Monday, 19 January 2015

Elephant No. 108: Mastodon in the Back Yard

Skeleton of an American Mastodon (Mammut americanum).
American Museum of Natural History
Photo: Ryan Somma
Source: Wikipedia

I live in a house that's more than 100 years old, and whenever I dig a new hole in the garden, I find weird things: square nails, molten glass, lumps of coal, and once, some large bones and a leather-handled hunting knife. But nothing I've ever found comes close to the mastodon Daniel LaPoint Jr. found in his neighbour's garden.

In November 2014, LaPoint noticed something sticking out of a property he had excavated in Bellevue Township, Michigan. It turned out to be a four-foot-long rib bone. LaPoint thought it might be part of a dinosaur skeleton, so he told the owner, and they spent four days digging in the ground, ultimately unearthing 42 bones.

Rather than a dinosaur, however, Daniel Fisher, Director of the University of Michigan Museum of Palaeontology, determined that they were the bones of a mastodon. Fisher believes that the bones likely belong to a 37-year-old mastodon, who lived between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago.

It was also likely a mastodon hunted for food. Marks on the bones suggest that it was probably butchered. This isn't terribly surprising, as elephants and their forebears have often served as sources of meat.

Interestingly, mastodon bones aren't an unusual find in the area around the Great Lakes. Although full skeletons are rare, about 300 mastodon bones have been unearthed across the state of Michigan alone.

To read more on this story—orignally sent to me by Ken Wilson—click here.

American Mastodon with size comparison to six-foot man.
Illustration: Dantheman9758
Source: Wired

Elephant Lore of the Day
When I was a child in Africa, there was a hoary old joke about how you make elephant stew. The joke suggested that, to make elephant stew, you put elephant meat, vegetables and large rocks in the pot. Cook it slowly over a good fire, and when the rocks are tender, the stew is done.

The truth is somewhat different. As far back as 400,000 years ago, humans were hunting and eating elephants. Today, elephants are being poached as much for their meat as their tusks, and elephant meat has become a delicacy reserved for the elite in a number of African nations.

But the saddest story I've ever heard of elephants being eaten, is the story of Castor and Pollux.

Castor and Pollux were a popular attraction at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Records on their origins are spotty, but it is thought that the two Asian bull elephants may have been siblings. They were known to be relatively gentle, and often gave children rides on their backs.

On September 19, 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, Prussian forces set up a blockade around Paris, hoping to force a surrender. The city held out until January 28, 1871, but during the siege, food became scarce and people turned to unusual animals for their meat.

Once vegetables, butter, milk, cheese and traditional meats ran out, horse meat began turning up on the menu. Between 65,000 and 70,000 horses were slaughtered, including champion racehorses. Cats, dogs and rats were next, presented in gourmet dishes such as "Salmis de rat à la Robert."

Cats, rats and dogs were also on the menu in Paris during the siege of 1870–1871.
Source: Passion généalogie

By the end of 1870, however, butchers had turned their attention to zoo animals. Yaks, camels, zebras and antelope were the first to go. Lions and tigers were spared because they were considered too dangerous. Monkeys and primates were spared because they looked too much like humans. The hippopotamus was spared because, at 80,000 francs, it was too expensive. Dishes such as "Haunch of Wolf with Deer Sauce" appeared, along with "Terrine of Antelope with Truffles" and "Roasted Camel à l'anglaise."

Castor and Pollux were among the last of the zoo animals to go. Purchased as a pair by a butcher named Debos for 27,000 francs, Castor was killed on December 29 1870 and Pollux was killed the next day. A marksman named Devisme shot each elephant from a distance of about 30 feet, using explosive steel-tipped bullets.

Killing of one of the elephant. Neither is named in any of the
contemporary depictions.
London Illustrated News.

Debos did well out of the deal, selling bits of elephant trunk as a delicacy at 40 to 45 francs a serving, as well as elephant consommé and elephant steak. Those who tasted elephant, however, were not impressed. "Yesterday, I had a slice of Pollux for dinner," wrote English politician Henry Labouchère. "Pollux and his brother Castor are two elephants which have been killed. It was tough, coarse and oily, and I do not recommend English families to eat elephant as long as they can get beef or mutton."

Another Englishman, publisher Thomas Gibson Bowles, who was in Paris at the time, wrote that he had tried antelope, dog, donkey, camel, mule and elephant, but had liked elephant the least.

A somewhat embellished depiction of the killing of one of the elephants.
Source: Passion généalogie

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