While planting corn on his Iowa farm around 1872 a farmer named Peter Mare found a curious carving. It was a smoking pipe in the shape of an elephant, a very odd item indeed, and he used it for its intended purpose until he moved to Kansas in 1878. At that time he gave it to his brother-in-law, but soon after a Reverend Gass came calling. Gass, an amateur archaeologist, wanted to purchase it, but the pipe was not for sale. Even so, the owner of the pipe allowed Gass to photograph it and make some casts, which he shared with the members of the Davenport Academy of Sciences.
From what was known of Mare’s property and the area in general it seemed likely that the pipe had been scattered from a burial mound. These human-made hills of earth contained bones and artifacts and were objects of great archaeological interest, but why would the mound builders, who lived before the presently known tribes of Native Americans, have made a pipe in the shape of an elephant? As reported by R.J. Farquharson in an 1879 issue of the American Antiquarian, the pipe may have signified that the artisan who made it had seen mastodons plodding across the landscape, although just how long ago was hard to tell. Some thought that mastodons were present in America right up to the time of European colonization, and as an article in the Popular Science Monthly concluded;
Constantly objects are being brought to the attention of archaeologists as having some bearing upon this question [of “the contemporaneity of man and the mastodon in North America”]. As to whether the ” elephant-pipes,” of Iowa, or the “Lenape-stone,” of Pennsylvania, be genuine or not, no opinion is here expressed ; but it is unquestionable that many of the remains of the mastodon found in New Jersey and New York are far more recent than some of the relics of man, and it is simply impossible that even so late a comer as the Indian should not have seen living mastodons on the Atlantic seaboard of this continent. Elephant-pipes and carvings should not be condemned, merely because of an impression still prevalent that the mastodon was a creature of an earlier geological epoch than the recent. This is but half the truth : he also shared the forests of the present with the fauna of historic times.
The only other way that someone could have carved an elephant (albeit a tuskless one) was if they imagined it.
The big question was whether the elephant pipe was authentic. It appeared so, as a second elephant pipe was discovered in Iowa near the Mississippi River by Gass and a Reverend Blumer. The second pipe, like the first, lacked tusks, but it was a different shape and had scratches that seemed to indicate the presence of hair. By now it was well known that mammoths and mastodons had been covered in hairy coats, and this increased the likelihood that mound builders who had lived in this area were familiar with live mastodons.
The discovery of these pipes led some antiquarians to see elephants everywhere. A Wisconsin burial mound found in 1872 that seemed elephantine in shape received renewed attention, as did the “Lenape Stone” of Pennsylvania which was said to bear the image of a mammoth. As H.C. Mercer wrote in his 1885 description of the Lenape Stone and other elephant-paraphernalia of the ancient New World, either these were authentic artifacts or some hoaxer had been very busy.
Many of these images and objects were poor matches for the elephant form, however. The closest were the pipes, but the story of their discovery was not so straightforward as had been initially thought. In an 1906 issue of the Annual Archaeological Report it was the Rev. Gass, not Mare, who was credited with the pipe’s discovery. The report also notes that Gass found the second pipe not long after obtaining the first in the vicinity of Davenport, Iowa, the city in which the pipe had come to reside. If the pipe was not for sale, had did it to come into the possession of the Davenport Academy of Sciences (of which Gass was a member)?
A vague note on the first pipe in an 1882 issue of the American Naturalist helps to answer this question. The Davenport researchers had received permission to study the pipe but in doing so they broke it. Given that Mare’s relative treasured it as a personal item and not a priceless relic, he did not want to broken pieces back. He reportedly refused to have the Davenport archaeologists raise funds for repayment, and according to one of the researchers involved, W.H. Pratt, Mare’s brother-in-law only wanted three or four dollars for it. The broken bits stayed in Davenport.
Given the shady history of the first pipe and the fact that the second was found not long after the first was destroyed, the Davenport archaeologists were probably feeling self-conscious about their treasures. The finds were not-well documented, and the haste with which Gass worked the burial mounds did not leave good documentation of his discoveries. I could not help but chuckle, then, when the American Naturalist author assured his readers that “There seems to be no flaw in the history of these pipes, which, coming from sources of unquestioned integrity, is evidence that there has been no attempt at deception on the part of the Davenport Academy.”
(It also worth noting that the pipes helped to inspire some alternate readings of history. The author Edward Vining used the pipes as evidence that, as he put it in the subtitle of his book An Inglorious Columbus, “Hwui Shan and a Party of Buddhist Monks from Afghanistan Discovered America in the Fifth Century A.D.”)
