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A New Jersey Mastodon
Originally Published By
New Jersey State Museum

By Glenn L. Jepsen

Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003

A few years ago the massive bones of a young female mastodon Were accidentally dredged up fom a swamp in northern New Jersey. This bulletin is a report upon the discovery and the significance of the skeleton which is now exhibited in the State Museum.

For hundreds of centuries mastodons, both dead and alive, have had an effect on mail's knowledge and imagination and history. Early tribes in Europe, Asia, and the Americas hunted these huge elephant-like creatures and may have helped to exterminate them, several thousand ears ago. In more recent times the searches for mastodon remains and the studies of them have had au influence now largely unknown or forgotten) on several aspects of civilization. These old hones changed some of the ideas of our ancestors about science, Philosophy, art, glaciology, geology, zoology, paleontologv, economics, mythology, religion, agriculture, humor, transportation, climatology, politics, astronomy, diplomacy, oceanography, and psychology, as well as other areas of know ledge.

Learned and inspired scientific advances as well as curious superstitions and outrageous hoaxes and deliberate distortions of the truth have been based upon long-dead mastodons. The whole story of these adventures in human relations would be a long and exciting tale of scientific detection and adventure. Entirely new kinds of ideas, amounting almost to revolutions ill thought, and new ways of thinking about mans place in nature were inspired by the riddles and interpretations of mastodon teeth and bones. Looking backward, from our present knowledge about fossils, it is hard to realize how speculations about mastodons could have been as varied and important and sometimes as erroneous as they were in the 18th and 19th centuries. The science of comparative anatomy, the fact of extinction, and many other wholly new developments in thought were based upon observations of these fossil animals.

At least two presidents of the United States were interested in vestiges of mastodons. Washington owned a molar tooth of one, and Jefferson personally paid William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) for bones, including some of mastodons, which were collected in Kentucky and filled a room in the White House. Discussions of mastodons by men in such high political and social positions made the subject attractive to many people. For decades, the science of mastodons was a very popular topic of conversation, and new ideas were encouraged by this attention. Some of our current beliefs about phylogeny, of evolutionary descent with modifications, were developed more than a hundred years ago by Darwin in South America when he saw and speculated about bones of mastodons.

American Mastodon, original painting by Charles R. Knight

08/18/2012 11:10 PM
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