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The uncovering in the mid-1700s of fossilized mastodon bones and teeth at Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, signaled the beginning of a great American adventure. The West was opening up and unexplored lands beckoned. Unimagined palaeontological treasures awaited discovery: strange horned mammals, birds with teeth, flying reptiles, gigantic fish, diminutive ancestors of horses and camels, and more than a hundred different kinds of dinosaurs. This exciting book tells the story of the grandest period of fossil discovery in American history, the years from 1750 to 1890.
The volume begins with Thomas Jefferson, whose keen interest in the American mastodon led him to champion the study of fossil vertebrates. The book continues with vivid descriptions of the actual work of prospecting for fossils (a pick-axe in one hand, a rifle in the other), and offers enthralling portraits of Joseph Leidy, Ferdinand Hayden, Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh, among other major figures in the development of the science of palaeontology. "The Legacy of the Mastodon" sheds new light on these scientists' feuds and rivalries, on the connections between fossil studies in Europe and America, and on palaeontology's contributions to America's developing national identity.
Keith Thomson is professor emeritus of natural history, University of Oxford, where he also served as director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Former president of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, professor of biology and dean at Yale, he is the author of more than 200 scientific papers and twelve books, including Before Darwin and The Common but Less Frequent Loon and Other Essays, both published by Yale University Press.
'This tale begins Thomson's look at the early years of American fossil hunting. In addition to a history of paleontology, it is an account of the opening of the West and of how adventurous and often egotistical men mined the new land for fossils. The book explains how Darwinian evolution made the second half of this 'golden age' important scientifically, but Thomson really succeeds by bringing to life the fossil-finders and their world.' Marc Kaufman, Washington Post 'this unique and fascinating book... but what makes the book unique is that Thomson links the emergence of the new nation to the discovery of its fossils. Along the way, he turns up many surprising gems.' Michelle Press, Scientific American