The anxiety of the Davenport archaeologists was justified. In the second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology H.W. Henshaw contributed a section on Native American animal carvings, including the elephant pipes and the Wisconsin “elephant mound.” Of the “mastodon-shaped” burial mound Henshaw raised the possibility that it was not constructed in the shape of a mastodon at all. Instead it is just a vague shape that approximated that of an elephant more closely than other; modern eyes had seen something that simply was not intended by the creators of the mound. (Indeed, the mound shows no tell-tale signs that would confirm that it was meant to depict an elephantine beast.)
The pipes, by contrast, were unquestionably elephant-like, but they looked more like modern, tuskless elephants than mastodons. Indeed, the absence of tusks was odd; how could the artisans simply forget one of the most prominent features of the mastodon? It did not make sense, and the manner in which the pipes were found gave Henshaw all the more reason to be suspicious;
In considering the evidence afforded by these pipes of a knowledge of the mastodon on the part of the Mound-Builders, it should be borne in mind that their authenticity as specimens of the Mound-Builders’ art has been called seriously in question. Possibly the fact that the same person [Gass] was instrumental in bringing to light both the pipes has had largely to do with the suspicion, especially when it was remembered that although explorers have been remarkably active in the same region, it has fallen to the good fortune of no one else to find anything conveying the most distant suggestion of the mastodon. …
The remarkable archaeologic instinct which has guided the tinder of these pipes has led him to even more important discoveries. By the aid of his divining rod he has succeeded in unearthing some of the most remarkable inscribed tablets which have thus far rewarded the diligent search of the mound explorer. [emphasis mine] It is not necessary to speak in detail of these here, or of the various theories to which they have given rise and support, including that of phonetic writing, further than to call attention to the fact that by a curious coincidence one of the tablets contains, among a number of familiar animals, figures which suggest in a rude way the mastodon again, which animal indeed some archaeologists have confidently asserted them to be. The resemblance they bear to that animal is, however, by no means as close as exhibited by the pipe carvings ; they are therefore not reproduced here. Both figures differ from the pipes in having tails ; both lack trunks, and also tusks.
Archaeologists must certainly deem it unfortunate that outside of the Wisconsin mound the only evidence of the co-existence of the Mound- Builder and the mastodon should reach the scientific world through the agency of one individual. So derived, each succeeding carving of the mastodon, be it more or less accurate, instead of being accepted by archaeologists as cumulative evidence tending to establish the genuineness of the sculptured testimony showing that the Mound-Builder and mastodon were coeval, will be viewed with ever increasing suspicion.
That no mastodon ivory had been found in any burial mounds was further damning to the hypothesis favored by the Davenport group. If humans and the mastodons had been coeval surely the mound builders, like people of other cultures, would have inscribed or otherwise worked the ivory from the mastodon tusks. Without such evidence Henshaw saw little to be impressed with, and the Wisconsin mound and the pipes required corroboration by new evidence before he would be willing to accept them as authentic;
Bearing in mind the many attempts at archaeological frauds that recent years have brought to light, archaeologists have a right to demand that objects which afford a basis for such important deductions as the coeval life of the Mound-Builder and the mastodon, should be above the slightest suspicion not only in respect to their resemblances, but as regards the circumstances of discovery. If they are not above suspicion, the science of archaeology can better afford to wait for further and more certain evidence than to commit itself to theories which may prove stumbling-blocks to truth until that indefinite time when future investigations shall show their illusory nature.
This report infuriated some members of the Davenport Academy, particularly Charles Putnam. In 1886 Putnam fired off a response to Henshaw and like-minded critics who had impugned the dignity of the Iowa archaeologists. Putnam’s report is prefaced with a resolution that “The Second Annual Report of the United States Bureau of Ethnology contains an unjust and gratuitous attack upon the honor and good faith of this Academy and some of its members, calling in question the genuineness of certain articles in its museum.”
Putnam’s case was not so much scientific as rhetorical, however. He felt attacked by members of a rival institution, the Smithsonian, and was horrified that anyone should question the integrity of a minister like Gass. “To controvert a statement with a sneer,” Putnam jabbed, “is the peculiar achievement of the ordinary polemic, and cannot be set down among accepted scientific methods.” Putnam’s defense was not just about the elephant pipes, though. Gass had discovered three tablets among the Iowa burial mounds that hinted that they had been made by a lost culture with European roots. This ran counter to the growing understanding among other archaeologists, particularly at the Smithsonian, that the mounds had been made by Native Americans. Indeed, the pipes were just part of a much larger controversy over the identity of the first people to inhabit North America.
