The American incognitum and the History of Extinction Studies


Georges Cuvier (1769 -1832) and the painting of Charles Wilson Peale’s reconstruction of the American incognitum

Extinction is the ultimate fate of all species. More than 95% of all species that ever lived are now extinct. But prior to the 18th century, the idea that species could become extinct was not accepted. However, as the new science of paleontology began bringing its first major discoveries to light, researchers began to wonder if the large vertebrate fossils of strange creatures unearthed by the Enlightenment explorers were indeed the remains of extinct species.

In 1739, French soldiers under the command of Baron Charles le Moyne de Lougueuil recovered a tusk, femur, and three curious molar teeth from Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, a place known in several American Indian narratives. Lougueuil sent these specimens to the Cabinet du Roi (Royal Cabinet of Curiosities) in Paris. In 1762, Louis Jean-Marie Daubenton, a zoologist at the Jardin du Roi concluded that the femur and tusk from the Longueuil’s collection were those of a large elephant, the “Siberian Mammoth,” but the three molars came from a gigantic hippopotamus.

Molar collected at Big Bone Lick in 1739 and described in Paris in 1756. (Georges Cuvier, Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles)

By the early 18 century it was inconceivable for many researchers that a species could be vanished. Naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, wrote in 1749 about the extinction of marine invertebrates, but he adopted Daubenton’s view that the Siberian mammoth and the animal of the Ohio, known as the American incognitum, were both northern forms of the extant elephant rather than a vanished species. British anatomist William Hunter was the first to speculate that these remains might be from an extinct species. In 1799, the discovery of an American incognitum femur from Quaternary deposits in the Hudson River Valley led to excavations organized by Charles Wilson Peale. In 1801, the excavations resulted in the recovery of an almost complete skeleton. Peale reconstructed the skeleton with help from the American anatomist Caspar Wistar, and the displayed the mounted skeleton in public in December of that year.

In 1806 Georges Cuvier resolved the controversy about the  American incognitum demonstrating that both the Siberian mammoth and the “animal de l’Ohio” were elephants, but of different species. He described the Ohio elephant as a mastodon and he reached the conclusion that probably represented an extinct species. Cuvier was also the first to suggested that periodic “revolutions” or catastrophes had befallen the Earth and wiped out a number of species. But, under the influence of Lyell’s uniformitarianism, Cuvier’s ideas were rejected as “poor science”. The modern study of mass extinction did not begin until the middle of the twentieth century. One of the most popular of that time was “Revolutions in the history of life” written by Norman Newell in 1967.



Macleod, N. The geological extinction record: History, data, biases, and testing. Geol. Soc. Am. Spec. Pap. 505, (2014), DOI: 10.1130/2014.2505(01)​

Marshall, Charles R., Five palaeobiological laws needed to understand the evolution of the living biota, Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 0165 (2017), DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0165 .

Early studies of South American Fossils.


Megatherium americanum, MACN.

Megatherium americanum on display at the MACN.

The first notices of South American fossils were reported by early Spanish explorers. These fossils were interpreted as the remains of an ancestral race of giant humans erased from the face of the Earth by a divine intervention. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Fray Reginaldo de Lizarraga (1540-1609), referred in his writings to those “graves of giants” found in Córdoba, Argentina. In 1760, the English Jesuit Thomas Falkner, discovered the first remains of a glyptodon. He wrote: “I myself found the shell of an animal, composed of little hexagonal bones, each bone an inch in diameter at least; and the shell was near three yards over. It seemed in all respects, except it’s size, to be the upper part of the shell of the armadillo; which, in these times, is not above a span in breadth.” (1774, p. 54-55).  However, the first formal description of a gliptodonte was performed in 1838, by English naturalist Sir Richard Owen.

In 1766, by order of Juan de Lezica y Torrezuri (1709-1783), Mayor of Buenos Aires, fossil remains recovered in Arrecifes, were sent to Spain. Previously to the trip, three surgeons, Matías Grimau, Juan Parán and Ángel Casteli, analyzed the bones to determine if these were humans. In Spain, scholars of the Real Academia de la Historia, stated that the remains were not human, conjecturing that those bones resembled those of a quadruped, and perhaps an Elephant. The scholars were right, the remains in question belonged to mastodons, extinct relatives of elephants.

Portrait of  Manuel Torres by Francisco Fortuny.

Portrait of Manuel Torres by Francisco Fortuny.

