Louisville Magazine

SEP 2016

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 9.16 53 Long ago And Long ago And not far away When my youngest sister was a toddler, her favorite television show was on Sunday night at 7. Cousins — the boys, mostly — would hoot and snicker as she excitedly announced that her beloved collie would now control the television set. But she had trouble with her L's. us, we all sat down and watched Assie, while my cousins asked her to tell them the name of the dog again. And again. I think of that as I cross the Ohio River on my way home to Louisville and see the giant Big Bone Lick exit sign. It's so cute, so innocent as it provokes snickering remarks from Ohioans who don't know any better. But of course in Ken- tucky, we know. Big Bone Lick put our state on the world map early in the nation's history. People like omas Jeffer- son, Benjamin Franklin and even Cotton Mather — to say nothing of naturalists in England and France — theorized about the beasts that left their giant bones, big tusks and all, at a salt lick at the confluence of Big Bone Creek and Gum Branch in Boone County, not far from Cincinnati. Jefferson took a keen interest in such things. He thought the skeletons at Big Bone Lick might represent still-living monsters in the unexplored American wilderness. (e idea of extinction hadn't really been accepted yet.) But then, Jef- ferson was looking for an angle to enhance the rep of Amer- ican mammals after French mathematician and naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc (aka Comte de Buffon) wrote in his 10-volume Histoire Naturelle that the New World was full of puny species. "In America," he wrote, "animated nature is weaker, less active, and more circumscribed in the variety of her productions…." ere were fewer species, he claimed, and all were much smaller than those of Europe. You can't really talk about extinct Kentucky creatures without bowing toward Big Bone Lick. Even Georges Cuvi- er, the French naturalist once described as "beyond argu- ment the greatest zoologist and paleontologist of his age," spent time contemplating these beasts. It was a giant tooth that snagged the interest of those early naturalists. Men of science had been puzzling over elephant fossils found in Siberia before discover- ing the Big Bone Lick specimen. e Kentucky beast was clearly just as big, but the teeth were wrong. e fossils from Siberia — like their extant relations, the elephant — had giant flat molars corduroyed with ridges, ideal for grinding grass into food. But the teeth of this American elephant looked more threatening: ey were topped by a mountain range of protrusions, inducing a few thinkers, including Jefferson, to propose a giant, lumbering carnivore. (Take that, Monsieur Buffon!) Cuvier, however, knew an elephant relative when he saw one. e lumps on the teeth helped the creature eat twigs and branches instead of grass. When Cuvier saw the toothy mountain ranges, he envisioned breasts, thus the name mastodon — mast from the Greek mastos, for breast; odon for tooth. So, Big Bone Lick was famous for Boob Teeth. Let's put that on a sign for travelers. Ancestors of modern animals ran wild at Boone County's Big Bone Lick. By Jenni Laidman H MASTODON F F

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