cover image The Mystery of the Mammoth Bones and How It Was Solved

The Mystery of the Mammoth Bones and How It Was Solved

James Cross Giblin. HarperCollins Publishers, $15.95 (112pp) ISBN 978-0-06-027493-1

With the pacing of an ace detective, Giblin (Charles Lindbergh) unveils the painstaking steps in artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale's 1801 discovery of mammoth bones. Through a third-person narration of Peale's experience, Giblin establishes these fossils' revolutionary importance to science, technology and social history, beginning with Peale's exploratory digs, his assemblage of the first skeleton and its subsequent exhibition and controversy. Structuring the text in this way allows Giblin to deftly paint a turn-of-the-19th-century world and to demonstrate how this finding shook prevailing scientific and religious beliefs and contributed to current theories of evolution and extinction. Readers will devour the details that contrast Peale's time to today, such as the harrowing journey from Philadelphia to upstate New York (it took a day and a half just to get from Philadelphia to New York City, before sailing up the Hudson River in the days before steam power), a trip that today takes three hours, and President Thomas Jefferson's personal interest in and professional support of the excavation. Unfortunately, some details lack context, such as the original $200 pricetag of the bones without mention of what that sum could buy. After wrapping up this gripping mystery and its legacy, profusely illustrated with photographs of the mammoths and Peale's own sketches, Giblin concludes with a brief biography of the Renaissance man Peale and a summary of theories on mammoths and mastodons. Fans of all things dinosaur will find much to explore here, and readers may well be infected with Peale's pioneering spirit. Ages 8-12. (Mar.)