Thursday, March 13, 2014

Monsieur Paquet's giant bone

Business must have been going well in 1779 for Monsieur Paquet, a Paris wine merchant. At least, that's what we can infer from his decision to expand his cellars that year. After removing part of the wall, He began digging into the yellow soil of mixed sand and clay. Two feet in, he discovered something very large and hard that was not a rock. At first, he thought he had run into a tree trunk, but, after clearing away more soil, he discovered that it was the biggest bone he, or anyone he knew, had ever seen. Paquet vanished from history soon after that, but the created a mini controversy and the last hurrah of the idea that mammoths were not elephantine in nature.

Paquet knew he had something valuable. He spent eight days trying to excavate it, but, with the soft walls collapsing, he finally had to give up. Using a sledge hammer and iron wedges, he broke off what he could see of the bone and built a wall over the rest. Even without the part still buried and other pieces chipped off, the bone weighted over 200 pounds. Several doctors came to view his bone and all agreed that it was one half of a giant pelvis. However, one learned visitor disagreed.

The exception was Robert de Paul de Lamanon, a promising new light on the French intellectual scene. As young men, Robert and his older brother, Pierre-Auguste, developed a habit of walking, rather than riding, wherever they went. This gave them the opportunity to examine all aspects of the countryside from agriculture to the living conditions of the peasantry to the geological structure of the land. After his father died, Robert dropped out of the seminary—as a student of Locke, Hobbs, and Rousseau he had no interest in religion—and set out with his brother to study the mountains of Switzerland. He estimated that they walked 1800 miles through the Alps that year. Based on his close-up observations of mountain valleys and the gravel deposits below the mountains, he developed a theory that the primary force shaping the earth was water—not the waters of the Biblical deluge, but rivers and periodic eruptions from enormous primal lakes in the mountains. This was the Lamanon who arrived in Paris and heard about Paquet's giant bone.

After rather roughly wresting it from the ground, Paquet kept the bone in the hopes of selling it for the sizable amount of 800 livres (at the time, Lamanon was living on a budget of 600 livres per year from his father's estate). Despite his high hopes for selling the bone, Paquet was willing to let Lamanon spend several days examining it. Lamanon hired an artist named Martin to help him and the two used their time to take measurements, make drawings, and even construct clay models of the bone. Based on his examination, Lamanon argued that it couldn't possibly be a pelvis. He pointed out that several structures were missing, most importantly, the acetabulum, the socket that meets the ball at the top of the femur to form the hip joint. To his eye, it looked like the lower part of a skull. Building on that observation, he stated that the bone bore no resemblance to the skull of an elephant or hippo or any other known terrestrial animal, which was true enough. Therefore, he concluded, it must have belonged to a whale. He admitted that the only whale skull he had seen was the damaged skull of a young whale left behind by a showman as he skipped town ahead of his creditors.

Monsieur Martin's drawing of the bone (source)

It was no coincidence that Lamanon specifically called out elephants and hippos for comparison. Besides being the largest of terrestrial animals, they had both been suggested as identities for other giant bones found around the Northern Hemisphere. In Asia and Europe, the bones were called mammoth and assigned to elephants. In the Ohio country of North America, mastodon bones, then as yet unnamed, showed features common to both elephants and hippos. Lamanon used his analysis of Paquet's bone to question those identifications. The mere resemblance of certain bones, he wrote, specifically referring to tusks and teeth, does not necessarily mean they come from the same animal. The teeth of a horse resemble those of donkey and the teeth of a cat those of a dog. Mammoth teeth resemble those of an elephant, but those of the mastodon do not. Couldn't this mean that mammoth, mastodon, and elephant are three completely different animals, or that mammoth and mastodon finds were not the remains of single animals but the co-mingled bones of several different animals, some elephant-like and some not? This was the position of the great Louis Jean-Marie Daubenton regarding the unknown animal of the Ohio. As for the Siberian mammoth, he pointed out that, even though the offer of a substantial reward for a complete skeleton had been in effect since the time of Peter the Great, no one had yet been able to produce one.

That Paquet's bone might have come from a whale was the starting point in the argument Lamanon wanted to make. His next point was the idea that other large bones were not necessarily those of known terrestrial animals. Having set his argument up, Lamanon moved on to his objective: using Paquet's bone to support his geological theories. The primal lakes that Lamanon envisioned shaping the geology of the north were really inland seas and their draining was a series of explosive, catastrophic events. He argued that whale bones in places like the Paris basin didn't come up from the ocean; they came down from the mountains. Mixed bones, such as those that Daubenton believed the Ohio animal to be made of, Lamanon saw as evidence of the violence of the lakes' draining. Even if the bones included those of elephants or hippos, these were animals living downstream, swept up, and deposited far north of their native habitats.

