By: T.R. Slyder, TRSlyder@yahoo.com, AndyDisco on Twitter
While reading the new copy of Smitsonian Magazine I was checking out their article on Mastodons.
The article talks about how Mastodons first came to be known because in 1705 an upstate NY man found a Mastodon's tooth. Eventually the tooth found its way to Europe where speculation about what kind of titanic beast could possibly have teeth that large ran unbridled. This theoretical oversized creature was given the name Incognitum, because surely no one could fathom its enormity (I thought enormity meant 'evil' and not 'huge' before reading this. So I went with 'enormity'). Did they actually italicize the name back then? Probably.
But that isn't the part you definitely didn't know about Mastodons.
Anyway, keep in mind that dinosaurs were not yet discovered and wouldn't be for another 100 years, so this tooth represented something completely otherworldly and no one had a clue what it could possibly go to. A bit later on, similar teeth turned up in South Carolina where slaves noticed that it resembled the teeth of African Elephants. Scientists then began to assume that the teeth were that of a "mammoth" like the ones recently found in siberia. Eventually the teeth of elephants, mammoths and the incognitum were all studied side by side and found to be different. As the magazine puts it....
"European anatomists started to figure out the distinction by making side-by-side comparisons. The teeth of mammoths and modern elephants both have relatively flat running-shoe corrugations on the biting surface. But the teeth of the incognitum are studded with fierce-looking rows of large conical cusps. That difference not only indicated that Siberian mammoths and the incognitum were separate species, it also led some anatomists to regard the latter as a flesh-eating monster."
"Those teeth also eventually gave the incognitum a name. To the young French anatomist Georges Cuvier, the conical cusps looked like breasts. So in 1806, he named the incognitum “mastodon,” from the Greek mastos (for “breast”) and odont (for “tooth”). But laymen went on applying the name “mammoth” to either species—and to just about anything else really big."
That's how I roll.