Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Naming the mammoth

When Karl Linné (Carolus Linnaeus) created his scheme for cataloging and naming everything in the natural world, he had to deal with some forms that defied easy categorization. One of these was the mammoth. The mammoth had been a hot topic of discussion for the Swedish Academy during the 1720s. When Linné attended Uppsala University, he lived for a time, with Olof Rudbeck the Younger who had been very active in the mammoth discussions. Rudbeck believed mammoth bones found in the Arctic were the remains of the elephants that had transported the lost tribes of Israel into the North where they founded the Swedish and Lapp nations. Linné did not adopt that theory. In the first edition of his Systema Naturae (1835), the mammoth as "Mammatowacost" appears in small Gothic script as the last entry in the mineral kingdom.

Linné's categorization reflected gradually evolving ideas about both fossils and mammoths. In both cases the questions involved were as much lexicological as they were scientific. The word "fossil" underwent a great transformation between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Around 1500, "fossil" meant anything unexpected found in the earth. As well as the petrified remains of former life forms, the word encompassed crystals, interestingly shaped rocks, old bones, amber, and human artifacts. A Roman coin was just as much a fossil as was a trilobite. A relic of this usage is the phrase "fossil fuel." For most of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, the scientific side of the question was whether stones that resembled shells and bones were truly petrified remains or whether they were just interestingly shaped rocks, jokes of nature. By Linné's time, the scientific question had been largely settled, but the linguistic one was still fuzzy. Linné divided his mineral kingdom into three parts: rocks, minerals and fossils. He further divided fossils into three parts: soil, concretions, and petrifications. It was in the last, under "Petrified Quadrupeds", that he placed Mammatowacost.

The problem with the word "mammoth" can be seen in a work written by a fellow Swede twenty years before Linné. While a POW in Siberia, Johann Bernard Müller was commissioned to write an ethnography of the Ostiak people. Müller was able to complete his work in record time, in part, because he ran into Gregory Novitsky, a religious exile who had already done a large part of his research for him, including collecting local legends about the mammoth. 
There is a Curiosity in Siberia, no where else to met with in any Part of the World, for ought I know. This is what the Inhabitants call Mamant, which is found in the Earth in several places, particularly in sandy Ground. It looks like Ivory both as to Colour and Grain. The common Opinion of the Inhabitants is that they are real Elephants Teeth, and have lain buried since the universal Deluge. Some of our Countrymen think it to be the Ebur fossile, and consequently a Product of the Earth, which was likewise my Opinion for a good while. 
Here Müller uses the word "Mamant" only to describe fossil ivory and not an animal. He says he did not initially think that it came from an animal, rather that is was a mineral substance that happened to resemble ivory. The phrase "Ebur fossile" is Latin for "fossil ivory" and was used in Europe to indicate the tusks of mammoths dug up in Germany and Italy as well as similar looking materials that could be sold to apothecaries as unicorn horn.

The evolution of the word and idea of "mammoth" almost exactly paralleled that of "fossil" following it by about thirty years. Linné's inclusion of fossils into the category of minerals was already becoming out of date in 1835 when he published Systema Naturae. He stubbornly kept the mammoth there for another thirty years. Fossil ivory was especially misplaced in his system as it is not petrified. It is nothing more than buried ivory. Long before he published, the vast majority of literate Europeans had come to accept that Ebur fossile was real ivory from real animals, probably elephants. The mystery of the Siberian mammoth was that elephants couldn't live in the North. So what kind of an animal was the mammoth? Linné had an answer for that question. Mammoths are large walruses.

As far as Linné was concerned, the mammoth didn't need a name because it already had a name: Phoca rosmarus. While his conclusion that the mammoth was a walrus was generally ignored for the rest of the century (and forever after), his decision not to name the mammoth held until the end of the century. Then, Georges Cuvier took the step of proclaiming, once and for all, that the mammoth was a distinct species and, furthermore, that it was extinct. Three years later, Johann Blumenbach who had been thinking along the same lines took the equally bold step of giving the mammoth a Linnaean style, binomial name: Elphas primigenius.

The Russians were actually ahead of their Western colleagues in understanding the mammoth until well into the Eighteenth Century. This was not just because they owned the sources of mammoth ivory. Because Russia was intellectually isolated from Europe until well into the Seventeenth Century, they never went through a phase of doubting the organic origin of mammoth ivory. The earliest record of some form of the word "mammoth" comes from a monastery inventory for the year 1578. The word the brothers used transliterates as "mamantovakos", which, except for the "n" in the second syllable and "t" missing from the end, is the same as Linné's "Mammatowacost". This term translates as "mammoth's bone" or "bone of the mammoth". Rather than a separate word for the ivory, it is the name of the animal that produced the ivory.

This usage, five years before the conquest of the Khanate of Siberia, indicates that the Russians were already familiar with mammoth ivory and the idea of a mammoth animal. The most recent linguistic research on the word "mammoth" indicates that it comes from a word in the Mansi language meaning "earth horn". That is, that it described just the ivory and not the animal that it came from. It was the Russians who transformed it into the name of an animal. After that transformation, it took over two centuries for the West to accept that the mammoth was a distinct species and give it a scientific name.

That's not the end of the story of the mammoth's name. Blumenbach's binomial, Elphas primigenius, placed the mammoth in the same genus as the elephant. In 1828, Joshua Brookes proposed giving the mammoth its own genus renaming it Mammuthus primigenius. For the next century, the mammoth was bounced in and out of different genera only finally settling into Brookes' Mammuthus in the 1930s. By then, other species of mammoth had been discovered. The woolly mammoth was joined in Mammuthus by a half-dozen other mammoths each with its own name. Today, the latest DNA evidence raises the possibility that different populations of woolly mammoth may have been distinct enough to be called separate species, or subspecies. This will mean even more names.

Linné might have been annoyed by this, his judgment having been overruled, or he might have been thrilled, if he had been able supply the names. Perhaps we need to come up with special names for those two Linnés. I propose Linnaeus dispepticus (archy 2013) and Linnaeus delectatus (archy 2013).

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