Professor Twain’s Paleontology Lecture, Part 1

Actually By Mark Twain

“A Brace of Brief Lectures on Science.” From The American Publisher, September, 1871


What a noble science is paleontology! And what really startling sagacity its votaries exhibit!

Click here for Prof. Twain’s scientific and research credentials.

Immediately after the Nathan murder, twenty practiced detectives went and viewed the dead body; examined the marks on the throat and on the head; followed the bloody tracks; looked at the bloody clothes, the broken safe, and the curious, unusual, mysterious “dog.” They took note of the stolen diamond studs and set a watch on the pawnbrokers, and they set watches upon all known thieves and housebreakers, and upon their fast women. They had the detectives of all the wide world to help them watch and work, and the telegraph to facilitate communication. They had the testimony of fifty witnesses in point and conveniently at hand for reference, a knowledge of everything that transpired about the Nathan mansion during the entire eventful night with the exception of the single hour during which the murder was committed. Thus we perceive that the mystery was narrowed down to a very small compass, and the clues and helps were abundant and excellent. Yet what is the result? The “dog” has told no tales, the bloody tracks have led no whither, the murderer has not been found. Why, it is not even known whether there was one murderer, or twenty or whether men or women did the deed – or how entrance was gained to the house or how exit was accomplished!

The reader perceives how illiterate detectives can blunder along, with whole volumes of clues to guide them, and yet achieve nothing. Now let me show him what “science” can do. Let me show what might have been done if New York had been intelligent enough to employ one deep paleontologist in the work instead of a dozen detectives. Let me demonstrate that with no other clue than one small splinter off that “iron dog,” or a gill of the water the bloody shirt was washed in, any cultivated paleontologist would have walked right off and fetched you that murderer with as unerring certainty as he would take a fragment of an unknown bone and build you the animal it used to belong to, and tell you which end his tail was on and what he preferred for dinner.

In this lesson I will treat only of one subject of paleontological “research” PRIMEVAL MAN. Geology has revealed the fact that the crust of the earth is composed of five layers or strata. We exist on the surface of the fifth. Geology teaches, with scientific accuracy, that each of these layers was from ten thousand to two million years forming or cooling. [A disagreement as to a few hundred thousand years is a matter of little consequence to science.] The layer immediately under our layer, is the fourth or “quaternary”; under that is the third, or tertiary, etc. Each of these layers had its peculiar animal and vegetable life, and when each layer’s mission was done, it and its animals and vegetables ceased from their labors and were forever buried under the new layer, with its new-shaped and new fangled animals and vegetables. So far, so good. Now the geologists Thompson, Johnson, Jones and Ferguson state that our own layer has been ten thousand years forming. The geologists Herkimer, Hildebrand, Boggs and Walker all claim that our layer has been four hundred thousand years forming. Other geologists just as reliable, maintain that our layer had been from one to two million years forming. Thus we have a concise and satisfactory idea of how long our layer has been growing and accumulating.

That is sufficient geology for our present purpose. The paleontologists Hooker, Baker, Slocum and Hughes claim that Primeval Man existed during the quaternary period consequently he existed as much as ten thousand, and possible two million, years ago. The paleontologists Howard, Perkins, de Warren and Von Hawkins assert that Primeval Man existed as far back as the tertiary period and consequently he walked the earth at a time so remote that if you strung ciphers after a unit till there were enough to answer for a necklace for a mastodon you could not adequately represent the billions of centuries ago it happened. Now, you perceive, we begin to cramp this part of our subject into a corner where we can grasp it, as it were, and contemplate it intelligently. Let us “for a flier,” as the learned Von Humboldt phrases it consider that this Primeval Man transpired eight or nine hundred thousand years ago, and not day before yesterday, like the Nathan murder. What do we know of him, and how do we find it out? Listen, while I reduce the “revelations” of paleontology to a few paragraphs:

1. Primeval Man existed in the quaternary period – because his bones are found in caves along bones of now extinct animals of that period such as the “cave-hyena,” the mammoth, etc.

2. The incredible antiquity of the Primeval Man’s bones is further proven by their extreme “fragility.” No bones under a million years old “could be so fragile.” [I quote strictly from the scientific authorities.] The reason royal skeletons in Westminster crumble to dust when exposed, although only a trifling eight hundred years old, is because they are shut up in leaden coffins, I suppose. Bones do not keep good in coffins. There is no sure way but to cord them up in caves. Paleontology reveals that they will then last you a million years without any inconvenience.

3. The Primeval Man possessed weapons because along with his bones are found rude chips and flakes of flint that the paleontologist knows very well were regarded as knives by the Primeval Man; and also flints of a rude oval shape that in his pretty simplicity he regarded as “hatchets.” These things have been found in vast quantities with his bones.

4. The Primeval Man “wore clothes” – because, along with his bones have been found skeletons of the reindeer, “with marks still visible about the base of the horns, such as are made in our day when we cut there to loosen the hide in order to skin the animal.” Could this paleontologist find the Nathan murderer? Undoubtedly he could. The ignorant need not say that possibly the Primeval Man wore no clothes, but wanted the hide for a tent, or for bow-strings, or lassos, or beds, or to trade off for glass beads and whisky. The paleontologist knows what he wanted with the hide.