Most naturalists believed that the mammoth was an elephant and the mastodon was something similar, but there was still enough room for doubt that Lamanon's argument that they were not wasn't scandalous. What did scandalize some was the fact that he directly challenged Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte du Buffon and intendant of the royal museum (Jardin du Roi). Buffon was without question the most influential man in French science. Buffon's theory of the earth was that it had started out as a molten sphere and cooled first at the poles and that the habitable part of the world had expanded from there. He further claimed that only hot climates were hospitable for large animals. By this, he explained giant bones, such as the mammoth's, were relics of a time when the climate of the North was tropical. His theory of the relationship between temperature and size so annoyed Thomas Jefferson that he dedicated a large part of a chapter of his Notes on the State of Virginia to refuting it. Lamanon refuted Buffon by pointing out that there were plenty of large animals in the North such as moose, but especially fish and whales.

A childhood friend of his later wrote that "a thousand voices were against him, he was assailed on all sides, the newspapers rang with accusations of arrogance, audacity, boldness, ignorance itself.” One such outrages person was one Baudon, who published a nitpicking response to Lamanon five months after his paper came out. Boudon upbraided Lamanon for having the temerity to contradict his betters. He followed this by assuring his readers that his only motive was his love of truth and not currying favor for his forthcoming book. August was embarrassed enough by his brother that he wrote a letter of apology to Buffon on his behalf.

Neither Buffon himself nor his protege Daubenton seemed particularly offended. Buffon was happy to take advantage of Lamanon's geological observations in his later works. Daubenton's curiosity was sufficiently aroused to make a trip to Paquet's wine cellar to examine the bone and convince the merchant to dig out the rest of the bone. Daubenton was the perfect man to settle what kind of bone it was. Forty years earlier, he had been chosen by Buffon to catalog the zoological collections at the Jardin du Roi. In that capacity, he had handled and measured the bones of hundreds of animals, both living and fossil. Later he had helped Buffon write his encyclopedic Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière by contributing anatomical essays on 182 species of quadrupeds. He was easily the most knowledgeable comparative anatomist in Europe. Daubenton took one of Lamanon's clay models and compared it to the bones in the royal collection. The closest match he found confirmed what Lamanon's observations. In a short paper read before the Academy, he set out his reasons for believing the bone was part of the sphenoid process, a lower part of the skull, of an especially large whale.

Daubenton was accompanied on his visit to Paquet's by the chemist Berniard. Lamanon asked Berniard if it was possible to determine, by chemical analysis, whether a bone came from a land animal or from a sea animal. Berniard admitted he didn't know. Since none of the three of them had heard of such an experiment. They secured a piece of Paquet's bone and Daubenton brought from the royal collections pieces of whale, elk, porpoise, and human bones; a walrus tusk; an elephant's molar; and one of the teeth of the unknown animal of the Ohio. As to the primary question, Berniard determined that there was no significant difference between the bones of land and sea mammals. For his readers he also pointed out that there was not enough difference between the human bones and the other animals to claim a special place for humans in creation. At least, not based on biology.

This was the final scientific word on Paquet's bone, but it was not the final word on Lamanon's paper. A year after the first appearance of his paper, Journal de physique, de chimie, d'histoire naturelle et des arts published a short paper by P. de la Coudreniere that challenged both Buffon's and Lamanon's theories of the earth and used mammoths as his main evidence. Coudreniere made a reasonable argument against each theory. Of Buffon's cooling theory he points out that because the earth is a flattened sphere, the poles are closer to the internal fires within than are the tropics and, by his calculation, should be the last to cool, meaning something else must determine the temperature gradient. Of Lamanon's lakes theory, he points out that the largest salt lake on earth, the Caspian Sea, doesn't host anything larger than beluga sturgeon and small seals. It certainly doesn't contain whales. So far, so good. Then he goes off the rails.

Coudreniere next turns his attention to the mammoth and the animal of the Ohio, which he assumes to be local breeds of the same beast. What does the animal look like? What does it eat? Where is its food found? It can only be, he informs us, a bear, specifically the giant bear of Greenland. How that answers the latter two questions, he doesn't explain. There is no known animal more voracious than polar bears, he tells us, but there might be an even bigger bear never seen by Europeans, known only to the Eskimos. Quoting an anonymous history of Greenland, he describes a black bear, reputed to be thirty-six feet high, though, he admits, the size was probably exaggerated. The reason the mammoth/bear is rarely seen in Eurasia and North America is that Greenland is its primary range and it only migrates into the other continents during times of famine. That Greenland was attached to the other continents by an unmapped polar land was a fairly common belief at the time. That elephant sized bears roamed that land was a less common belief.

Lamanon wrote very little about Paquet's bone after his article was published. After Baudon's piece was published he sent a short letter to the editor saying he never had the pleasure of meeting Baudon, but wished to assure him that he had no animosity toward Buffon or any other great men. He worked behind the scenes with Daubenton and Berniard but soon moved on to other projects. He never responded to Coudrenier's giant bear thesis. In 1785 he sailed on the la Pérouse scientific expedition to the South Pacific—the French equivalent of Captain Cook. He was killed in Samoa in December 1787.

