Japanese swords, £18.00
Height: 80.000 cm
Width: 53.000 cm
Depth: 19.000 cm
Gift of the Earl of Shelburne, 1768
On loan from the Natural History Museum Palaeontology Department, Old Catalogue no. 3
Enlightenment: Natural world
Jawbone of a mastodon
From the banks of the Ohio River, United States of America, Late Pleistocene, 1.8 million to 10,000 years old
The Earl of Shelburne's mastodon
Many strange and wonderful fossils were brought back to Britain from the voyages and expeditions of exploration of the eighteenth century. Often they were given to the British Museum, as was this jawbone of a mastodon (Mammut americanum), which had been found near the Ohio River in 1768. It was given to the Museum by the Earl of Shelburne.
In Britain, the anatomist William Hunter (1718-83) studied the jawbone and concluded that it had belonged to a meat-eating animal that resembled an elephant and which he called 'the unknown American'. He published his findings in the Philosophical Transactions, the journal of Royal Society of London. In the article he wrote that: 'If this animal was indeed carnivorous, which I believe cannot be doubted, though we may as philosophers regret it, as men we can but thank heaven that its whole generation is probably extinct.' A handwritten note on the jawbone refers to Hunter's article.
Hunter was wrong about the mastodon, which is now known to have eaten plants rather than meat. But he was correct in thinking that it was an extinct relative of the elephant.