5. The Primeval Man had not only inventive powers and gropings toward civilization, as evidenced by his contriving and manufacturing flint hatchets and knives and wearing clothes, but he also had marked and unmistakable “art” inspirations because, along with his bones have been found figures scratched on bone, vaguely suggestive of possible fishes; and a boar’s tooth rudely carved into the shape of a bird’s head, and “with a hole in it to enable him to hang it around his neck.” [I quote from authority.] I ask, could this person discover the Nathan murderer?

6. The Primeval Man “eat his wild game roasted” because, “along with his bones are found the bones of wild animals which seem to have been scorched” some millions of years ago.

7. The Primeval Man was “passionately fond of marrow” [I still quote from the scientific authorities,] because, along with his bones have been found animal bones broken lengthwise, “which shows that they had been thus broken to extract the marrow, of which our primitive forefathers were inordinately fond,” says the “Paleontological Investigations.” Could this man read the secrets of an iron dog and a bloody shirt, or could he not?

8. The Primeval Man was – a – cannibal! because, in Italy, and also in Scotland, along with his bones have been found children’s bones which had, “first been carefully cleansed and emptied to satisfy the inordinate taste for marrow, and then gnawed.” (!) This is horrible, but true. Let not the ignorant say that a dog might have done this gnawing, for paleontology has looked into that and decided that

9. The Primeval Man had no dog because “there is no trace of dogs having been domesticated then.” Which settles that point.

10. The Primeval Hyena gnawed bones, however because paleontology proves that “the marks on some bones found in France were not made by dog, human, cat,or mastodon teeth, but by the teeth of a hyena.” And paleontology is aware that the hyena gnawed the bones “after the Primeval Man” was done with them which was clever, but paleontology keeps the reasons for knowing this a scientific secret.

11. Primeval Man has graveyards “because, along with great quantities of roasted and gnawed bones of primeval animals, have been found quantities of human bones and flint weapons.” And it is a precious privilege to live in an epoch of paleontologists, for the uneducated investigator would not be able to tell a primeval graveyard from a primeval restaurant.

12. The Primeval Man always had a banquet and a good time after a funeral because, down the hill a little way from his graveyard (there is only one on record,) “a bed of ashes was unearthed.” Von Rosenstein and some others say the banquet occurred before the funeral, but most paleontologists agree that is was nearly a week after the obsequies.

13. Primeval Man “made his flint knives and hatchets with a stone hammer” and an English paleontologist has “proved” this, and overwhelmed all cavilers with confusion, and won thunders of applause and incalculable gratitude from his fellow-scientists by actually making a flint hatchet with a stone hammer. The fact that these weapons are so independent in form that if a man chipped a piece of flint with his eyes shut the result would infallibly be a primeval flint knife or a flint hatchet, one or the other, in spite of him, has got nothing to do with the matter. If cavilers say that the fact that we could carve our bread with an axe is no sign that we do carve it with an axe, I simply say that such an argument begs the question, inasmuch as it applies to the present time, whereas the science of paleontology only treats of matters of remote antiquity.

Now I come to the most marvellous “revelation” of all the most unexpected, the most surprising, the most gratifying. It is this. Paleontology has discovered that

14. “THE PRIMEVAL MAN BELIEVED IN IMMORTALITY!” because, “else why did he bury those huge quantities of flint hatchets and other weapons with his dead, just as all savages do who desire to provide the loved and lost with means of amusement and subsistence in the happy hunting grounds of eternity?” Aha! What saith the caviler now? Poor purblind croaker, in this grand and awful evidence of the Primeval Man’s belief in the immortality of his soul, you would find only evidence that the primeval cemetery, the primeval restaurant and the primeval arsenal were purposely compacted into the same premises to save rent. Idiot!

The lesson is ended. Do you see, now, how simple and easy “science” makes a thing? Do you see how

Some animal bones, split, scratched and scorched; located in quaternary ground;

Some full sized human bones with them and very “fragile”;

Some small bones, marrowless and scratched;

Some flints of several uncertain shapes;

Some rude scratchings and carvings, done possible by design;

Some deer horns, scratched at their bases; An ash-pile;

The absence of dog-tracks;

Do you see how these clues and “evidences” are all the materials the science of paleontology needs in order to give the world the wonder of a

Primeval Man;

And not only that but tell you what was the particular period he lived in;

What weapons he carried;

What kind of clothes he wore;

What his art predilections and capacities were;

What he made his weapons with;

What his funeral customs were;

What part of a bear or a child he preferred for breakfast;

What animal got the remains of his feasts, and what animal didn’t;

And, finally, what the foundation and corner-stone of the religion of the lost and lamented old antediluvian commander-in-chief of all the fossils, was!

What a crying pity it is that the Nathan murder was not committed two million years ago- for I do so want to know all about it.

[Some of my own paleontological deductions differing is some respects from those of other paleontological authorities, I reserve them for expression in another chapter on “Science,” which will appear next month.]

Next Week Part 2


About T.H. Gray

T.H. Gray is the self-appointed court jester and Dr. Demento for the history museum field. A lifelong museum professional and reenactor, he is a graduate of the prestigious Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program. Until 2011, when the AHS hired him away, he was on staff at the Benjamin Dover Memorial Museum & Swimming Pool ("Our History is All Wet!"). He remembers when museums were still about history, science, and art. BTW, all of these posts say they are by T.H. Gray because he can't turn off the byline. Credit, when due, is given. View all posts by T.H. Gray

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