from an animal, rather that is was a mineral substance that happened to resemble ivory. The phrase "Ebur fossile" is Latin for "fossil ivory" and was used in Europe to indicate the tusks of mammoths dug up in Germany and Italy as well as similar looking materials that could be sold to apothecaries as unicorn horn.

The evolution of the word and idea of "mammoth" almost exactly paralleled that of "fossil" following it by about thirty years. Linné's inclusion of fossils into the category of minerals was already becoming out of date in 1835 when he published Systema Naturae. He stubbornly kept the mammoth there for another thirty years. Fossil ivory was especially misplaced in his system as it is not petrified. It is nothing more than buried ivory. Long before he published, the vast majority of literate Europeans had come to accept that Ebur fossile was real ivory from real animals, probably elephants. The mystery of the Siberian mammoth was that elephants couldn't live in the North. So what kind of an animal was the mammoth? Linné had an answer for that question. Mammoths are large walruses.

As far as Linné was concerned, the mammoth didn't need a name because it already had a name: Phoca rosmarus. While his conclusion that the mammoth was a walrus was generally ignored for the rest of the century (and forever after), his decision not to name the mammoth held until the end of the century. Then, Georges Cuvier took the step of proclaiming, once and for all, that the mammoth was a distinct species and, furthermore, that it was extinct. Three years later, Johann Blumenbach who had been thinking along the same lines took the equally bold step of giving the mammoth a Linnaean style, binomial name: Elphas primigenius.

The Russians were actually ahead of their Western colleagues in understanding the mammoth until well into the Eighteenth Century. This was not just because they owned the sources of mammoth ivory. Because Russia was intellectually isolated from Europe until well into the Seventeenth Century, they never went through a phase of doubting the organic origin of mammoth ivory. The earliest record of some form of the word "mammoth" comes from a monastery inventory for the year 1578. The word the brothers used transliterates as "mamantovakos", which, except for the "n" in the second syllable and "t" missing from the end, is the same as Linné's "Mammatowacost". This term translates as "mammoth's bone" or "bone of the mammoth". Rather than a separate word for the ivory, it is the name of the animal that produced the ivory.

This usage, five years before the conquest of the Khanate of Siberia, indicates that the Russians were already familiar with mammoth ivory and the idea of a mammoth animal. The most recent linguistic research on the word "mammoth" indicates that it comes from a word in the Mansi language meaning "earth horn". That is, that it described just the ivory and not the animal that it came from. It was the Russians who transformed it into the name of an animal. After that transformation, it took over two centuries for the West to accept that the mammoth was a distinct species and give it a scientific name.

That's not the end of the story of the mammoth's name. Blumenbach's binomial, Elphas primigenius, placed the mammoth in the same genus as the elephant. In 1828, Joshua Brookes proposed giving the mammoth its own genus renaming it Mammuthus primigenius. For the next century, the mammoth was bounced in and out of different genera only finally settling into Brookes' Mammuthus in the 1930s. By then, other species of mammoth had been discovered. The woolly mammoth was joined in Mammuthus by a half-dozen other mammoths each with its own name. Today, the latest DNA evidence raises the possibility that different populations of woolly mammoth may have been distinct enough to be called separate species, or subspecies. This will mean even more names.

Linné might have been annoyed by this, his judgment having been overruled, or he might have been thrilled, if he had been able supply the names. Perhaps we need to come up with special names for those two Linnés. I propose Linnaeus dispepticus (archy 2013) and Linnaeus delectatus (archy 2013).

Monday, August 19, 2013

My life is an episode of Monk

I just copied a pair of 18th Century scientific illustrations and, looking at them, thought "My God, these things are crooked! I cannot use them like this." So I opened them each in a cheap graphics program and grabbed the rotate tool where I discovered the first illustration was one whole degree out of alignment. Clearly, the OCD meds are not working as well as they used to. Worse, the second illustration was one and a half degrees out of alignment and the cheap tool I was using could only make full degree adjustments. If I wasn't so poor, that half degree would be enough to drive me to get a full-fledged graphics program.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The First Paleontological Dig in the Americas

The first known Europeans in the New World to see fossils of large land animals were Hernán Cortés and his lieutenants. In the fall of 1519 they began their march inland to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Their path over the Sierra Madre Mountains led through the territory of Tlaxcala. Tlaxcala was one of the last remaining Nahua states to remain free of Aztec rule and its leaders had no intention of letting anyone's army enter their territory. An army was sent to stop the invaders. Although the Tlaxcalans had an opportunity to destroy the Spanish force, internal politics of the state led them to accept an offer of peace from Cortés. While the Spanish rested in Tlaxcala, the leaders of the state made every effort to curry favor and impress the strangers. The Spanish were fed and entertained. The leading houses allowed their daughters to be baptized. They promised an army to aid Cortés in his assault on Tenochtitlan.

