Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Saturday, June 15, 2013
Monday, June 3, 2013
Otto von Geuricke was not a fool. During his lifetime he was a philosopher, diplomat, Mayor of Magdeburg for thirty-one years, and a respected scientist and inventor. It was for his work the last two capacities that he is probably best remembered. Geuricke invented the vacuum pump and performed public experiments with it that made him a welcome member of the European scientific elite. With that resume, it might surprise modern readers to find him calmly describing a unicorn in his main scientific work before moving on to more important topics.
His description is short. In its entirety, it reads:
It happened in the year 1663 in Quidlinberg, that on the Mountain the common people call Zeunickenberg, where lime is mined, inside the rock a unicorn skeleton was found. The rear portion of the body, as is common in a beast, lay back, head up, but, extending lengthwise from the brow was a horn, the thickness of a human leg, and so in proportion to the length of almost five cubits. Primarily through ignorance, the skeleton of the animal was broken and extracted in pieces. Together with the head with the horn and some ribs, spine, and bones, were given to the Reverend head abbess of the place.
The passage gives no indication whether Geuricke ever saw the bones himself, though he had plenty of opportunity to do so. Quedlinberg is less than thirty miles from Magdeburg and much of Guricke's technical innovation was aimed at making mining safer and more efficient, so he must have visited the mining regions. However, there is nothing in his writings to indicate that he ever looked further into the story. Guericke was an important enough scientist that his books were read and discussed by the scientific elite all over Europe. The Quedlinberg unicorn was mentioned a few times over the next few years and would have been forgotten except for the fact that the great Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz repeated the story and produced a drawing of the skeleton.
In the years 1691-3, Leibniz was working on a geological history of that part of Germany as a Michener-style prologue to his history of the house of Brunswick and their lands. A large part of his work dealt with fossils. The presence of entire strata of salt water seashells on high ground disturbed and intrigued Seventeenth Century natural philosophers. Leibniz catalogued and analyzed the shells in his region. Following that, he looked at some of the other difficult organic remains buried in the mountains. Buried ivory was right at the top of the list.
Buried ivory had several names, one of the most common, at least to people who spoke Latin, was "unicornu fossili"--fossil unicorn. At that time, the word "fossil" was evolving from its original meaning of "something from the ground" into its modern meaning of "petrified organic matter." Another transformation happening at the time had to do with the word "unicorn." The belief in, and giving a damn about, the animal unicorn peaked during the Renaissance. Unicorn horn was a protection against poisons and a universal antidote should you be poisoned. No one was anyone unless someone wanted them dead. Unicorn horn’s medical powers were not limited to poison. It was also useful in treating “Scurvy, Old Ulcers, Dropsie, Running Gout, consumptions, Distillations, Coughs, Palpitation of the Heart, Fainting Fits, Convulsions, Kings Evil, Rickets in Children, Melancholly or Sadness, The Green Sickness, Obstructions, and all Distempers proceeding from a Cold Cause." Fragments of unicorn horn were worth more than their weight in gold. A complete horn was worth more than a medium sized town.
Its very success doomed the unicorn. Nothing about the unicorn could stand up to extended scrutiny. From one side, physicians questioned the idea of a universal antidote. Nature was composed of pairs of opposites, hot vs. cold, wet vs. dry. How could the same medicine counteract a wet poison and also a dry poison? Naturalists hunted the world for the unicorn animal and found hints and claims, but no actual unicorns. By the late Seventeenth Century, faith in the existence of an actual unicorn animal was fading fast. Several different writers demonstrated that the straight spiral horn, so beloved by medieval artists, actually came from a sea animal caught in the icy waters surrounding Greenland. Other pieces of unicorn horn were shown to be walrus tusks, elephant ivory, or cheaper substances such teeth and bones of farm animals. The last great hope for unicorn believers was fossil ivory. Finding ivory in the ground was pretty amazing. Guericke adhered to the belief that it actually grew there. Not that it was a plant, but that it was real ivory created by some generative power within the earth. If fossil ivory had such had such a wonderful origin, crediting it with diverse medical powers was no great stretch of the mind.
When Leibniz repeated Guericke’s story, he made it clear that, in his opinion, unicornu fossili was the remains of real animals. What’s more he was sure it was the remains of known animals. He allowed that in rare cases it might ivory of elephants washed into the North by the Biblical deluge, but he confident that in most cases it was the remains of walruses and narwhals that had lived there when the shoreline of the North Sea was far to the south of its present location. Still, Guericke was a man of impeccable reputation and the story was an interesting one. Following his recounting of the story as told by Guericke, Leibniz added: “The same has been reported to me. An illustration was added which it is not inappropriate to submit here.”
