Koch's "Mammoth" and Human Antiquity

i-683e63c1dbfc82d28c6dd53429944cde-missouriumill.jpg


An illustration of Koch's reconstructed "Missourium."


On January 12, 1839, an interesting article appeared in the pages of pages of the Philadelphia paper the Presbyterian. Written by Albert Koch (although it appeared in the paper as unsigned), the article made the bold claim that the remains of a mammoth had been discovered along with stone tools in Gasconade country, Missouri, proving that Native Americans had lived alongside the extinct animals. Looking at vestiges of the ancient hunt, Koch proposed that the mammoth had sunk into mud or some other trap and keeled over at which point the humans came and stoned it to death, burning the corpse at some point afterwards. Although scant on details, the description was significant enough to catch the attention of Benjamin Silliman, a science professor at Yale, who reprinted the article in The American Journal of Science and Arts that July with a request that the author contact the scientific community about the discovery. Koch never did.

During the time that Silliman made his request Koch was busy digging up and selling fossils. Although a keen amateur fossilist, Koch was as much a showman as he was a bone hunter and his "Missourium" (a mastodon, albeit a one superficially enlarged with extra bones from multiple individuals) had him on tour showing off his discoveries. No clues arose that he was the author of the Presbyterian article until 1841, however, when Koch included a new section on "Evidence of Human Existence Contemporary With Fossil Animals" in a pamphlet that accompanied his "Missourium" exhibit.

Describing the Gasconade discovery in more detail, Koch says that a farmer was poking digging around a well near his house when he found several large bones and stone tools. This caused a stir in the community and eventually Koch got word of it through an acquaintance he had in the area. In October of 1838 he arrived at the site and found that many of the bones had been removed or otherwise destroyed by careless digging. Fortunately, however, Koch was able to get a hold of some bones from local people and collect some remaining artifacts at the site. (Koch also found a stone tool with his "Missourium" fossils, too, although the Gasconade discovery is more impressive due to the sheer amount of tools found with the fossils.)

Koch's discovery represents the first known case of human artifacts being found with those of a fossil animal in North America, a fairly important event in a time just before the question of human antiquity would receive greater attention in England. In 1857, just as the evidence for the coexistence of humans and ancient mammals was coming together in Europe, Koch presented a paper in the Transactions of the Academy of Science of St. Louis about the tools that had been found with his Missouri discoveries. The paper was particularly criticized by the president of the society, Dr. Wislizenus, and although Wislizenus' reply garnered a rebuttals from both Koch and a Mr. Holmes the scientific community in general either ignored or explained away Koch's claims.

(By 1859 the leading geologists in England were convinced that humans had lived among fossil animals based upon the presence of stone tools. I have been able to find no mention of Koch's discoveries in the literature being generated during this time in England so far, so it is possible that the infamy that surrounded Koch kept his discovery from being taken seriously. They definitely knew of him, but given the skepticism over finds of human artifacts with fossil mammals it is probable that they paid him no serious attention.)

Later, particularly after Koch's death in 1867, scientists visited the sites where Koch had disinterred his "Missourium" and "Hydrarchos." They usually came back with even more criticism of a man viewed as a boastful raconteur than a scientist. Indeed, Koch's many fossil forgeries earned him an unenviable reputation that made it extremely easy to dismiss any claim that the works of humans had been found with extinct creatures. James D. Dana, who had met Koch personally and questioned him about his discoveries, issued a mild defense of Koch in 1875, but by that time it seemed as if Koch's reputation was too muddy to be cleaned off.

In 1944 M. F. Ashley Montagu and C. Bernard Peterson took up a re-examination of the Gasconade find, simultaneously seeking rehabilitate Koch's image in spite of his unscrupulous activities as a showman. Although no one (as far as I am aware) has tracked the fossils and tools that Koch sold to various institutions and collectors, the authors trust the detail and veracity of Koch's account. The story may be a historical footnote today because of the lack of stratigraphic data, the unknown whereabouts of the fossils/tools, and the sullying of Koch's reputation, but I see little reason to doubt that Koch really did find stone tools alongside ancient mammals. I wish something more could be said, but that is about the best I can muster given the general lack of evidence in this particular case. Montagu and Peterson conclude;

... it is the tragedy of such men as Koch that even when they speak the truth they are not believed, hence when they make a discovery of real importance their claims are either completely disregarded, or else viewed with extreme suspicion. Koch was scientifically un- trained, an aggressive traveling showman, and a dealer in his fossil exhibits. That he was an able and indefatigable collector was a virtue of his which attracted very little attention. Scientists were outraged by the grotesqueness of his reconstructions, and by his practice of selling his specimens for considerable sums of money, principally to foreign museums. Doubtless there were other qualities which brought Koch into disrepute; but whatever Koch's faults may have been, a reexamination of his claims to have discovered human artifacts in association with mastodon remains, reveals that it is highly probable that he not only made such a discovery but that, although he was unaware of the character of the animal at the time, he discovered such artifacts together with the remains of the ground sloth, Mylodon harlani.