At some point during the three weeks the Spanish stayed in Tlaxcala, a group of Spaniards began to question their hosts about their history. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who wrote a history of the campaign described their answer. 
They said that their ancestors had told them, that in times past there had lived among them men and women of giant size with huge bones, and because they were very bad people of evil manners that they had fought with them and killed them, and those of them who remained died off. So that we could see how huge and tall these people had been they brought us a leg bone of one of them which was very thick and the height of a man of ordinary stature, and that was the bone from the hip to the knee. I measured myself against it and it was as tall as I am although I am of fair size.
 The Spanish helped themselves to the bone and sent it to the king on the first treasure ship. The bones of both Columbian mammoths and American mastodons have been excavated in that part of Mexico, but a bone as long as the one Díaz described probably came from an earlier mastodon species such as Rynochotherium tlascalae. In researching her book Fossil Legends of the First Americans, Adrienne Mayor went searching for this femur. Although museum officials in Spain couldn't identify that specific bone, they didn't exactly rule out its being there. The records for those years are just too sparse to be sure. It very well might be sitting, unlabeled, in a warehouse somewhere in Madrid.

Díaz wasn't the only Spaniard to report on the presence of large bones and legends of ancient giants. Cortés himself had a collection of bones at his estate. Later travelers, José de Acosta and Antonio Hererra y Tordesillas, also recorded the Tlaxcala legend and were shown giant teeth and bones. However, the most interesting report didn't come from Mexico, it came from Ecuador.

The conquest of the Inca Empire was nowhere near as easy as that of the Aztecs. For almost forty years, the Viceroyalty of Peru was plagued by civil wars and uprisings—not to mention actual plagues—among both the indigenous populations and their Spanish conquerors. In the 1540s, two very different men were thrust into the chaos. One was a soldier, Pedro Cieza de Léon, and the other a clerk, Agustin de Zárate. What they had in common was a strong sense of curiosity for the natural world. Near Quito, they both recorded the same story told by the local population. Long ago, horrible, deformed giants arrived on the Santa Elena Peninsula from across the sea. They raped and murdered the coastal people and ate all the food in the area. The people were defeated in every attempt to fight the giants, until: 
All the natives declare (wrote Cieza) that God our Lord brought upon them a punishment in proportion to the enormity of their offence. While they were all together, engaged in their accursed [sodomy] a fearful and terrible fire came down from heaven with a great noise, out of the midst of which there issued a shining angel with a glittering sword, with which, at one blow, they were all killed, and the fire consumed them. There only remained a few bones and skulls, which God allowed to remain without being consumed by the fire, as a memorial of this punishment.

 An angel destroys the Santa Elena giants in the 1700, French edition of Zárate. Source.

 Neither Cieza nor Zárate was able to go to the peninsula to see the bones. Cieza heard from enough from Spaniards who had seen giants’ bones in other parts of the Americas to accept that the story must be true, though probably exaggerated. Zárate wrote that the story seemed too fantastic to believe until he heard of another Spaniard who had been to the peninsula. 
Withal, what the Indians told about these giants was not fully believed until, in the year 1543, when the captain Juan de Olmos, a native of Trujillo, was lieutenant governor at Puerto Viejo, he caused excavations to be made in the valley, having heard of these matters. They found ribs and bones so large that, if the heads had not appeared at the same time it would not have seemed credible [i.e., that the remains were] of human beings.
What Olmos did was quite advanced for his time. He could easily have ordered the natives to bring him a few bones. Instead, he went to the place where the bones had been reported and examined them in situ. He recovered the complete bones of an individual and tried to reconstruct what it might have been based on the knowledge and worldview that he had. Europeans at the time still firmly believed in giants. The first intellectual challenges to the belief in giant wouldn't happen until the next decade. The debate over the historical reality of giants would continue well into the Enlightenment two hundred years later. That the skeleton did not perfectly match the proportions of a human skeleton wasn't a problem. Giants, by definition, were monsters. That it looked heavy-limbed and twisted was to be expected.

Both the central highlands of Mexico and Ecuador have remained rich sites for proboscidean fossils. In 1802, Alexander von Humboldt collected giant bones in Ecuador and in Mexico which he identified as resembling the elephant of the Ohio country. He also mentioned that the local people called one of the locations the Field of Giants. Humboldt sent the bones to his colleague Georges Cuvier in Paris. In an 1806 paper, in which he coined the name Mastodonte for the genus that included the Ohio animal, Cuvier determined that Humboldt’s bones represented three separate mastodon species (one of which he named M. humboldtii) and a giant ground sloth. Since then, several other proboscideans have been identified in Central and South America (the exact number is in constant flux). Some look quite different from the familiar mammoth and mastodon from further north. Some had four tusks. Some had short, almost fang-like tusks. Most paleontologists who work in the area probably don't realize that Latin America paleontology long predates its Anglo American sibling. Most don't know that the field began with a few soldiers who took time off from their wars to look at the world around them and ask questions.