Robert de Paul de Lamanon (source)

Paquet's bone did not achieve the fame of some other bones, but its impact on science was not totally insignificant. Berniard's comparative chemical analysis of bones would be cited several times over the following decades. The bone became an important piece of evidence for scientists deciphering the geology of the Paris basin. Freshwater shells and the strata of gypsum that underlie the city all point to an age when the basin was covered by water. Georges Cuvier, who occupied a position of authority in the first third of the Nineteenth Century equivalent to that of Buffon in the last half of the Eighteenth, frequently cited the works of Lamanon in establishing that fact. Cuvier also sought out the bone and was able to add to our knowledge of it. Lamanon and Daubenton were able to identify the bone as having come from a whale, but they could only speculate about the species. The collections at the Jardin du Roi were sadly deficient in whale bones. Daubenton used a small sperm whale, which is a toothed whale, for comparison and documented enough points of similarity to be confident that it was a whale, but could go no further than that. By the time that Cuvier approached the problem, that deficiency in the collection had been alleviated—partly through new donations and partly through directed looting by the revolutionary armies. Cuvier was able to narrow the species down further to a type of baleen whale. He thought that it most resembled a Greenland whale.

Though Lamanon's name was remembered and Paquet's bone was remembered, Paquet's name was not. He became merely "a wine merchant" in the literature. In 1785 he was finally able to sell the bone. In the six years since he had dug it out of his cellar wall, it had attracted attention, but no buyers. He was forced to lower his asking price. He was probably relieved when a Dutch collector offered him ten Louis d'or. Though less than a third of his original asking price, it was a sizable chunk of money and probably something of a record for a damaged partial bone. The buyer was Martinus van Marum, an agent for Teyler's Museum in Amsterdam. The museum was a rare public collection that was the brainchild of the late Pieter Teyler, a rich banker who left his entire fortune and personal collections to a foundation dedicated to bettering the arts and sciences. Marum, no doubt, grabbed the bone for the museum's grand opening that year.

Over the years, others have had a chance to examine the bone. It is indeed the sphenoid process of a Greenland whale or, as we would call it today, a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). The taxonomy of the right whale went through several permutations in the Nineteenth Century being lumped together with other baleen whales at times and split into multiple species at others. For a time, Paquet's bone was seen as the type specimen of a species Balaena lamanoni. Paquet had been forgotten by then. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Lamanon would no longer have his own whale.

The bone today (source)

The final word on the bone is a bit anticlimactic. The website of Teyler's Museum, tells us that the bone was neither a fossil—which was known when it was found—nor even very old. Though the bone was an important piece of evidence in convincing scientists of Cuvier's generation that Paris had once been deep underwater, it might be that it wasn't there at the time. Researchers at Teyler's think that it might have been nothing more than a waste product of the women’s undergarment industry. Fragments of whales' ribs have been found in the same district that are known to have come from the manufacture of hoop skirts and corsets. This has not caused Teyler's to remove the bone from their collections. Whatever its age, it's a piece of history. It remains on public display in the same room as Homo diluvii testis, one of the most famous fossils in the history of paleontology and one of the Beringer lying stones and equally famous counterfeit. That's pretty good company.

If I ever get to Amsterdam, I'll definitely visit Paquet's bone.

NOTE: One of the annoyances of working with Seventeenth Century journals, especially French journals, is the convention of rarely using first names. Some modern countries, such as Russia, have a convention using initials rather than first names, but Seventeenth Century French journals rarely give even those. Everyone is "M" (Monsieur). This makes finding biographical details a bit of a challenge. Buffon and Daubenton are influential enough that I wouldn’'t have had to go further than Amazon to find out who they were if I didn't already know. Lamanon is the only person in this post whose full name was given on his paper, and he was important enough that I could have picked up the few details I needed from Wiki. I'm not surprised at the lack of information about Paquet. It wouldn't have been unusual for the time if Lamanon had referred to him as "a wine merchant" and left it at that. This leaves Baudon, Berniard, and Coudrenier. I can find nothing else by or about Baudon. It looks like he never found a publisher for his book. Berniard, as I mentioned, was quoted into the next century, not just on bones but on other studies as well. Yet, no one in that century seems to have known what is name was. I was tempted to identify him with Pierre Berniard, another chemist who, however, I found out was in Poland at the time. Finally, I found a library entry for one of his articles that gave him the first initial "L". Maybe they were related. That leaves P. de la Coudreniere. I have two candidates: Henri Peyroux de la Coudreniere and his brother Pierre. Henri was a land speculator who left a small mark in history by encouraging Acadian refugees to settle in Louisiana. Pierre stayed out of his brother's schemes and stayed home to take care of their elderly mother. Henri would be the more fun of the two to work into the story, but I have no good reason to believe it was either one. Although it's unlikely in that century, I can't exclude the possibility that one of Baudon, Berniard, or Coudrenier might have been a woman.

1 comment:

Martin Langeland said...

Very nicely comes along the book. This chapter is picking up that luxe smooth ride one expects of the best accessible science.
But I hope you plan on dry gultching a few nit pickers to go through for points like this:
"The closest match he found confirmed what Lamanon's observations."
all the best!