Putnam’s defense was widely read, but it did not put an end to the issue. Despite all the bluster the pipes and tablets were not well-documented and too much rested on the authority of Gass and his friends in Davenport. The possibility that this was all a hoax still hung in the air, especially since scientists had just recently felt the sting of other humgbugs designed to fool them. As the Iowa Historical Record reported on Putnam’s pamphlet;
Iowa, some years ago, produced the Cardiff Giant, an ingenious hoax having its origin in cupidity, and it is only quite lately that some fiction dealer deceived many people by a description of a monster animal alleged to have been discovered invading a farmer’s premises and despoiling him of his fattest hogs. These impostures are akin to the hoax perpetrated on the astronomers years ago by a New England sham, who claimed to have detected living animals on the surface of the moon…
Unlike the Cardiff Giant and the famous moon hoax that appeared in the pages of the New York Sun, however, the controversy over the elephant pipes was largely academic. There appears to have been no grand effort to unravel the story behind the objects, and when the view that the burial mounds had been made by Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century, the pipes were all but forgotten. There was no money to be made or notoriety to be had in admitting involvement in making fraudulent artifacts, and if the pieces were frauds their creators remained silent.
I was fortunate enough to find a clue that some members of the Davenport Academy knew more than they let on publicly, however. In an 1885 article on “The Davenport Tablet” published in Science Cyrus Thomas (one of the champions of the notion that the burial mounds were made by Native Americans) reprinted parts of a letter he received from one of the founding members of the Davenport Academy, A.S. Tiffany. The Iowa archaeologist confided;
The limestone tablet I am certain is a fraud. Mr. Gass was assisted in digging it out by Mr. Harrison and Mr. Hume. Mr. Hume informs me that there was a wall of small bowlders around the tablet. On the tablet there were some arrow-points, a quartz crystal, and a Unio shell filled with red paint, the whole being covered with a rough limestone slab, the space between it and the tablet not filled with earth, and the paint bright and clean.
This meant that the mound had been tampered with, as any openings in such structures were always filled in with sediment. It was also rumored that at least one tablet had been recovered from loose soil in a burial mound, but Gass worked so quickly that careful records of his excavations were not kept. There were also features of the elephant pipes that had not been widely discussed. Of them Tiffany wrote;
It bears the same finger-marks as the first one [first pipe], and Mr. Gass could be deceived with that plant as he was with the tablet. Mr Gass is honest
Despite Tiffany’s testimony the true history of these objects remained mysterious, and eventually they faded from prominence. Not everyone forgot about them, though. During the latter half of the 20th century Gass’ finds gained the attention of at least one researcher, Marshall McCusick, who published The Davenport Conspiracy and The Davenport Conspiracy Revisited. Given that I have only just found out about these books I have not yet read them, but from what I have been able to glean from the web they confirm that the pipes and tablets were hoaxes.
According to at least one summary of McCusick’s work, in 1967 McCusick was able to interview some surviving members of the Davenport Academy who had some knowledge of the events. Their testimony revealed that it was all a trick meant to prey on Gass’ credulity, particularly since Gass was not well-liked among the Davenport archaeologists. (Some of the inscribed tablets, for example, were taken from a brothel and still contained nail holes, but these clues were overlooked.) The hoaxers did not come forward sooner because the hoax got out of hand once it reached the academic literature. Perhaps they felt that if they revealed themselves as hoaxers to their peers they would lose respect and all their work would be called into question. Unlike the hoaxer behind the Cardiff Giant they had nothing to gain if they made their deeds known.
Yet even Gass is not beyond suspicion. His dealings with the elephant pipe, especially the first one, are poorly understood. It is also strange that, as Henshaw remarked, Gass was so successful at finding “important” objects and asked that Blumer describe the second elephant pipe even though he found it. While the controversy over the tablets is the focal point of modern discussions of the Davenport hoax I think there is much yet to learn (if it can be learned at so distant a date) about the elephant pipes.
Whatever the true origins of the elephant pipes, they were only part of a larger array of evidence used to affirm that the mound builders had been an extinct race of Europeans that first settled America. Like the favored multi-regional hypothesis of the origin of Homo sapiens (which still has some adherents today) it was a notion rooted in racism and nationalistic pride. But what of the assertion that the mound-builders and the mastodon coexisted? Research since the time of the Davenport controversy has shown this extremely unlikely (unless there was some extraordinarily late-surviving mastodons inhabiting western North America), but the answer is not nearly so clean cut.
Some members of our species had surely seen living mastodons, but for how long would stories about them have been passed down after their extinction? As Adrienne Mayor relates in her excellent book Fossil Legends of the First Americans the “ancestral memories” hypothesis is difficult to prove. What is more likely is that some groups of Native Americans were indeed familiar with the fossil remains of mastodons and other extinct mammals. The elephant pipes were surely hoaxes, but they make me wonder what Native Americans would have created if they had seen the lumbering behemoths in life.