These Fossils Changed the World. We’ll Never Know Who Found them.
In 1725, there were no elephants in America. Not anymore anyway. So when enslaved Africans found gigantic teeth buried in a swamp on the Stono Plantation in South Carolina, the white owners thought they must come from giants wiped out during the biblical flood. That’s what they told the English naturalist, Mark Catesby, who came all the way from the mother country to view these mysterious teeth. The Africans told him otherwise.
They had come from the Congo or Angola. No one knows for sure. But nevertheless, they came from Africa, and in 1725, Africa still had plenty of elephants. The slaves knew elephants and they knew elephant teeth when they saw them. That’s what they told Catesby anyway.
Although Catesby had never been to Africa himself, his line of work brought him into contact with many kinds of bones from animals all over the world — elephants being among them. He knew the Africans were right.
As I mentioned, there were no elephants in America. That meant these teeth had to come from an elephant that no longer existed. A mammoth to be specific. That made them fossils — the first vertebrate fossils discovered in America.
The enslaved Africans of the Stono Plantation who found and correctly identified these fossils never received any credit. Their names weren’t included in the bylines of any prestigious scientific papers on the subject. In fact, their names are not recorded anywhere.
Mammoth teeth are big. They are the biggest grinding teeth in the animal kingdom. So you’d expect Mammoths to be correspondingly large. An animal like that would be hard to miss. But in Catesby’s time, no living American had ever seen a mammoth.
This led to the startling conclusion that they were no longer around. This idea was eventually called ‘extinction.’
Before this, the world was permanent and fixed. All of God’s creations were present and accounted for. Nothing could just up and disappear. God wouldn’t stand for it.
But as it happens, some things go missing. Some things just up and vanish, never to return. The world is bigger than we ever realized and much of it lay hidden. And some of the biggest discoveries remain buried.
We will never know the names of the people who dug up those mammoth teeth. That is another thing we’ve lost. But thanks to them we now know that the world isn’t static. It can change. And there were, at one time, elephants in America.