The last line may be a bit of a shocker given all this discussion of Koch's mammoths and mastodons, but it is extremely likely that the Gasconade county creature was not a mammoth at all. From Koch's description it seems more likely that he found the remains of a giant ground sloth, Montagu and Peterson proposing Mylodon as a good candidate. The primary parts of the skeleton he was able to obtain for his investigation were the hands and feet, his description of them being clawed, grasping hands being far more consistent with a ground sloth than any extinct elephant. Mammoth or Mylodon, Koch probably did find something very significant, but today he is usually only mentioned as a paleontological P.T. Barnum who cared more about money than accuracy.

References;

Montagu, M.F.A.; Peterson, C.B. (1944) "The Earliest Account of the Association of Human Artifacts with Fossil Mammals in North America." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 87, No. 5, Papers on Archaeology, Ecology, Ethnology, History, Paleontology, Physics, and Physiology, pp. 407-419

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Didn't some of Koch's "Missourium" end up in the Natural History Museum in London? (My dim recollection-- it was in a sea serpent article, probably in one of Willy Ley's books, as background to the Hydrarchos story-- is that someone famous wrote a letter to a newspaper identifying Kock-the-Hydrarchos-man as the person who had exhibited a Missourium skeleton which had then been purchased by the NHM, and that the NHM's "Mastodon" had been assembled from its pieces.)

I think the reconstruction you have posted is the first depiction of Koch's Missourium I have ever seen. Whether or not he had found stone tools in association with a Ground Sloth, this critter seems to be composed of mastodon (=Mamut) bones. The tusks are at a funny angle, but I've seen other old reconstructions (of mastodons or mammoths) with the tusks set in wrong: Koch wasn't uniquely at fault on this one! Other than that... the torso has been lengthened (maybe four extra thoracics and three extra lumbars?). Articulated skeletons are rare, so Koch, like most museums, had to assemble pieces of several individuals to get a displayable skeletal mount: he obviously erred on the generous side, and this (a) was probably not a coincidence, since his future income depended on having something awe-inspiring and (b) is not a mistake a modern specialist would be likely to make (vertebral count being being very consistent in mammals, and the number of thoracics and lumbars in living elephants being the obvious thing to bet on in reconstructing a related species... and, in fact, I think the correct numbers for Mamut). But everybody says he was untrained. ON THE EVIDENCE OF THIS DRAWING I don't think we can convict him of DELIBERATE fraud: he may have believed his Missourium was as accurate as he could make it.

Thanks for making this post!

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 18 Jun 2008 #permalink

Allen; Your assessment of the skeleton is pretty much right on. I would definitely recommend picking up a copy of the book American Monster, though, as the story is recounted in much more detail there.

Koch may not have been officially trained, but he did know a bit about fossils and seemed to be frequently in contact with naturalists about his fossils. In the case of "Missourium" making things larger than life might not have been deliberate, but even after the extra bones and such were pointed out to him he still kept touring with the skeleton as is. Far worse was his construction of Hydrarchos, which was made of several Basilosaurus and had cephalopod shells for "fins." When this monster was called out for what it was Koch quickly took it elsewhere (this happened several times) and after the first one was sold he made a second, smaller one.

A more detailed (but short) biography of Koch can be found here;

http://www.alabamaheritage.com/vault/monsters.htm

Does anyone have any more detailed information on where on the Bourbuese River in Gasconade County Albert Kochs find was? Wasn't there some indication that it was near a spring? Adolphus Wislizenus in attempting to refute Koch makes mention that the mastodon had become trapped in a spring.

By Mel Kuske (not verified) on 06 Nov 2008 #permalink

Hi,

Do you have a source/credit line for the illustration above? I am working on a Historical Geology textbook and the authors would like to use it, but I need to know who to contact for permission. Thanks!!