Leibniz’s unicorn. Source.
Leibniz never finished his history. In fact he never went any further than writing the geological preface. Both the text and the drawing sat in his papers until 1749, over thirty years after his death. In that year, Ludwig Scheidt, the librarian of the house of Brunswick, edited the treatise into chapters and had the drawings Leibniz had collected engraved onto printing plates. The result was published in Latin and German as Protogaea, or A Dissertation on the Original Aspect of the Earth and the Vestiges of Its Very Ancient History in the Monuments of Nature. The unicorn appeared on the same page as the tooth of a mammoth (referred to as that of a “marine animal”) and carried the caption “Image of a skeleton excavated near Quedlinberg.”
The image and description have gone on to become quite famous. While the bizarreness of the image has a lot to do with that fame, the image has a valid claim to being a significant milestone in paleontology. Science writers often call it the first paleontological reconstruction. To call it that, requires a few qualifiers. Every time a medieval parish priest laid out some large bones and imagined his village had discovered a giant, he was making a paleontological reconstruction of sorts. What made the Quedlinberg unicorn special was that published and directed at a scientifically literate audience.
But that’s not the whole story of the Quedlinberg unicorn. Over the years, both Guericke and Leibniz have been credited as the artists. Guericke is an unlikely source. His book was well illustrated and, if he found the story interesting enough to add to his book, it seems that he would have used the illustration if he had had it in his possession. Leibniz is definitely not the artist. He explicitly says he received the drawing from an unnamed person whose account backed up Guericke’s. As I mentioned above, Leibniz and Guericke was not the only writers to draw attention to the story. The most interesting publication happened in 1704, while Leibniz was still alive. In a catalog and commentary on the great collections of Europe, Michael Bernard Valentini published a version of the reconstruction. Valentini wrote that the illustration was based on a sketch by Johann Mäyern, a counselor at Quedlinberg. Valentini’s illustration is of much lower quality than Leibniz’s. Was Mäyern Leibniz’s other source or was there a third drawing that they both copied? Unless Mäyern’s original drawing shows up, we will probably never know.
Valentini’s unicorn. Source.
In the early Twentieth Century, the Austrian paleontologist Othenio Abel took an interest in the Quedlinberg unicorn. Abel had already casually mentioned the story in several of his books before he decided to get serious and try to figure out what the skeleton really was. They actual bones had long since disappeared and no other drawings or descriptions had ever been made of them. The best evidence he had to work with was Leibniz’s drawing. Abel immediately recognized that this not a single skeleton that had been reassembled in a whimsical manner. The bones came from at least two individuals and two different species. The skull is that of a woolly rhinoceros. The teeth, scapulae, and vertebrae are from a mammoth. Most of the spine has been reassembled backwards and upside down. What at first glance look like ribs are really dorsal spines that are part of the individual vertebrae. The loop at the bottom is the first cervical vertebra. And the horn; what is the horn? It’s too long to be a walrus tusk and too wide to be a narwhal tooth, Leibniz’s preferred explanation for fossil ivory. Rhinoceros horns are not made of bone or ivory. They’re made of keratin, the material as hair and finger nails. It’s unlikely that the learned burgers of Quedlinberg would have mistaken that for a unicorn horn. That leaves a mammoth tusk, which easily meets the length and width requirements. It takes a little more speculation to explain its being straight and not curved. There are two possibilities here. One is that the tusk was badly enough broken up that the people who reassembled it had the freedom to make it any shape they wanted. The other possibility is that it came from a different kind of extinct elephant, such as the palaeoloxodon, a species that went extinct about 15,000 years before the mammoth and that had much straighter tusks.
There is a cave near Quedinberg called the Einhornhöhle or Unicorn Cave. Even before the gypsum miners on Zeunickenberg found their strange skeleton, the locals had been bringing bones out the local caves and selling them to apothecaries as “genuine” unicorn horn. This explains why the Quedlinberg burgers had unicorn on their minds as they tried to make sense out of a pile of broken bones. No doubt, someone had the idea of getting in on the unicorn trade. But the price of unicorn horn was crashing in the late Seventeenth Century and any plans they might have had never came to fruition. Leibniz visited the area in 1686 and crawled through several caves, but didn’t find any unicorns, which explains his noncommittal tone when he repeated Guericke’s story six years later.
That’s not the end of the story. In the Nineteenth Century, paleontologists explored the caves in the Harz Mountains and identified the bones of dozens of species of Pleistocene mammals. In the Twentieth century, the local governments realized the tourist potential of the caves and dug comfortable entrance tunnels into them. There are several small museums in the region proudly showing off the bones. There are several full sized models of the unicorn on display. One of them guards the entrance to the Einhornhöhle. Tourist shops sell paperweights and t-shirts adorned with Leibniz’s drawing. The Quedlinberg unicorn lives on.
