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Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science Reprint Edition
Contributor(s): McKay, John J.
ISBN: 1681778033     ISBN-13: 9781681778037
Publisher: Pegasus Books
    OUR PRICE: $15.26  
Product Type: Paperback
Published: August 2018
Annotation: Today, we know that a mammoth is an extinct type of elephant that was covered with long fur and lived in the north country during the ice ages. But how do you figure out what a mammoth is if you have no concept of extinction, ice ages, or fossils? Long after the last mammoth died and was no longer part of the human diet, it still played a role in human life. Cultures around the world interpreted the remains of mammoths through the lens of their own worldview and mythology.When the ancient Greeks saw deposits of giant fossils, they knew they had discovered the battle fields where the gods had vanquished the Titans. When the Chinese discovered buried ivory, they knew they had found dragons’ teeth. But as the Age of Reason dawned, monsters and giants gave way to the scientific method. Yet the mystery of these mighty bones remained. How did Enlightenment thinkers overcome centuries of myth and misunderstanding to reconstruct an unknown animal?The journey to unravel that puzzle begins in the 1690s with the arrival of new type of ivory on the European market bearing the exotic name "mammoth." It ends during the Napoleonic Wars with the first recovery of a frozen mammoth. The path to figuring out the mammoth was traveled by merchants, diplomats, missionaries, cranky doctors, collectors of natural wonders, Swedish POWs, Peter the Great, Ben Franklin, the inventor of hot chocolate, and even one pirate.McKay brings together dozens of original documents and illustrations, some ignored for centuries, to show how this odd assortment of characters solved the mystery of the mammoth and, in doing so, created the science of paleontology.
Additional Information
BISAC Categories:
- Nature | Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Creatures
- Nature | Fossils
- Science | Paleontology
Dewey: 567
Academic/Grade Level: General Adult
Book type: Non-Fiction
Physical Information: 8.50" H x 5.50" W x 0.75" (0.60 lbs) 241 pages
Descriptions, Reviews, Etc.

Reviewed by Publishers Weekly Reviews (PW Reviews 2017 June #2)

Technical writer McKay positions the mammoth as a "focusing problem for a scientific revolution" between the late 17th and early 19th centuries, taking the idea that figuring out what mammoths are "required new tools and new ways of looking at nature and the past." It's a well-organized history of science, with McKay delving deeply into primary sources, some uncovered quite recently, to trace the development of thinking about the prehistoric origins of northern ivory and massive bones. That thinking, McKay posits, was driven by disparate worldviews that led, for example, ancient Romans to envision such bones as derived from giants and devout Christian Europeans to see them as remnants of the Flood; by lively intellectual debate based in both personality and science; by trade-driven cultural exchange; and by physical discoveries that culminated in the 1801 recovery of a complete mammoth skeleton. McKay shows how, in order to understand the mammoth, natural philosophers needed to develop the concepts of evolution and extinction and to make advances in anatomy, classification, and geology. He keeps his narrative human centered, maintaining respect for scientists' discovery processes even when their ideas turned out to be incorrect. McKay avoids probing modern research on the mammoth despite his personal enthusiasm for the subject, making it clear to the end that his story is not about ancient creatures, but about how humans approach the world's mysteries. Agent: Jessica Papin, Dystel & Goderich (Aug.)

Copyright 2017 Publishers Weekly.