Saturday, June 01, 2013

Another unicorn and how I came to write the book

The mammoth book grew out of an idea for a single blog post. I love forbidden history and catastrophist books, such as those about Atlantis and Velikovskyism. It doesn't take long when reading these to notice that the all depend on a limited bits of evidence to prove vastly different theories. Among the favorites are the Great Pyramid and frozen mammoths. Out of curiosity, I decided one day to look at the history of mammoth discoveries to figure out what was known at the times different Atlantis writers wrote since it wouldn't be fair to criticize them for not knowing something that hadn't been discovered yet. As the blog post got out of hand, it occurred to me that this long essay could perhaps become a small book. I had four books on mammoths at the time. I figured those four and a couple of books on paleontology would be all I needed. I wasn't that serious about it; it was just an idea.

Just as the blog post had gotten out of hand, the essay began to get out of hand. In each of the books I found discoveries and ideas that I wanted to know more about. I began mining the bibliographies of those four books. I found minor mistakes in them and differences of interpretation that bothered me. I mined the bibliographies a little further. One day I shelled out almost eighty bucks for a Nineteenth Century book and realized that I was starting to get serious. Atlantis had vanished from the idea and it was all about mammoths. About five years ago, I realized I really was writing a book. When I began spending more and more time tracking down primary sources for various bits of data and context, I realized I was also writing the dissertation that had never happened when I dropped out of grad school.

And then I entered my translation phase. When I first got serious, machine translation was still pretty iffy, but it's improved dramatically over the last few years. Whereas I once groaned at the thought of doing a few paragraphs of a modern language, I now think nothing of ten pages of Latin. Naturally, this has meant digging into even more original sources. Sometimes this means even when an English translation is available, I'll go to the original to make sure I'm not missing anything. This is how I made my latest discovery.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz is probably best known for inventing calculus. But he was much more than a mathematician; he wrote about philosophy, medicine, physics, linguistics, history, and politics; he tinkered with lamps, clocks, pumps, and invented an adding machine; I've heard he mixed the best Bloody Mary in all Germany and danced a mean Polka; he also took a shot at geology and paleontology. In 1690, his patron, the Elector of Hanover, commissioned him to write a history of the province of Brunswick. Leibniz chose to start with the geological prehistory of the land as a background for the human and dynastic history. He didn't get any further in his history. Thirty years after his death, this essay was published under the title Protagea.

Leibniz's contribution to mammoth history appears in Protagea. Leibniz recounted a story told originally by Otto Gericke, the inventor of the vacuum pump, of the discovery of some unicorn bones near Quedlinberg in the Harz Mountains. He also published a reconstruction of the unicorn skeleton that he received from an unnamed second source. The teeth are probably mammoth's teeth and the skull is probably from a woolly rhino, but the horn, which was reassembled from pieces, is clearly a mammoth's tusk that was straightened by the reconstructors. The unicorn drawing is a standard part of mammoth lore.

I had read that Leibniz's text description was lifted from Gericke's almost word for word. The "almost" got my attention. Yesterday, I decided to compare the two to see if Leibniz had left out or changed anything (he hadn't). Gericke's description is in his book on the vacuum pump. Don't ask me why; that's just how they rolled in the Seventeenth Century. Naturally, the book is in Latin, but so is the first edition of Protagea, making a direct comparison possible. While hunting for the passage in Protagea I came across a familiar word "mammotekoos"--mammoth bones. This word appears two pages before the unicorn story but it has never been mentioned in any previous book on mammoths.

I know of only one other mammoth writer who has mentioned Leibniz’s mammotekoos, but not in the context of mammoths. Claudine Cohen, a French historian of science, published The Fate of the Mammoth in 2002. About a third of her book covers the same material that I'm covering. She uses Gericke and Leibniz unicorn as the launching point for one of her chapters, but she missed the mammotekoos. Ironically, in 2010 she edited and published an English translation of Protogaea with commentary. In the chapter where mammotekoos appears, she has a small footnote on the word. If she had written the Protagea commentary before her mammoth book she would have been able comment on the relevance of the word in the context of mammoths and all I would be able to do would been to agree or disagree with what she said. Ha-ha, now I get to go first.

Alright, what is there to say about Leibniz and the word mammotekoos? The context of his use is a passage about bones found in the caves of the Harz Mountains. These caves are a treasure-trove for paleontologists. Many of the caves contain bones of Pleistocene megafauna such as cave bears, woolly rhinoceros, and mammoths. Leibniz took the, then common, position that these bones had been washed there by the Biblical Deluge. He also held to a less common idea that the North Sea had once extended as far south as the Harz Mountains. This idea was necessary to explain seashells in lower strata. In Protagea, he suggests that the latter could also be used as an explanation for unicorn horn and other fossil ivory, in that they were probably really walrus tusks.

