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The Mystery of the Mammoth Bones and How It…
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The Mystery of the Mammoth Bones and How It Was Solved

by James Cross Giblin

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Giblin, James Cross. (1999). The mystery of the mammoth bones. New York : HarperCollins.

This is a very detailed and specific account of artist and naturalist Charles Wilson Peale’s work to excavate, assemble, exhibit, and publicize the bones of two very large animals found on two farms in 1801 in Newburgh, New York. The farm owners had found some of the bones, but couldn’t access the rest. Once Peale had successfully excavated the bones, he assembled them into two skeletons with the assistance of physician and scientist, Dr. Caspar Wistar. He exhibited the skeletons in the United States and England, and his son, Rembrandt Peale, published an essay about the bones, which he thought were the bones of mammoths similar to those found in Siberia and Big Bone Lick (now Kentucky). A noted French scientist, Georges Cuvier, studied Rembrandt’s essay and the bones and concluded that the animal was not a mammoth, and he named it a mastodon. He also firmly concluded that the animal was extinct. Giblin notes that this was contrary to the beliefs of those scientists and Bible scholars who believed the Bible taught that none of God’s creations could end. The book continues with a brief description of the discoveries that came soon after of giant reptile bones, which were named “dinosauria.” The main body of the book concludes with an overview of 19th century theories about the age of the Earth (older than Bible scholars believed), the theory of uniformitarianism, the theory of evolution, and the establishment of a geographic time scale that is still used today. Following the main body of the book is a short, but detailed biography of Charles Wilson Peale, an essay about theories concerning how the mammoth and mastodon became extinct, a detailed explanation of Giblin’s sources, and a bibliography. There is an index at the end of the book.

This is an excellent source for 4th to 6th grade students to use to study the discovery of the mastodon. The award-winning author’s expertise and accuracy can be trusted since most of the information he used in his research came from primary sources. In fact, he notes that he relied heavily on the letters and journals of Charles Wilson Peale. He also used information from Rembrandt Peale’s 1803 essay on the “mammoth.”
In addition, his sources included a number of books about the scientific subjects addressed in his book, which he lists in the bibliography. Many of the illustrations came from the drawings and paintings of both Charles Wilson Peale and Rembrandt Peale. A photograph of the surviving intact skeleton is included.

Giblin includes a small amount of diversity in the book when he respectfully notes that a Native American tradition about the fate of certain huge creatures who once lived near Big Bone Lick supported a European theory about the whereabouts of the huge animals whose bones had begun to be unearthed in various spots around the world in the late 18th century. He also addresses social issues related to the conclusion scientists came to that bones like these who from animals who had become extinct when he discusses the effect this conclusion had on Bible scholars.

The book was designed to give in-depth information about the narrow topic of the discovery of the mastodon and it does this in an interesting and understandable narrative. It presents various 19th century viewpoints about the origin of the bones and the fate of the animals, along with a look at the opening up of scientific knowledge about animal extinction, evolution, and the age of the Earth that followed the discovery of the mastodon. The language is vivid and clear, and the illustrations are clearly labeled. The index is helpful to students looking for specific points and information in the book. ( )
  TeacherLibrarian | Aug 14, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0439176204, Paperback)

When giant bones are found on a farm in New York State in 1801, no one knows what sort of creature they came from. Are they the fossilized bones of an elephant or of a mammoth, the huge animal that has recently been unearthed in northern Russia? Or do they come from a different animal entirely? There's only one way to find out--dig up and assemble a complete skeleton of the creature. And Charles Willson Peale is just the man to take on the job.

At the age of sixty, Peale has already made his mark as a portrait painter and scientist, as well as the founder of the first natural history museum in the United States. If he can put on display a skeleton of the mysterious creature, people will flock in even greater numbers to his Philadelphia museum. The skeleton may also help to prove a controversial new theory: that some animals that once roamed the Earth have become extinct.

As he searches for more bones, Peale must dig at several different sites. He is confronted by flooding, threats of cave-ins, and oppressive heat but persists in his quest. What he eventually finds confirms the existence of a previously unknown animal -- the mastodon It also provides solid evidence not only that some animals have become extinct, but also that the Earth is far older than anyone ever imagined.

Based on Charles Willson Peale's own diaries and journals, The Mystery of the Mammoth Bones is a gripping scientific thriller.

Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of Social Studies 2000, National Council for SS & Child. Book Council

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:52 -0400)

Describes the efforts of the artist, museum curator, and self-taught paleontologist, Charles Willson Peale, to excavate, study, and display the bones of a prehistoric creature that is later named "mastodon."

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