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How to Deep-Freeze a Mammoth

Popular Science

By: Bjorn Kurten

121 pages, Bw Illus

Columbia University Press

Hardback | Jul 1986 | #5464 | ISBN: 0231059787
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NHBS Price: £34.50 $44/€38 approx

About this book

How does bison meat taste after being frozen for 30,000 years? Were Ice Age cave painters trying to create "art" or just record history? How did ancient oil spills occur, before there were oil companies to create them? Those are just some of the questions renowned paleontologist Bjorn Kurten answers in this collection of lighthearted essays on fossils, ancient life, and related topics. Written for the general reader, these lively pieces range from a look at how scientific theories are created to some new views of old myths. Among the topics Kurten examines are the history of the Mediterranean Sea, the origin of birds, the theory of plate tectonics (continental drift), and the discovery of Piltdown Man, the "missing link" fossil forgery that fooled scientists for more than 40 years. And, true to its title, the book offers a humorous "recipe" for freezing a mammoth that is tundra-tested, if not totally foolproof. "You may have to expend a few hundred mammoths before everything works out," the reader is cautioned, "But there are plenty of them." (Although the author hasn't tasted the fruits of his mammoth recipe, he did feast on some ancient bison meat that dated from 30,000 years ago. Kurten described the taste as "agreeable.") Throughout these essays Kurten brings the prehistoric world alive with enthusiasm and humor, emphasizing that paleontology is the study of those that lived long ago instead of those who are long dead. As he says, "Isn't it more fun to see a dinosaur as something that used to live, rather than as the monstrous heap of bones which it happens to be at present?"

I find it a pleasure to read Bjorn Kurten, a world authority on Ice Age mammals, ranging widely through the earth sciences in the series of essays. It seems likely that we will have to clone DNA to get slices of edible deep-frozen mammoth tissue, but Kurten has dined on an extinct bison. Man is greater than a star, but a bacterium is also greater than a star-after all, bacteria evolved into man. The immense Mediterranean Flood is a million years too old for the Flood legend, leaving the ten-thousand-year-old melting of ice sheets as the source of aboriginal fireside tales of an endless invasion by the sea. In a cliff of basalt in Washington state is a mold of a twenty-million-year-old rhino, into which one can walk to become a modern-day Jonah (if you would settle for a rhino, and enter from the other end). It is Stephen Jay Gould vs. Teilhard in the Piltdown fraud. And you can forget the simple-minded ancient theory that Cro-Magnon cave art was magic for good hunting-it was for instruction and enjoyment."

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Bjorn Kurten is known around the world for his research and his writing, both fiction and nonfiction. A Professor of Paleontology at the University of Helsinki since 1955, he is the author of six books which have been translated into more than half a dozen languages. His books available in English include The Age of Mammals, The Cave Bear Story, and the forthcoming On Evolution and Fossil Mammals, all published by Columbia University Press.

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