In July 2016, I met an old friend at Big Bone Lick State Historic Site. Located in Northern Kentucky, the park is about an hour north of Lexington, where I grew up, and about an hour east of Louisville, where my friend lives. The park has a lot to offer: trails, salt springs, a grazing bison herd. But we went for the mastodon teeth.
Situated near the banks of the Ohio River, Big Bone Lick gets its name from the bones that have been dug up there and the salt and mineral springs that drew animals to the site for thousands of years. Salt licks like these preserve animal artifacts exceptionally well, like the peat bogs in England from which whole bodies famously emerged centuries later, flesh still on the bone. When it comes to recovering artifacts, Big Bone Lick has been prolific—as the park employee in the museum told us, you can’t go on a walk at Big Bone without stumbling across fossils or bones of some sort or another.
In the eighteenth century, a lot of the bones exhumed from the lick belonged to mastodons. A species distantly related to elephants and mammoths, the mastodon is thought to have gone extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, around 10,000 BCE. In 1739, French colonial explorers in the region undertook a dig at Big Bone and recovered what turned out to be mastodon bones. They shipped teeth, a tusk, and a femur back to Paris where, decades later, a naturalist named Georges Cuvier examined them in the collections of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. Cuvier used the bones to argue for a catastrophist theory of natural history and effectively bring the idea of extinction to the mainstream.
Big Bone Lick State Historic Site tells one story about natural history in the Ohio River Valley. Twenty-five minutes up the road in Petersburg, Kentucky, the Creation Museum tells quite a different story. Opened in 2007, the museum is run by Answers in Genesis (AiG), a group of Young Earth creationists, who argue that the earth is approximately 6,000 years old. The same month I made my first trip to Big Bone—July 2016—AiG opened a second attraction in Williamstown, Kentucky, about 25 minutes south of Big Bone and 45 minutes from the Museum. Called Ark Encounter, the site houses a scale model of Noah’s Ark. In the portals of its cavernous wooden interior, models of familiar mammals tuck in quietly alongside models of doves, dinosaurs, and human beings. The Creation Museum and the Ark orient their historical timelines around the biblical flood, which they claim explains geological strata and the fossil record.
These sites are engaged in an ongoing conflict about plausible explanations for fossil remains and the bones of creatures like the mastodon. Their conflict mirrors the religious and scientific conflicts of the late eighteenth century.
In a series of publications beginning in the 1790s, Georges Cuvier advanced a theory of catastrophic extinction. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, “extinction strikes us as an obvious idea. It isn’t.” Cuvier disputed the consensus among European scientists that nature was a stable and interconnected system produced by God—a chain of being from which no link could be removed.
Studying mastodon teeth in Paris, Cuvier argued that the species living on earth in his lifetime were not the same as the species represented by the fossil record. In his 1796 essay “Memoir on the Species of Elephants, Both Living and Fossil” (enlarged and reprinted in 1799), Cuvier suggested that the teeth of mastodons, mammoths, and other elephants were evidence for a prehumen world that had been “destroyed by some sort of catastrophe,” resulting in the sudden extinction of some animal species. His theory caught on, and over the course of his lifetime, the number of extinct animals reckoned by European science shifted from zero, or maybe one, to dozens.
The debate about mammoths, mastodons, and their meaning was much larger than Cuvier. Mastodons were called “Ohio animals” or, confusingly, “American mammoths” until Cuvier coined the name mastodon in 1806. These creatures were commonplace in print and visual culture in the period. In the same year Cuvier delivered his essay on mastodon teeth, for instance, The Columbian Magazine, the preeminent American periodical of the late eighteenth century, included an account of the bones found at Big Bone Lick. A few years later, Charles Willson Peale, the proprietor of the United States’ first museum, painted a mastodon excavation in which he had participated in Upstate New York in 1801. He painstakingly assembled the mastodon skeleton and put it on display in Philadelphia. In 1803, Peale’s son Rembrandt wrote an account of the family’s exhumation experience. The flyleaf of one surviving copy of his text was illustrated with a hand-drawn image of a Native American hunter alongside a fully assembled mastodon skeleton.
Debates about mastodons were also debates about the stakes of “America.” The illustration in Rembrandt Peale’s volume links mastodons to white Americans’ habit of co-opting and overwriting Native American histories, even as they engaged in the genocide of Indigenous people. Elsewhere, Thomas Jefferson, who did not believe mastodons were extinct, used their bones to counter claims about the inherent inferiority of American animal species. Across the nineteenth century, the mastodon emerged as symbol for U.S. nationalism, virility, power, and dominance.
Although the mastodon was championed as a nationalist symbol, Cuvier’s claims produced crisis in the field of natural history. How, after all, could a prehumen world populated by now-extinct species be reconciled with biblical history? Now, in Kentucky, a similar crisis plays itself out in three sites, telling different stories about the same old bones.
Visiting Big Bone
Pulling into Big Bone Lick, visitors encounter a welcome sign depicting jolly mastodons, tusks raised, and the proud claim that the park is “the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology.” The park opened in July 1960, and its museum has recently undergone substantial renovations. The museum foregrounds the site’s significance for Native American hunters, who gathered at Big Bone for thousands of years before European colonization began. While the site doesn’t openly critique French or English colonists, it does insist on a long human history at the site, the extent of which far outstrips the narrow frontier histories more familiar to audiences schooled in predominantly Anglo-American colonial history.
