J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, May 13, 2023

“The Grinders of an Elephant” in South Carolina

Back in February, the Smithsonian Magazine website published a thought-provoking article titled “The First Fossil Finders in North America Were Enslaved and Indigenous People.”

Christian Elliott wrote:
Around 1725, a crew of enslaved people digging in swampy ground along South Carolina’s Stono River discovered something unusual: an enormous fossilized tooth. The find puzzled the group’s enslavers, who suggested it was a remnant from the biblical great flood. But it looked familiar to the excavators, who noted its resemblance to the molar of an African elephant—an animal they’d encountered back home in the Kingdom of Kongo.

“They must have thought, ‘Well, we have them in Africa, [and] I guess they have them here, too,’” says Adrienne Mayor, a folklorist and historian of ancient science at Stanford University. “It must have been exciting for them.”

Mayor first learned about the Stono discovery while writing Fossil Legends of the First Americans, a 2005 book on pre-Darwinian fossil knowledge—what she likes to call “science before science.” In a 1731 account, British botanist Mark Catesby detailed his recent trip to Virginia to study native plants. When word reached him of the colossal teeth dug up at Stono, Catesby decided to make the trip south to see the fossils for himself. Unconvinced by the landowners’ proposed identification, he decided to ask the discoverers what they thought, too.

“By the concurring opinion of all the … native Africans that saw them, [the teeth] were the grinders of an elephant,” Catesby recalled. The botanist agreed with the assessment based on the fossils’ similarities to elephant teeth he’d recently seen on display in London.
In her book Fossil Legends of the First Americans, Mayor wrote: “The plantation owners no doubt identified the remains as a giant victim of Noah’s Flood, the common interpretation in those days,” In contrast, the article suggests, Catesby disagreed.

I was intrigued, so I looked for the full passage from Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. He actually wrote:
There is no Part of the Globe where the Signs of a Deluge more evidently appears than in many Parts of the Northern Continent of America, which, though I could illustrate in many Instances, let this one suffice. Mr. Woodward, at his Plantation in Virginia, above an Hundred Miles from the Sea, towards the Sources of Rappahannock River, in digging a Well about seventy Feet deep, to find a Spring, discovered at that Depth a Bed of the Glossopetrae, one of which was sent me.

All Parts of Virginia, at the Distance of Sixty Miles, or more, abound its Fossil Shells of various Kinds, which in Stratums lie imbedded a great Depth in the Earth, in the Banks of Rivers and other Places, among which are frequently found the Vertibras, and other Bones of Sea Animals.

At a Place in Carolina called Stono, was dug out of the Earth three or four Teeth of a large animal, which, by the concurring Opinion of all the Negroes, native Africans, that saw them, were the Grinders of an Elephant, and in my Opinion they could be no other; I having seen some of the like that are brought from Africa.
Catesby didn’t record what the enslaving planters of Stono thought about the fossils at all. We don’t know if those people insisted on believing in antediluvian giants, accepted the enslaved workers’ identification, withheld judgment, or didn’t care. Mayor guessed at their reaction based on “the common interpretation in those days.” The Smithsonian web article turned that guess into a definite statement.

It’s notable that while Catesby clearly thought the Africans were right about elephant teeth, he found that consistent with the received notion of the Biblical Flood. At another point in his book he built on the assumption of “the World to have been universally replenished with all animals from Noah’s ark after the general deluge.” Elephants apparently hadn’t repopulated North America after coming off the ark at Mount Ararat, but those teeth showed Catesby that elephants had once been on that continent.

TOMORROW: The “Kingdom of Kongo”?

[The image above is the impression of a mammoth tooth sent to Thomas Jefferson in 1817.]

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