Here is the quote. It's a mix of Cohen's translation and a little grammatical editing by me. 
So there was nothing to stop foreign animals to be brought to us by the force of the waves, although I find elephants less believable because they could belong to the Rosmarus [walrus] I mentioned above. The teeth reportedly dug up in Mexico are perhaps of the same kind since no elephants are found in America today. I would say the same thing of those heavy teeth, like the bones of whales, called Mammotekoos by the Moscovites and attributed to the elephant, as Witsen reports. Yet, I will not obstinately deny that true elephant’s bones are sometimes found. Certainly, we have seen teeth and a part of the tibia and other bones taken from the Scharzfeld cave. No one could say whether they came from an elephant or similar animal; whether in the past they might have been more widely scattered throughout the world than today; whether their nature or the nature of the world had changed; or whether they had been moved from a far country by the rushing waters.
 Leibniz is clear that the bones in the Harz Mountains are not something that can be taken for granted; they are problem that needs to be solved. He lists several possible solutions and lets us know his preferences: the Biblical Deluge for most bones and a further south coastline for most of the ivory. He also recognizes that the ivory is the biggest problem and allows that some of it could be elephant ivory. For real elephant ivory, he still prefers the Biblical Deluge but admits that it is possible the elephants could have been native the region, but that would mean either elephants were different in those days or that the environment was. That final point is an interesting foreshadowing of things to come. The environmental solution would not have been entirely outrageous as many philosophers believed the Earth had been uniformly pleasant with a year-round growing season and that seasons were part of the wreck of the world brought by the Flood.

This passage is important in that Leibniz is the first writer to bring together European fossil elephants, giant bones from the New World, the majority of which would have been mastodons, and the Siberian mammoth and recognize them as probably related species. Of course, his solution that they were all walruses is wrong, but not unreasonable for the times. The Witsen Leibniz mentions as his source for mammotekoos Nicholaes Witsen. Witsen knew ivory. As a Dutch merchant he had been to the East Indies and to Africa where he had purchased the tusks of both Asian and African elephants. He knew about Siberian mammoth ivory because he had been to the markets of Moscow and interrogated the ivory merchants there. In his book on Russia and Siberia, Noord en Oost Tartarye, he recognized that mammoth ivory looked like real elephant ivory. He wouldn't go so far as to say it really came from elephants only that, if it did, it could only be because dead elephants were washed there by the Flood. Witsen did not mention walruses, but he did say that most mammoth ivory came from the Arctic coast. By the time of Witsen and Leibniz, Europeans had known about the Russian ivory trade for over 150 years. Leibniz, who had not seen a mammoth tusk, appears to have assumed that mammoth was no more than another name for walrus. He was not the last to make that assumption. As late as thirty years later, after whole tusks and other bones of mammoths had been carried to Western Europe for examination, Theodore Hase could still publish a fifty-eight page tract arguing that mammoth was another word for walrus.

This passage in Protagea offers something for Leibniz scholars, though I'm not sure if it rises above the level of curious trivia or not. Leibniz devotes quite a few pages to fossils so I'm sure everything I said above about Leibniz’s attitudes regarding fossils has been said in the past; only my emphasis on elephants and mammoths is original. The word mammotekoos is a point that can be used to date that part of the Protagea. It is known that Leibniz worked on his history through 1691-3. Witsen's Noord en Oost Tartarye was published in 1692, placing Leibniz’s composition of that passage in the second half of the period. If Leibniz had published Protagea as a separate volume as soon as he finished it, his would have been only the third time any form of the word mammoth had appeared in print.

This is why my book is taking so long. Not only have I spent almost three years translating and retranslating primary sources and lost most of another year due to personal crises, I also have these obsessive moments when I'll spend two days analyzing a half of a paragraph. On the other hand, it's this kind of obsessiveness that leads me to make new discoveries. Up above where I said Protagea could have been the third time any form of mammoth had appeared in print, the Oxford English Dictionary would tell you it would have been the second, with Witsen as the first. I know of an earlier one. As far as I know, I'll be the first person to draw attention to it. That alone should be a good enough reason for you to buy several copies of the book when it comes out.

And now, since the original purpose of looking at Leibniz was to comment on the Quedlinburg unicorn, I should get to work on that. I'll post a partial rough draft with the amazing drawing later today or tomorrow.

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