Big Bone puts forth narratives about the relationship between human beings and the environment that are widely accepted by archaeologists and scientists. Its entry hall is dominated by a mastodon skull, with a gaping hole where its fleshy trunk once emerged. The park’s museum displays teeth like the ones Cuvier saw and announces their importance in the development of extinction theory, complete with quotations from historian Martin J. S. Rudwick. Its exhibits identify the salt licks as a source of formative evidence for European science and highlight connections between Cuvier’s claims and our twenty-first century extinction event. Even the park’s kitschiest feature, a diorama of Ice Age megafauna depicted as though half submerged in a salt lick, emphasizes the necessity of a historical narrative that accounts for the long trajectories of climate, evolution, and extinction in the Ohio River Valley.
But this is contested territory.
Creationists and Mastodons
Answers in Genesis doesn’t shy away from mastodon bones or other artifacts from the distant past. Instead, Young Earth creationists have taken up the mastodon as a kind of standard. The Museum and Ark relish their proximity to the site from which so many apparently preshistoric remains have been exhumed. A cast of a mastodon skeleton greets visitors in an entry hall at the Creation Museum.
Young Earth creationists reject the widely accepted interpretation of mastodon bones initially laid out by Cuvier and reproduced with greater nuance on the walls of the museum at Big Bone Lick. The bones, Young Earth creationists argue, are young too. AiG orients its history of extinction around a literal global flood, arguing that Young Earth creationism is compatible with science and the fossil record.
AiG directly acknowledges Big Bone Lick State Historic Site and mainstream interpretations of mastodons and other fossil remains. The group’s voluminous publications carefully mimic the norms of mainstream scientific and academic writing—see, for example, this article on elephants and mammoths. In describing its methods, AiG repeats another popular claim from nineteenth-century religious and scientific debates: that fossils are “missionaries” from God to help make the biblical history of nature evident to careful observers.
I haven’t been to the Creation Museum, or to the Ark. It’s expensive—a combo ticket to both attractions runs $60—and the sites’ massive scale sounds overwhelming. But I’ve followed the construction and operation of both sites carefully. Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger, Jr. have written at length about the Creation Museum and the Ark as its partner project. They contextualize the sites in terms of natural history museums, from the curiosity cabinets of the seventeenth century, filled with fresh wonders from European colonial exploration in the Americas and elsewhere, to the contemporary national institutions regularly toured by school kids on fieldtrips nationwide. AiG reproduces the strategies of these mainstream sites to advance its vision of natural history and produce plausibility for Young Earth creationist interpretations of the fossil record.
When I learned that the Creation Museum, and later the Ark, were being built in Kentucky, I was both surprised and not surprised. AiG doesn’t have local roots; its founder, Ken Ham, is Australian, and its reach is international. It claims to have chosen Northern Kentucky for its headquarters because almost 2/3 of America’s population lives within 650 miles. A desire to directly take on the evidence offered by bones and fossils—including mastodon remains—might be another reason the group chose Kentucky as a site for a creation museum and a giant ark. The state’s political and religious climate were surely also contributing factors.
Although AiG’s sites have been widely critiqued by both religious and nonreligious people, the state has offered substantial financial incentives to build in the region. Last year, Ark Encounter was awarded $18 million in tax breaks to recuperate construction costs. After much debate about whether or not the state should approve tax incentives for a fringe religious group, Governor Matt Bevin chose not to appeal a ruling in U.S. District Court that the park was eligible for tax incentives, despite the fact that it only hires Christian employees. Under Bevin’s governorship, Kentucky is funding two competing narratives about natural history in the region: the biblical narrative that positions fossil remains in relationship to a literal interpretation of the flood in Genesis and the mainstream scientific narrative that interprets those same fossil remains as evidence for millennia of evolution.
These conflicts in Kentucky are a microcosm for our larger failure to produce cultural consensus about human beings’ relationship to nature, extinction, evolution, and, most pressing of all, climate change. Cuvier’s catastrophism paved the way for later accounts of anthropogenic climate change and the mass extinction humankind has wrought. We are, in his terms, a catastrophe. AiG acknowledges changing global temperatures but denies human culpability for climate change and its impacts. Conversations about the duration and development of natural history have shifted since the 1790s, in the wake of improved scientific methods and discoveries and new strands of religious thought. But in many ways, the old debates are repeating themselves. The conflict continues to echo across the same stretch of land where it has been bubbling all this time, with deeply disorienting effects.
Driving out of the park at Big Bone Lick, heading south towards my parents’ house last July, sweating in the heat of the hottest summer on record, I turned, briefly, down the highway towards Williamstown and the Ark. I wanted to see the dinosaurs in their wooden stables and the bearded human figures gesturing as though to feed them. But I stopped for gas, turned around, and headed home after all. All the way home, I thought about the megafauna diorama at Big Bone and the faded pillar explaining the history of Native American life at the site, stretching back to at least 13,000 BCE, long before AiG thinks the world began. Taking climate change seriously as the most pressing problem facing humankind would require us to reconcile these narratives. Such a resolution does not seem imminent.
If you’re in Madison, you can check out the mastodon skeleton at the UW Geology Museum.
Featured image: Life-sized diorama of ice age megafauna trapped in a salt lick at Big Bone Lick. Photo by the author.
The author is grateful to the Library Company of Philadelphia, where a research fellowship allowed her to learn more about natural history in general and mastodons in particular.
Julia Dauer is a graduate student in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studies eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American literature and the history of science. Her dissertation is about natural history, first-person prose, and the category of the “person” in the U.S. between about 1780 and about 1830. Contact.