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Historical (mis)perceptions

Reconstructions of organisms such as dinosaurs have changed significantly since initial attempts as more fossil evidence is uncovered and techniques of analysis become more refined. In the case of the Pleistocene megafauna, extant fauna comparable to the extinct Pleistocene megafauna have provided a solid basis for reconstruction. Some examples of past attempts are described here in chronological order.


The exception to the relatively accurate representations presented in the late 1700s and 1800s is found in antiquity. The Cyclops in Greek mythology was a one-eyed giant; the most famous example is Polyphemus, a Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey. Empedocles of Acragas, a fifth-century philosopher, documents the first fossils found in Sicily, those now identified as belonging to dwarf elephants. However he mistook the enlarged nasal cavity of the skull for an eye-socket, and concluded that he had found the bones of Polyphemus. Austrian palaeontologist and founder of the science of palaeobiology Othenio Abel suggested in the early 1900’s that dwarf elephant skulls were found around the Greek Isles, and having had no previous experience with elephants, developed the mythology of the Cyclops (Reese, 1976). Images from Wikipedia.


The first ever mounted fossil skeleton was that of a giant ground sloth (below), reconstructed in Spain around 1796 by Juan-Bautista Bru (Rudwick, 2005). That year, Georges Cuvier, a French naturalist and zoologist, described the specimen as Megatherium americanum using drawings sent to him from Madrid (Yochelson, 1992). The skeleton was mounted on all fours, but modern analysis suggests that the back legs were load-bearing (Natural History Museum 2013). Cuvier, while identifying that species could become extinct, did not believe that evolution could occur. His work on comparative anatomy was highly influential on 19th century palaeontology and natural history. Image reproduced from a print used by Cuvier.


In 1801, Rembrandt Peale produced ‘Working Sketch of the Mastodon’ a detailed and accurate ink and watercolour representation of a mastodon, an extinct group of mammals closely related to elephants (Hart & Ward, 1988) (below, left; image from Wikipedia). The following year a mammoth skeleton was mounted in New York, and American artist and wood-engraver Alexander Anderson produced this image of the New York Mammoth. While life-size, the representation has several skeletal issues; the hip bone is structurally incorrect, and the tusks appear not to integrate properly with the skull (below, centre; image courtesy of strangescience.net). In 1803, Peale inaccurately imagined carnivorous mammoths requiring tusks suited to tearing flesh, and thus reversed the tusks in this representation (Peale, 1803) (below, right). Image courtesy of strangescience.net.


Early palaeontologists thought that the molars of the mastodon indicated a carnivorous diet; eventually the discovery of teeth alongside tusks led to the realisation that like elephants, mastodons and mammoths were probably herbivorous. Recent studies using coprolites (fossilised dung) confirm the mammoth had a diet of grasses and sedges (Mead, 1986). In 1821 however, Rembrandt Peale’s father, Charles, displayed this skeleton of a Mastodon (incorrectly described as ‘Young Mammouth’) in his museum, and again the tusks are reversed to emphasise the terrible nature of the supposedly carnivorous monster (O’Connor, 2008: 32-33). Image courtesy of strangescience.net.


William Buckland, an English palaeontologist, used this wall-chart of ‘The Comparative Sizes of Extinct Animals’ in his classes in 1835. While the Iguanadon is an inaccurate representation, various Pleistocene megafauna are represented with varying degrees of accuracy (O’Connor, 2008: 78-79). Image courtesy of strangescience.net.


The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are (largely inaccurate) sculptures located in London’s Crystal Palace; they were constructed by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins between 1852-1854, with advice from Richard Owen (Benton et al, 2012). Amongst these Victorian reconstructions can be found Megaloceros, a genus of extinct deer of which the largest species was the ‘Irish Elk’ (Megaloceros giganteus). Whilst the other sculptures are now considered outdated, the Megaloceros is considered one of the more accurate representations to stand the test of time. They are however effectively larger versions of extant deer. Image from Wikipedia.


These images come from the 20th century children’s book Whirlaway: a story of the ages. From left to right are represented a species of Moa, a Diprotodon, and a species of woolly mammoth (Morant, 1937: 232, 222, 223). Here there is a relatively high degree of accuracy, although the Diprotodon is rat-like in its appearance, as opposed to wombat-like. Other Pleistocene megafauna mentioned in the book include the glyptodont Doedicurus clavicaudatus, giant beaver (Castoroides), giant kangaroo (Protemnodon), and giant sloth (Megatherium).


Literature cited

  • Benton, M. J., Schouten, R., Drewitt, E. J. A. & Viegas, P. (2012). The Bristol Dinosaur Project. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 123:1, pp. 210 – 225.
  • Hart, S. & Ward, D. C. (1988). The Waning of an Enlightenment Ideal: Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, 1790-1820. Journal of the Early Republic, 8:4, pp. 389 – 418.
  • Mead, J. I., Agenbroad, L. D., Davis, O. K. & Martin, P. S. (1986) Dung of Mammuthus in the arid Southwest, North America. Quaternary Research, 25:1, pp. 121 – 127.
  • Morant, H. C. F. (1937). Whirlaway: a Story of the Ages, London: Hutchinson.
  • O’Connor, R. (2008). The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802-1856. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Peale, R. (1803). An Historical Disquisition on the Mammoth: or, Great American Incognitum, an Extinct, Immense, Carnivorous Animal, Whose Fossil Remains Have Been Found in North America. London: Printed for E. Lawrence, by C. Mercier.
  • Reconstructing the Megatherium Skeleton 2013, Natural History Museum, London, accessed 24 April 2013, < http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/species-of-the-day/collections/our-collections/megatherium-americanum/skeleton-reconstruction/index.html >
  • Reese, D. S. (1976). Men, Saints, or Dragons? Folklore, 87:1, pp. 89 – 95.
  • Yochelson, E. L. (1992). Mr. Peale and His Mammoth Museum. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 136:4, pp. 487 – 506.

Thecodontosaurus illustration courtesy of Richard Deasey.
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