The Story of the Warren Mastodon

by Maya Naunton on

Library News

Warren Mastodon in the Paul and Irma Milstein Hall of Advanced Mammals, AMNH Warren Mastodon in the Paul and Irma Milstein Hall of Advanced Mammals
D. Finnin/© AMNH
This is the third in a series of guest posts from the Vertebrate Paleontology Department Archive. It was written by Project Archivist Maya Naunton.

The work in the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology Archive is entering a new phase. After finishing the survey of the archival materials, we are starting to organize the papers into collections and to describe them in Finding Aids.

Photograph of John Collins Warren, MD, Professor of Anatomy, ca. 1848
unknown, John Collins Warren, MD, Professor of Anatomy, ca. 1848, OnView: Digital Collections & Exhibitshttps://collections.countway.harvard.edu/onview/items/show/25430, accessed September 20, 2022

One of the smaller but very interesting collections in the archive is VPA 116 John C. Warren Papers. The material in the collection is related to the mastodon skeleton displayed in the museum (pictured above). The Warren Mastodon is named for John C. Warren, who purchased the skeleton after it was first excavated at Newburgh, New York, in 1845. It was the first complete American mastodon (Mammut americanum) skeleton found in the United States. [1]

This collection reflects a moment in the 19th century when multiple mastodon teeth and bones were being found along the northeastern quarter of the United States. The discoveries started in the early 18th century and there was a continuous stream of new fossils throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The young French anatomist Georges Cuvier named the genus “mastodon,” from the Greek mastos (for “breast”) and odont (for “tooth”) in 1806 based on the fact that the conical cusps of the teeth looked like breasts. [2]

19th century photograph of an excavation of a mastodon skeleton, VPA 116, John C. Warren Papers, Department of Vertebrate Paleontology Archive
19th century photograph of an excavation of a mastodon skeleton, VPA 116, John C. Warren Papers, Department of Vertebrate Paleontology Archive
© AMNH
Illustrated page from Cuvier's Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupeds, tome II
Illustration from Cuvier's Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupeds, tome II, accessed https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/123713#page/7/mode/1up, October 12, 2022

From the size of the discovered fossils, it was clear that the animals were enormous and while it became apparent to the scientists that they were similar to modern elephants, they were sufficiently different to indicate that they didn't belong to any existing species of animal. Cuvier postulated that both mammoths (a related proboscidean) and mastodons were extinct. This was the first time when the scientific community began to accept the idea that the world was not created in its present form 6,000 years ago as described in the Bible and thus it was a seismic shift in the worldview.

The mastodon fossils also gave Americans something to be proud of at a time when they desperately needed that. In 1755, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist declared that the New World species (including humans) were puny and degenerate. Since Buffon was one of the most read authors in the 18th century, his idea became widely spread in Europe. This clearly rankled Americans. In reaction, Thomas Jefferson collected detailed information about American animal species that compared favorably with their smaller Old-World counterparts and when he mentioned the mastodon fossils in his writings, he said that their existence should have prevented Buffon from formulating his deprecating ideas about New World animals. [3]

An ink drawing of a mastodon skeleton, VPA 116, John C. Warren Papers, Department of Vertebrate Paleontology Archive
An ink drawing of a mastodon skeleton, VPA 116, John C. Warren Papers, Department of Vertebrate Paleontology Archive
© AMNH
An ink drawing of a mastodon skeleton next to a person, B. Nutting, VPA 116, John C. Warren Papers, Department of Vertebrate Paleontology Archive
An ink drawing of a mastodon skeleton next to a person, B. Nutting, VPA 116, John C. Warren Papers, Department of Vertebrate Paleontology Archive
© AMNH

The excavated mastodon skeletons were displayed in newly created museums, the first of which was opened by the portrait artist Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia. When he displayed a partial mastodon skeleton in 1801 it was a national sensation with the exhibit being popular with both the general public and scientists. [4]

Thus, when the dry summer of 1845 exposed a complete mastodon skeleton at the bottom of a dried lake near Newburgh, New York, there was a lot of excitement. As Warren describes the scene in his book The Mastodon Giganteus of North America,

