Photo credit: Jonathan Bean
Soon — perhaps as early as 2019 — we will see the creation of the first woolly mammoth in almost 4,000 years.
At least that’s what a team of Harvard researchers is hoping. If everything goes to plan, they will pull off the “de-extinction” using an artificial womb and an embryo engineered by splicing mammoth genes (preserved in the Siberian ice) into the DNA of an Asian elephant. If it works, and they eventually succeed in bringing an embryo to term, the resulting creature will have the small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair, and cold-adapted blood of the long-vanished mammoth.
I have been thinking a lot about woolly mammoths for a while now.
In my novel, West
, my hero, Cy Bellman, a 35-year-old widower and mule breeder from Pennsylvania, leaves his home and his only daughter to travel into the wilderness beyond the frontier to look for them. The year is 1818, or thereabouts, and all Bellman knows is what he’s read in the newspaper — that mysterious giant bones have been turning up in a Kentucky swamp, sparking rumors that the vast animals they belonged to might still be alive somewhere in the west.
I was enthralled when I first read about the Kentucky bones — by the notion that some of those who saw them, or heard about them, thought that the great beasts might still exist.
For me, it was one of those electrifying details that drops you straight into the minds of our ancestors as they looked out at the world and at the universe and considered its mysteries. This, remember, was all pre-Darwin — the HMS Beagle
would not set sail from Plymouth harbor for another 13 years. Everything, paleontologically speaking, was still up for grabs.
My hero, Cy Bellman, is a creation of my imagination: a man of little education who is nevertheless driven by intellectual curiosity and existential yearning to leave everything he loves in a bid to find answers to questions about his life and his place in the world, and like all characters in historical fiction, he only knows what he knows. Characters in historical fiction know nothing about the future, they do not possess the privilege of our hindsight, and they have no access to their creator’s research.
So Bellman doesn’t know, as he sets off towards the frontier, that for decades, the mystery of the giant bones has been taxing the minds of some of the leading thinkers and naturalists of his time.
He’s never heard of the Dutch botanist and zoologist, Petrus Camper.
He doesn’t know that the King of France has sent for three teeth, a tusk, and a thigh bone to be brought in a crate across the Atlantic so he can display them in the Cabinet du Roi, in his botanical gardens.
He’s never heard of the famous French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (more of whom in a minute).
He doesn’t know that Dr. William Hunter, physician to the Queen of England, has taken a keen interest.
[I]n America’s cold, wet climate, claimed Buffon, the men were weak and puny. Even their genitals were small and shriveled.
He hasn’t read what the English novelist, Oliver Goldsmith, has to say about the bones in his History of the Earth and Animated Nature
, nor that a cloth merchant and amateur gardener called Peter Collinson has sent to Kentucky for “a horn and a hoof.”
Nor does he know that both Benjamin Franklin and former President Thomas Jefferson have had boxes of the big bones brought to them from the great salty swamp in Kentucky so they can examine them — Franklin, to his home on Craven Street, in London, and Jefferson (avid paleontologist and namesake of the ground sloth, Megalonyx jeffersonii
) to his Monticello home and to the White House, where he has laid them out on the floor of the East Room, the better to puzzle over them.
Over decades, these men, and others, argued and debated, agreed and disagreed, both about what exactly this giant “non-descript” creature, this “stupendous animal,” was, and what it might look like. Between them, they theorized that the bones belonged to a lost proboscidean race — some kind of giant elephant, a species of mammoth or mastodon — or perhaps to an enormous hippo, or a man-eating buffalo, or even a giant human 60 or 70 feet tall. They wondered if it might have had claws or a mane.
And at the heart of it all lay the question of whether the animals were extinct, or if, in Goldsmith’s words, “as yet this formidable creature has evaded our search.” Jefferson was firmly in the “not extinct” camp. Like Goldsmith, he didn’t believe in extinction, but rather in a “Great Chain of Being,” held together by a design “in which no link was so weak as to be broken.” And he was clear in his own mind that the animal was some sort of mammoth or mastodon, and he hoped passionately that it would soon be found still living in America.
Which is where Jefferson’s relationship with the mammoth becomes really interesting, because, from the Revolutionary War onward, there was so much more at stake for him than just the science. For Jefferson, this was a moment in history where size really mattered.
Enter (again) Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, distinguished French naturalist and author — to Jefferson’s abiding irritation — of the multivolume Histoire Naturelle
, where, in Book 5, the Comte de Buffon laid out his Theory of American Degeneracy. According to Buffon’s theory, the animals and humans in the New World were all smaller and weaker than those in the Old. The deer had smaller antlers, the dogs had quieter barks; in America’s cold, wet climate, claimed Buffon, the men were weak and puny. Even their genitals were small and shriveled.
Unfortunately for Jefferson, the book became a bestseller in Europe, so in an attempt to refute Buffon’s claims, he published his own book, Notes on the State of Virginia
, with a chapter listing the New World’s quadrupeds (everything from bears to beavers, otters to cows) with their weight in pounds, opposite their Old World counterparts, as proof of their greater size. (American cows, he insisted, were more than three times the size of European ones). And at the top of the list, in the New World column, he couldn’t resist writing Mammoth
, even though one had yet to be found alive. “It may be asked,” he wrote, “why I insert mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist?....[The north and west] still remain in their aboriginal state, unexplored and undisturbed by any us, or by others for us. He may as well exist there now, as he did formerly where we find his bones.”
Pending that longed-for discovery, Jefferson decided to settle for the next best thing: a year after publishing his Notes
, he sent Buffon a large, taxidermied American moose, going to enormous lengths to procure the biggest possible specimen. Writing to John Sullivan, ex-governor of New Hampshire and the man tasked with sending the moose to France, Jefferson asked him “to leave the bones of the head in the skin with horns on, so that by sewing up the neck and belly of the skin, we should have the true form and size of the animal.” The resulting object, he wrote, would be “more precious than you can imagine.”
Poorly stuffed, however, the moose eventually arrived in Europe, after a tortuous journey, in a state of partial putrefaction. Buffon’s position remained unchanged, and while he accepted that the mammoth had once lived, he held categorically that is was now extinct.
It’s easy of course, at a distance of more than 200 years, to see the Jefferson-Buffon spat as a rather silly one. But, like Cy Bellman in my novel, Jefferson couldn’t see the future; he couldn’t see that America would go on to become the most powerful country in the world. What he could see was a threat to a fledgling and newly independent nation, which relied on the Old World for investment, political support and new immigrants. It was essential that the fauna of America not be laughed at and derided there. It was an urgent question — if I can co-opt part of a phrase now horribly vaunted in the mouth of a very different president — of making America great.
He would be amazed, and consoled, I’m sure, if the world’s first mammoth in almost 4,000 years finally turns up in Boston.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of a novel, West
, and two collections of short stories, Some New Ambush
and The Redemption of Galen Pike
, which won the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. She is also the recipient of the Royal Society of Literature’s V. S. Pritchett Prize, the Society of Authors’ Olive Cook Short Story Award, and a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library. Born in Wales, she lives in Lancaster in northwest England.