Saturday, June 1, 2013
The mammoth book grew out of an idea for a single blog post. I love forbidden history and catastrophist books, such as those about Atlantis and Velikovskyism. It doesn't take long when reading these to notice that the all depend on a limited bits of evidence to prove vastly different theories. Among the favorites are the Great Pyramid and frozen mammoths. Out of curiosity, I decided one day to look at the history of mammoth discoveries to figure out what was known at the times different Atlantis writers wrote since it wouldn't be fair to criticize them for not knowing something that hadn't been discovered yet. As the blog post got out of hand, it occurred to me that this long essay could perhaps become a small book. I had four books on mammoths at the time. I figured those four and a couple of books on paleontology would be all I needed. I wasn't that serious about it; it was just an idea.
Just as the blog post had gotten out of hand, the essay began to get out of hand. In each of the books I found discoveries and ideas that I wanted to know more about. I began mining the bibliographies of those four books. I found minor mistakes in them and differences of interpretation that bothered me. I mined the bibliographies a little further. One day I shelled out almost eighty bucks for a Nineteenth Century book and realized that I was starting to get serious. Atlantis had vanished from the idea and it was all about mammoths. About five years ago, I realized I really was writing a book. When I began spending more and more time tracking down primary sources for various bits of data and context, I realized I was also writing the dissertation that had never happened when I dropped out of grad school.
And then I entered my translation phase. When I first got serious, machine translation was still pretty iffy, but it's improved dramatically over the last few years. Whereas I once groaned at the thought of doing a few paragraphs of a modern language, I now think nothing of ten pages of Latin. Naturally, this has meant digging into even more original sources. Sometimes this means even when an English translation is available, I'll go to the original to make sure I'm not missing anything. This is how I made my latest discovery.
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz is probably best known for inventing calculus. But he was much more than a mathematician; he wrote about philosophy, medicine, physics, linguistics, history, and politics; he tinkered with lamps, clocks, pumps, and invented an adding machine; I've heard he mixed the best Bloody Mary in all Germany and danced a mean Polka; he also took a shot at geology and paleontology. In 1690, his patron, the Elector of Hanover, commissioned him to write a history of the province of Brunswick. Leibniz chose to start with the geological prehistory of the land as a background for the human and dynastic history. He didn't get any further in his history. Thirty years after his death, this essay was published under the title Protagea.
Leibniz's contribution to mammoth history appears in Protagea. Leibniz recounted a story told originally by Otto Gericke, the inventor of the vacuum pump, of the discovery of some unicorn bones near Quedlinberg in the Harz Mountains. He also published a reconstruction of the unicorn skeleton that he received from an unnamed second source. The teeth are probably mammoth's teeth and the skull is probably from a woolly rhino, but the horn, which was reassembled from pieces, is clearly a mammoth's tusk that was straightened by the reconstructors. The unicorn drawing is a standard part of mammoth lore.
I had read that Leibniz's text description was lifted from Gericke's almost word for word. The "almost" got my attention. Yesterday, I decided to compare the two to see if Leibniz had left out or changed anything (he hadn't). Gericke's description is in his book on the vacuum pump. Don't ask me why; that's just how they rolled in the Seventeenth Century. Naturally, the book is in Latin, but so is the first edition of Protagea, making a direct comparison possible. While hunting for the passage in Protagea I came across a familiar word "mammotekoos"--mammoth bones. This word appears two pages before the unicorn story but it has never been mentioned in any previous book on mammoths.
I know of only one other mammoth writer who has mentioned Leibniz’s mammotekoos, but not in the context of mammoths. Claudine Cohen, a French historian of science, published The Fate of the Mammoth in 2002. About a third of her book covers the same material that I'm covering. She uses Gericke and Leibniz unicorn as the launching point for one of her chapters, but she missed the mammotekoos. Ironically, in 2010 she edited and published an English translation of Protogaea with commentary. In the chapter where mammotekoos appears, she has a small footnote on the word. If she had written the Protagea commentary before her mammoth book she would have been able comment on the relevance of the word in the context of mammoths and all I would be able to do would been to agree or disagree with what she said. Ha-ha, now I get to go first.
Alright, what is there to say about Leibniz and the word mammotekoos? The context of his use is a passage about bones found in the caves of the Harz Mountains. These caves are a treasure-trove for paleontologists. Many of the caves contain bones of Pleistocene megafauna such as cave bears, woolly rhinoceros, and mammoths. Leibniz took the, then common, position that these bones had been washed there by the Biblical Deluge. He also held to a less common idea that the North Sea had once extended as far south as the Harz Mountains. This idea was necessary to explain seashells in lower strata. In Protagea, he suggests that the latter could also be used as an explanation for unicorn horn and other fossil ivory, in that they were probably really walrus tusks.
Here is the quote. It's a mix of Cohen's translation and a little grammatical editing by me.
So there was nothing to stop foreign animals to be brought to us by the force of the waves, although I find elephants less believable because they could belong to the Rosmarus [walrus] I mentioned above. The teeth reportedly dug up in Mexico are perhaps of the same kind since no elephants are found in America today. I would say the same thing of those heavy teeth, like the bones of whales, called Mammotekoos by the Moscovites and attributed to the elephant, as Witsen reports. Yet, I will not obstinately deny that true elephant’s bones are sometimes found. Certainly, we have seen teeth and a part of the tibia and other bones taken from the Scharzfeld cave. No one could say whether they came from an elephant or similar animal; whether in the past they might have been more widely scattered throughout the world than today; whether their nature or the nature of the world had changed; or whether they had been moved from a far country by the rushing waters.
Leibniz is clear that the bones in the Harz Mountains are not something that can be taken for granted; they are problem that needs to be solved. He lists several possible solutions and lets us know his preferences: the Biblical Deluge for most bones and a further south coastline for most of the ivory. He also recognizes that the ivory is the biggest problem and allows that some of it could be elephant ivory. For real elephant ivory, he still prefers the Biblical Deluge but admits that it is possible the elephants could have been native the region, but that would mean either elephants were different in those days or that the environment was. That final point is an interesting foreshadowing of things to come. The environmental solution would not have been entirely outrageous as many philosophers believed the Earth had been uniformly pleasant with a year-round growing season and that seasons were part of the wreck of the world brought by the Flood.
This passage is important in that Leibniz is the first writer to bring together European fossil elephants, giant bones from the New World, the majority of which would have been mastodons, and the Siberian mammoth and recognize them as probably related species. Of course, his solution that they were all walruses is wrong, but not unreasonable for the times. The Witsen Leibniz mentions as his source for mammotekoos Nicholaes Witsen. Witsen knew ivory. As a Dutch merchant he had been to the East Indies and to Africa where he had purchased the tusks of both Asian and African elephants. He knew about Siberian mammoth ivory because he had been to the markets of Moscow and interrogated the ivory merchants there. In his book on Russia and Siberia, Noord en Oost Tartarye, he recognized that mammoth ivory looked like real elephant ivory. He wouldn't go so far as to say it really came from elephants only that, if it did, it could only be because dead elephants were washed there by the Flood. Witsen did not mention walruses, but he did say that most mammoth ivory came from the Arctic coast. By the time of Witsen and Leibniz, Europeans had known about the Russian ivory trade for over 150 years. Leibniz, who had not seen a mammoth tusk, appears to have assumed that mammoth was no more than another name for walrus. He was not the last to make that assumption. As late as thirty years later, after whole tusks and other bones of mammoths had been carried to Western Europe for examination, Theodore Hase could still publish a fifty-eight page tract arguing that mammoth was another word for walrus.
This passage in Protagea offers something for Leibniz scholars, though I'm not sure if it rises above the level of curious trivia or not. Leibniz devotes quite a few pages to fossils so I'm sure everything I said above about Leibniz’s attitudes regarding fossils has been said in the past; only my emphasis on elephants and mammoths is original. The word mammotekoos is a point that can be used to date that part of the Protagea. It is known that Leibniz worked on his history through 1691-3. Witsen's Noord en Oost Tartarye was published in 1692, placing Leibniz’s composition of that passage in the second half of the period. If Leibniz had published Protagea as a separate volume as soon as he finished it, his would have been only the third time any form of the word mammoth had appeared in print.
This is why my book is taking so long. Not only have I spent almost three years translating and retranslating primary sources and lost most of another year due to personal crises, I also have these obsessive moments when I'll spend two days analyzing a half of a paragraph. On the other hand, it's this kind of obsessiveness that leads me to make new discoveries. Up above where I said Protagea could have been the third time any form of mammoth had appeared in print, the Oxford English Dictionary would tell you it would have been the second, with Witsen as the first. I know of an earlier one. As far as I know, I'll be the first person to draw attention to it. That alone should be a good enough reason for you to buy several copies of the book when it comes out.
And now, since the original purpose of looking at Leibniz was to comment on the Quedlinburg unicorn, I should get to work on that. I'll post a partial rough draft with the amazing drawing later today or tomorrow.