"The scene lay but a few rods north, and in full view of the Newburgh and Cochecton turnpike-road. No one of hundreds who passed and repassed thought his business too urgent to forbid his becoming one of the animated, wondering, and delighted throng which crowded around the band of that marl-pit." [5]

Painting of the Warren mastodon as found in 1845, R. Bakewell, 1846, VPA 116, John C. Warren Papers, Department of Vertebrate Paleontology Archive
Painting of the Warren mastodon as found in 1845, R. Bakewell, 1846, VPA 116, John C. Warren Papers, Department of Vertebrate Paleontology Archive
© AMNH
Front page from John Collins Warren, The Mastodon giganteus of North America
Front page from John Collins Warren, The Mastodon giganteus of North America, Boston, J. Wilson, 1852, accessed at https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/62016 on October 12, 2022

The workers uncovered the most complete skeleton of a mastodon in existence to this day (missing only a few toe bones and tail vertebrae). The fossil was preserved in the position in which the animal died about 11,000 years ago. It was standing upright with its legs forward and its head lifted. In fact, so complete was the fossil that even the contents of its stomach and intestines were apparent to the excavators, since they were in the position where those organs would be, and they were clearly distinct from the soil and rocks that surrounded the skeleton. Some of that material was preserved and is still held in the Museum’s Fossil Mammal Collection. [6]

In 1846 the skeleton was purchased by Dr. John Warren, professor of anatomy in the Harvard medical school and a prominent physician. Dr. Warren had his own private museum in Boston, and he had the mastodon displayed there together with other fossils. Unfortunately, the tusks began to deteriorate and break up immediately upon excavation and Dr. Warren had them replaced with papier-mâché replicas that were too long (11 feet) and positioned incorrectly. Thankfully, the fragments of the original tusks were saved.

In 1906 Dr. Warren's family sold the contents of his museum to the American Museum of Natural History with J.P. Morgan (a museum trustee) providing the funds for the purchase.

The mastodon displayed at the Warren Museum, VPA 116, John C. Warren Papers, Department of Vertebrate Paleontology Archive
The mastodon displayed at the Warren Museum, VPA 116, John C. Warren Papers, Department of Vertebrate Paleontology Archive
© AMNH
The mastodon displayed at AMNH in 1907, AMNH Library Image #31751
The mastodon displayed at AMNH in 1907, AMNH Library Image #31751
J. O. Wheelock/© AMNH

Prior to being displayed in the museum, the skeleton had to be cleaned because the Warren Museum covered the mastodon in a thick coat of black varnish. The bones had to be soaked in large vats of pure benzine for weeks after which they were scrubbed with pure spirits of alcohol.

The fragments of the original tusks that were saved by the Warren Museum staff were transferred to AMNH with the rest of the skeleton. It was fortunate that it was possible to determine not only the length of the tusks (8 feet 6 inches), but to also establish their exact position in the sockets from those fragments. [7] It also became possible to estimate the age of the mastodon at death. Based on growth rings preserved in the tusks, the animal was about 30 years old.

The Warren mastodon has now been on view at the American Museum of Natural History for over 100 years and even though the fossil mammals are often overshadowed by ever-popular dinosaurs, they are equally fascinating and are well worth a visit.

Even now the Warren mastodon helps the science of paleontology to move forward. Based on the detailed description of contents of the mastodon's intestines, it was possible for a Museum Research Associate Matthew C. Mihlbachler to help identify fossil mastodon dung found recently in Florida. [8]

[1] https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/advanced-mammals/warren-mastodon accessed on 9/13/2022
[2] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/mammoths-and-mastodons-all-american-monsters-8898672/, accessed on October 12, 2022
[3] ibid.
[4] ibid.
[5] John Collins Warren, The Mastodon giganteus of North America, Boston, J. Wilson, 1852, p. 173, accessed at https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/62016 on October 12, 2022
[6] https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/advanced-mammals/warren-mastodon accessed on 9/13/2022
[7] The American Museum Journal, Vol. VII, October 1907, No. 6, p. 91
[8] https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/advanced-mammals/warren-mastodon accessed on 9/13/2022