In 1787, Fray Manuel de Torres found near the banks of the Lujan River,  the skeletal remains of a gigantic mammal. He carefully documented this extraordinary finding. On April 29, 1787, he sent a letter to the Viceroy Francisco Nicolás Cristóbal del Campo, Marqués de Loreto, with details of his work. In 1789, the specimen was sent to the Cabinet of Natural History in Madrid where was illustrated by Juan Bautista Brú de Ramón (1740-1799). This is the real starting point of paleontological studies in the Rio de la Plata.

In 1795, Philippe-Rose Roume (1724-1804), a French officer, sent Bru’s illustrations to the Institut de France, with a little description of the skeleton. A year later, George Cuvier (1769-1832) published the first scientific work on a South American fossil. He assigned the fossil the scientific name Megatherium americanum. Cuvier also studied fossils from Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador, among which he recognized three morphotypes, designated informally as “mastodonte a dents étroites”, “mastodonte Cordillierès” and “mastodonte humboldien”. Cuvier (1823) later formally named them Mastodon angustidens, Mastodon andium and Mastodon humboldti, respectively (Fernicola et al, 2009).


PASQUALI, Ricardo C  y  TONNI, Eduardo P. Los hallazgos de mamíferos fósiles durante el período colonial en el actual territorio de la Argentina. Ser. correl. geol.[online]. 2008, n.24 [citado  2014-12-08], pp. 35-43 . Disponible en: . ISSN 1666-9479.

Fernicola, J. C., Vizcaino, F, and de Iuliis, G. (2009), ‘The Fossil Mammals collected by Charles Darwin in South America during his travels on board the HMS Beagle’, Revista de la Asociatión Geológica Argentina. 64 (1), 147-59.

Fariña, Richard A.; Vizcaíno, Sergio F.; De Iuliis, Gerry (2013). Megafauna. Giant Beasts of Pleistocene South America. Indiana University Press.

Mary Anning’s contribution to French paleontology.


mary anning cuvier

Portraits of Mary Anning (1799–1847) and Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). From Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Anning was born on Lyme Regis on May 21, 1799.  She has been called “the Princess of Palaeontology”  by the German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt and scientists like William Buckland or Henry de la Beche owe their achievements to Mary’s work. 

George Cuvier, the famous French paleontologist also benefited with Mary Anning’s discoveries. He acquired several ichthyosaur specimens and a plesiosaur specimen  found by her. The study of these fossils allowed him to apply his comparative anatomical method and to support his catastrophist theory.

When George Cuvier went to England in 1818, he took the opportunity to examine at the remains of a marine reptile  that had been previously described by Sir Everard Home. The specimen, an ichthyosaur, was unearthed by Joseph and Mary Anning in 1811. Cuvier rapidly managed to get casts and fine specimens of all marine reptiles discovered in England, especially those made in Lyme Regis by the Anning family.


Sketch of Mary Anning by Henry De la Beche. From Wikimedia Commons.

In December 1823, Mary made another amazing discovery. She found the first complete Plesiosaurus skeleton. She immediately wrote to William Buckland,  the famous English geologist and paleontologist, describing the strange specimen.

The unexpected proportions of the neck, raised the suspicions of Cuvier, who wrote to William Conybeare suggesting that the find was a fake produced by combining fossil bones from different animals. William Buckland and Conybeare sent a letter to Cuvier including anatomical details, an engraving of the specimen and a sketch made by Mary Morland (Buckland’s wife) based on Mary Anning’s own drawings and they convinced Cuvier that this specimen was a genuine find. From that moment, Cuvier treated Mary Anning as a legitimate and respectable fossil collector and cited her name in his publications.

In May 1824, Cuvier sent geologist Constant Prévost to England for an official geological trip, supported by the administration of the Palaeontology Gallery of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. In June 1824 Prévost – accompanied by Charles Lyell-   went to Lyme Regis and met Mary Anning. He bought a plesiosaur for £10 and sent it to Paris. Cuvier included the  engraving of his plesiosaur in a third edition of his “Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe”. 

A sketch of a Plesiosaur by Mary Anning, 1824.

A sketch of a Plesiosaur by Mary Anning, 1824. From original manuscripts held at the Natural History Museum, London. © The Natural History Museum, London


Peggy Vincent, Taquet Philippe, Valentin Fischer, Bardet Nathalie, Falconnet Jocelyn, Godefroit Pascal, Mary Anning’s legacy to French vertebrate palaeontology,  Geological Magazine, January 2014,