Height: 57.000 cm
Width: 48.000 cm
Depth: 40.000 cm
Gift of Capt. F. W. Beechey, R.N. (about 1831)
On loan from the Natural History Museum Palaeontology Department, Old Catalogue no. 1A
Enlightenment: Natural world
Part of a mammoth's jawbone
Found in Eschscholtz Bay, Kotzebue Sound,
Alaska, United States of America
Late Pleistocene, 1.8 million to 10,000 years old
Captain Beechey’s mammoth
Large numbers of animal and fossil specimens came to Britain from surveying voyages made by ships of the Royal Navy in the nineteenth century. This jawbone of a mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) was found by Captain F.W. Beechey during a voyage he commanded on HMS Blossom to chart the coast of Alaska in the 1820s. Beechey returned to England with a fascinating collection of remains found in the permanently frozen ground of the Alaskan coast, much of which he gave to the British Museum.
Mammoths were plant-eating mammals. They were related to elephants and once lived in Europe as well as America. Their fossil remains became important in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as scholars began to consider what these animals were, how they related to living species and why they died out. Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), an anatomist working in France, carried out a large survey of fossils, comparing them with the skeletons of living animals. He concluded that a massive extinction had been caused by a sudden climate change, which we now know as the Ice Age. Cuvier's work was an important step in the formulation of modern evolutionary theory.
The arrival of Beechey's material coincided with the first serious attempt to produce a catalogue of the natural history collections of the British Museum. This piece was labelled as specimen number 1A in the 1836 'Old Catalogue' of the fossil vertebrate collections.
K. Sloan (ed.), Enlightenment. Discovering the (London, The British Museum Press, 2003)