The Legacy of the Mastodon


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The Golden Age of Fossils in America

Keith Thomson

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A history of the early days of fossil hunting in America, replete with high adventure, ruthless competitors, and amazing scientific discoveries

The uncovering in the mid-1700s of fossilized mastodon bones and teeth at Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, signaled the beginning of a great American adventure. The West was opening up and unexplored lands beckoned. Unimagined paleontological treasures awaited discovery: strange horned mammals, birds with teeth, flying reptiles, gigantic fish, diminutive ancestors of horses and camels, and more than a hundred different kinds of dinosaurs. This exciting book tells the story of the grandest period of fossil discovery in American history, the years from 1750 to 1890.
The volume begins with Thomas Jefferson, whose keen interest in the American mastodon led him to champion the study of fossil vertebrates. The book continues with vivid descriptions of the actual work of prospecting for fossils--a pick in one hand, a rifle in the other--and enthralling portraits of Joseph Leidy, Ferdinand Hayden, Edward Cope, and Othniel Marsh among other major figures in the development of the science of paleontology. Shedding new light on these scientists’ feuds and rivalries, on the connections between fossil studies in Europe and America, and on paleontology’s contributions to America’s developing national identity, The Legacy of the Mastodon is itself a fabulous discovery for every reader to treasure.

Keith Thomson is professor emeritus of natural history, University of Oxford, where he also served as director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Former president of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, professor of biology and dean at Yale, he is the author of more than 200 scientific papers and twelve books, including Before Darwin and The Common but Less Frequent Loon and Other Essays, both published by Yale University Press. He lives in Philadelphia.

“Professor Thomson writes with authority, enthusiasm, and impressive breadth on the history of paleontology in America, which often reads like an epic adventure story.”—Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Saunders Director, Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, Monticello

"A one-stop resource for understanding the major currents of vertebrae paleontology and associated sciences, plus all the relevant dramatis personae, right up to the end of the nineteenth century. This book is a gold mine."—Kevin Padian, University of California, Berkeley

"In the mid-1700s frontiersmen uncovered mastodon bones in present-day Kentucky. In this unique and fascinating book, Thomson . . . takes us from the mastodon bones through finds of many unsuspected kinds of animals—tiny ancestors of horses and camels, birds with teeth, cattlelike creatures with claws and, of course, dinosaurs. All this is fascinating, but what makes the book unique is that Thomson links the emergence of the new nation to the discovery of its fossils. Along the way, he turns up many surprising gems."—Michelle Press, Scientific American

"This tale begins Thomson's look at the early years of American fossil hunting. In addition to a history of paleontology, it is an account of the opening of the West and of how adventurous and often egotistical men mined the new land for fossils. The book explains how Darwinian evolution made the second half of this 'golden age' important scientifically, but Thomson really succeeds by bringing to life the fossil-finders and their world."—Marc Kaufman, Washington Post

"Thomson recasts the myth of the American West, writing of the frontier as the onetime home of 'hitherto unsuspected' animal life. Thomson charts the rise of vertebrate paleontology as a combination of practical American innovations and philosophical ones—the transcontinental railroad and Jeffersonian ideals."—Laren Porcaro, New Yorker

"The Legacy of the Mastodon is a delicious read, instructive and amusing, and will entertain anyone who has wondered how we came to know the mastodon and its tribe."—Ross MacPhee, Nature

"This entertaining book tells a very vivid and real tale of paleontological excavations across America from 1750 to 1890. . . . Thomson is a superb science writer. Highly recommended."—Choice

"An engaging account for general audiences of the history of vertebrate paleontology in the United States from the 18th century until 1890, when the US Census Bureau could no longer discern a western frontier. . . . Thomson's account is particularly well-written and accessible."—Hans-Dieter Sues, BioScience

"The Legacy of the Mastodon is a wonderfully written and well-researched account of the importance of paleontology in America, and is an enjoyable read." —Nancy E. Todd, Journal of Mammalian Evolution

‘Through enjoyable story-telling backed by thoroughly researched material, extensively footnoted chapter by chapter at the end of the book, Thomson successfully brings the world and lives of the well known and undeservedly not so well known early American fossil-hunters vividly to life.’ — Lyall I. Anderson, Journal of Geological Magazine Vol 146, 2010

"Thomson's scientific background, as well as his solid historical research, provides the reader with a much broader understanding of the development of the science and its role in a young nation still trying to separate itself from Europe." —Richard Vaughan, Montana the Magazine of Western History
ISBN: 9780300151299
Publication Date: April 28, 2009
424 pages, 5 7/8 x 9
38 b/w illus. + 6 maps
Before Darwin

Reconciling God and Nature

Keith Thomson

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The Common but Less Frequent Loon and Other Essays

Keith Thomson; Illustrated by Linda Price Thomson

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The Religion and Science Debate

Why Does It Continue?

Edited by Harold W. Attridge

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Jefferson's Shadow

The Story of His Science

Keith Thomson

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Private Doubt, Public Dilemma

Religion and Science since Jefferson and Darwin

Keith Thomson

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