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Shawnee legend tells of a herd of huge bison rampaging through the Ohio Valley, laying waste to all in their path. To protect the tribe, a deity slew these great beasts with lightning bolts, finally chasing the last giant buffalo into exile across the Wabash River, never to trouble the Shawnee again. The source of this legend was a peculiar salt lick in present-day northern Kentucky, where giant fossilized skeletons had for centuries lain undisturbed by the Shawnee and other natives of the region.
In 1739, the first Europeans encountered this fossil site, which eventually came to be known as Big Bone Lick. The site drew the attention of all who heard of it, including George Washington, Daniel Boone, Benjamin Franklin, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and especially Thomas Jefferson. The giant bones immediately cast many scientific and philosophical assumptions of the day into doubt, and they eventually gave rise to the study of fossils for biological and historical purposes. Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology recounts the rich history of the fossil site that gave the world the first evidence of the extinction of several mammalian species, including the American mastodon. Big Bone Lick has played many roles: nutrient source, hallowed ground, salt mine, health spa, and a rich trove of archaeological and paleontological wonders.
Natural historian Stanley Hedeen presents a comprehensive narrative of Big Bone Lick from its geological formation forward, explaining why the site attracted animals, regional tribespeople, European explorers and scientists, and eventually American pioneers and presidents. Big Bone Lick is the history of both a place and a scientific discipline: it explores the infancy and adolescence of paleontology from its humble and sometimes humorous beginnings. Hedeen combines elements of history, geology, politics, and biology to make Big Bone Lick a valuable historical resource as well as the compelling tale of how a collection of fossilized bones captivated a young nation.
"This excellent work by Stanley Hedeen is the most comprehensive account of Big Bone Lick that has yet been produced. The author has touched and expounded upon many facts that have sometimes been overlooked by others. I highly endorse it for those who cherish our heritage and this unique site."
– Bruce Ferguson, former Boone County Judge/Executive and former president, Big Bone Lick Park Association
"Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology focuses on the century-long search for the true identity of the bones of various prehistoric animals found at this salt lick in northern Kentucky. In this ambitious chronicle, Hedeen incorporates a multitude of personalities and ideas that helped to shape the odyssey of the bones' discovery – from Indian myths and religious beliefs to the first theories developed in the embryonic scientific fields of geology and paleontology."
– Paul Semonin, author of American Monster: How the Nation's First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity
"This outstanding book provides new details and new perspective on one of the most extraordinary discoveries on the American frontier – the seemingly inexhaustible collection of huge animal fossils at Big Bone Lick. Hedeen explains why the bones, tusks, and teeth captured the attention of scientists and the public and shows how Thomas Jefferson used the Mammoth bones to refute the European idea that the New World environment was inferior and unable to grow large animals. The book gives us greater understanding of why frontier travelers turned aside to visit the site. Gradually unfolding the intriguing story of how anatomists identified the fossils, Hedeen demonstrates that Big Bone Lick was the birthplace of American paleontology."
– James A. Ramage, author of Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby