Grateful American Kids

Charles Willson Peale helped discover and put together the remnant of which ancient animal?


A) Saber-Toothed Tiger

B) Mastodon Elephant

C) Tyrannosaurus Rex

D) Megalodon Shark

The answer is: B) a Mastodon Elephant.

Here’s the story: In 1801, a mastodon specimen was discovered near Newburgh, N.Y., and Charles Willson Peale, was called in to assist. He brought his son, Rembrandt, to assist, and together they excavated an almost complete skeleton, which Rembrandt illustrated in 1801 (pictured at right).

feetAfter lugging the bones back to Philadelphia, the Peales mounted the specimen for display, and soon chimed in on the debate regarding the nature of mastodons, arguing that the beasts were mighty carnivores. To the Peales’ and their friend Thomas Jefferson, the mastodon was far more than an exciting exhibit — it was a natural hymn for their new nation.

A little more history: Prior to the American Revolution, the great French natural historian, George Louis LeClerc de Buffon, had proposed that the environment in North American was so impoverished relative to that of the Old World that it could support only a weak and degenerate fauna. Buffon and his followers insisted that when subjected to North American conditions, even the largest and most robust animals would decline in stature and decrease in vigor.

As native-born Americans and promoters of their new republic, Jefferson and the Peales saw little to like in such theories. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson directed a fierce counter-attack at Buffon, using the mastodon as his centerpiece.

Did you know: Even bigger versions of the African elephant were found all over the country, from the western states to Virginia and New England. The mastodon was proof that America could and would sustain large and vigorous life forms, perhaps even larger and more vigorous than Europe.

Best of all, it was clear that the mastodon was unique to North America, a symbol of the antiquity of our continent and exemplar of the new nation. Jefferson may well have had the Peales’ mastodon in mind when he enjoined Lewis and Clark to scour the western landscape for mastodons, living or dead. 

Click here to learn more about Peale’s mastodon.

SourceAmerican Philosophical Society

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