Tuesday, July 01, 2008

And now for something mammothy

The last few weeks have been kind of crazy for me. I wrote about the death of my cousin Bob three weeks ago and how that's likely to lead to some big changes in my life (I want to thank everyone who had kind words and thoughts for us. It helps). My wife is starting her own business and had her big launch at a fair last weekend. This weekend I drove back and forth across the state to get my Mom and my sister and deliver them to the SeaTac airport so Mom can visit my sisters in Alaska. In the midst of all that I was trying to write the Tunguska piece below. Whew. Now that I have a few days of breathing time, I'm trying to get caught up on my mail and all the other things I've let go for the last few weeks (you won't believe what the kitchen looks like).

Alan the Librarian (not to be confused with Conan the Librarian) wrote over a week ago with a mammoth question. I'm probably too late to be of any use, but it's a good question, so here goes.
I get some weird questions at this job. One patron asked me if I could confirm a Native American story he'd heard recently, involving (I kid you not) an Iroquois legend about hunting a mammoth (or possibly a mastodon) from upstate New York all the way to what is now New Jersey. Said storyteller claimed that "recent" archeo digs had revealed mammoth bones with projectile points (for those of raised in the 1960's, spearpoints and arrowheads).

Let's see. Back in the twenties a couple of mammoths were found with projectile points near-by but none of them was conclusively proven to have been deposited at the same time. The first conclusive find was a mammoth at Naco, Arizona on the Mexican border in 1951. It was immaculately excavated by Emil Haury over the next two seasons. He found nine mammoths there one with eight projectile points inside the ribcage. Since then a number of confirmed mammoth kills have been found in North America. They are usually identified by the butcher marks on the ribs though at least one with a spear point embedded in a bone has been found.

Butchered mastodons are less common, but there is one here in Washington at Sequim that has a possible broken projectile point embedded in bone. Another set of butchered mastodon bones was found in Michigan by Daniel Fisher. He believes the bones were meat was stored in a cold lake by weighting it down and submerging it. He actually stored parts of a dead horse this way and found it still safe to eat for months. One suggestion why butchered mastodons are not as common as butchered mammoths is that they might not have tasted as good. Mammoths were grazers and ate mostly grasses and leaves. Mastodons were browsers and ate pine and fir branches. Mastodon meat might have been resiny tasting while mammoth was nice grass-fed, free range tasting. This, of course disproves the theory that Atlanteans or Phoenicians colonized America, because they ate Greek food and would have liked that resiny taste.

Legends are hard to make sense of, but luckily, Adrienne Mayor has written an entire book about Native Americans and fossils (Fossil Legends of the First Americans). Indians on both American continents were aware of fossils and recognized that they were from animals that no longer roamed the land. What's more, in many cases they reassembled the bones and recognized their similarity to existing species. In the case of mammoths and mastodons, they recognized that these were from animals unlike any they knew. Clearly they were monsters. Almost everyone who lived near fossil deposits had a legend of a heroic ancestor or friendly god who banished the giants and monsters at the beginning of history, making the world safe for the true people.

How these stories got recorded by the white folks is a little trickier. Native storytelling was a living art, so the stories weren't ossified into an unchanging form. The tellers had no problem adding new details as they learned things from their new neighbors.

The earliest story was recorded by Bernal Diaz in 1519. Diaz was a captain in Cortes' army. When the arrived in Tlaxcala on their way to Tenochtitlan, the local elders showed them a huge femur and explained that the bone was from and ancient carnivorous giant. Naturally, Cortes helped himself to the bone and sent it back to Spain. The bone, which Mayor believes was from a mastodon, disappeared into the imperial collections and vanished. She attempted to locate it a few years ago. The archivists to the old imperial collections confirmed that it had arrived, but they couldn't locate it. That doesn't mean it isn't in a store room somewhere. The Codex Madrid, one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, was misshelved in the imperial library and lost for 140 years.

Evert Ysbrants Ides, the traveler who first introduced the word "mammoth" to Europe in a book about traveling across Siberia on his way to China, mentioned in passing that the mammoth had teeth like an elephant, but didn't go any further in identifying its elephantness. It wasn't until 1728 that an European anatomist, Johann Breyne, would examine the bones of a mammoth and authoritatively pronounce it to be an elephant. He would have been disappointed to know an African slave in South Carolina beat him to that identification by three years. The slave, probably from Angola or the Congo basin, looked at some "giant's teeth" his owner had discovered and identified them as coming from an elephant. These would have come from a Colombian mammoth; mastodon teeth are quite different and were something of a mystery until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Mammoth and mastodon bones are fairly common in the Northeast US. It's not really clear when or who the first English settler to find one was. However, there was a well publicized discovery of bones at Calverack on the Hudson River in 1705. The bones were identified by local clergy (including Cotton Mather a few years later) as giants who died in the Noachian flood. People came from miles around to marvel at the bones. Among them were Iroquois who came to say "I told you so" to the Puritans who had mocked at their stories of ancient giants. The important thing about this exchange is that the Iroquois agreed with the Puritans that the bones were human-like giants; they did not describe anything elephant-like.

In 1762, James Wright of Fort Pitt interviewed some Shawnee about the bones they had brought up from the Ohio country to trade. These were probably from Big Bone Lick Kentucky or nearby; explorers had been collecting bones from there since 1739 and the Indians knew the white folk valued them. The Shawnee described the skull of an animal with a "long nose." Though this might sound like a description of a trunk, it was more likely a description of the long bone sockets that hold tusks. Even if it was a reference to a trunk we have the problem that it was well known by educated settlers of that time that the mammoth was an elephant. In the nineteenth century, many monsters of Indian legend were transformed into mammoths or mastodons with the tellers using those words and drawing illustrations that look just like European drawings of elephants.

The Lenape Stone

Having said all of that, the most probable solution to what Alan's patron had heard about is a puzzling artifact called the Lanape Stone. This stone a piece of inscibed slate, was found in two pices on a farm in Buck's County Pennsylvania in 1872 and 1881. The stone shows feathered Indians fighting a wounded mammoth who has trampled one Indian. The stone was very controversial for decades after its discovery, but is now generally believed to be a fake on artistic and other grounds. A more tempting depiction is a hammered petroglyph found near Moab, Utah that might depict a mastodon, but isn't really that clear.

The short answer is, yes, Indians hunted mammoths and mastodons. There is clear proof of that. But it's unlikely that an unbroken and clear oral tradition describing the animals has survived. Descriptions of giants and monsters from the past are more likely based on encounters with fossils. On the other hand, it's unlikely that they completely forgot living with and hunting giants, so even though there probably isn't an unbroken and clear oral tradition describing the animals, there are probably hints of memory that have evolved over the millenia first loosing track of the real appearance of mammoths and then regaining it.

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