Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science

John J. McKay. Pegasus, $27.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-68177-424-4
Technical writer McKay positions the mammoth as a “focusing problem for a scientific revolution” between the late 17th and early 19th centuries, taking the idea that figuring out what mammoths are “required new tools and new ways of looking at nature and the past.” It’s a well-organized history of science, with McKay delving deeply into primary sources, some uncovered quite recently, to trace the development of thinking about the prehistoric origins of northern ivory and massive bones. That thinking, McKay posits, was driven by disparate worldviews that led, for example, ancient Romans to envision such bones as derived from giants and devout Christian Europeans to see them as remnants of the Flood; by lively intellectual debate based in both personality and science; by trade-driven cultural exchange; and by physical discoveries that culminated in the 1801 recovery of a complete mammoth skeleton. McKay shows how, in order to understand the mammoth, natural philosophers needed to develop the concepts of evolution and extinction and to make advances in anatomy, classification, and geology. He keeps his narrative human centered, maintaining respect for scientists’ discovery processes even when their ideas turned out to be incorrect. McKay avoids probing modern research on the mammoth despite his personal enthusiasm for the subject, making it clear to the end that his story is not about ancient creatures, but about how humans approach the world’s mysteries. Agent: Jessica Papin, Dystel & Goderich (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 06/12/2017
Release date: 08/01/2017
Genre: Nonfiction
Discover what to read next