Professor Twain’s Paleontology Lecture, Part 2

Actually By Mark Twain

Read Part 1

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


This skull is very fragile, so it must be millions of years old.

My brother paleontologists have “proved” by the finding of weapons (for use in the happy hunting grounds,) side by side with the Primeval Man’s bones, that the Primeval Man was a believer in immortality. And I think they have done more than this. I think that in “proving” that he always broke the bones of animals “lengthwise” to get at the marrow, they have come near proving the Primeval Man an ass. For why should he break bones lengthwise to get at the marrow when anybody except a scientist knows that it is a deal easier to break a bone crosswise than lengthwise, and still more convenient to smash your stone down on it and let it break any way it pleases; and we all know that the marrow will taste just the same, no matter what plan of fracture you pursue. And yet nothing would suit this primeval “galoot” but lengthwise style it does not look reasonable. And I must call notice to the fact that neither the Primeval Man’s elk-horn instruments, nor his flint knife, nor yet the awe-inspiring quoit which he thought was a flint “hatchet,” could split a slippery, crooked, uneasy and vexatious bone lengthwise with facility and I have always noticed that your Primeval Man looks to convenience first. That is his way, if I know whereof I speak and if I do not, what am I a paleontologist for?

2. Somehow I cannot feel satisfied that those bears (whose bones are found mingled with those of the Primeval Man), were not the real parties that ate that marrow and also the animals that used to own it. And without nibbling at heresy any further, I may as well come out and suggest that perhaps they ate the Primeval Man himself. Here is a pile of bones of primeval man and beast all mixed up together, with no more damning evidence that the man ate the bears than that the bears ate the man yet paleontology holds a coroner’s inquest here in the fifth geologic period on an “unpleasantness” which transpired in the quaternary, and calmly lays it on the MAN, and then adds to it what it purports to be evidence of CANNABALISM. I ask the candid reader, Does not this look like taking advantage of a gentleman who has been dead two million years, and whose surviving friends and relatives――. But the subject is too painful. Are we to have another Byron-scandal case? Here are savage ways and atrocious appetites attributed to the dead and helpless Primeval Man have we any assurance that the same hand will not fling mud at the Primeval Man’s mother, next?

3. Again. Is there anything really so surprising about the absence of the marrow from bones a few hundred thousand years old as to make it worth while to sit up nights trying to figure out how it came to be absent? Now is there, considering that there are so many good chances that Age, Worms and Decay got the marrow?

4. If the student should ask why paleontologists call the Primeval Man a cannibal, I should answer that it was because they find tooth-marks on primeval children’s bones which they “recognize as the marks of human teeth.” If the student should ask why paleontologists assert that primeval hyenas gnawed the bones of roasted animals after the Primeval Man had finished his meal, I should answer that they find teeth-marks upon said bones which they “recognize as hyena teeth-marks.” If the student should ask me how the paleontologist tells the difference between hyena and human teeth-marks on a bone, and particularly a bone which has been rotting in a cave since the everlasting hills were builded, I should answer that I don’t know.

A man could leave a sort of tooth-mark (till decay set in,) in any fleshy substance that might remain sticking in a bone, but that he could make a tooth-mark on the bone itself I am obliged to question. Let the earnest student try to bite the handle of his tooth-brush and see if he can leave an autograph that will defy the ages. Aha! Where are you now!

5. The frivolous are apt to take notice of a certain paleontological custom, which, not understanding, they take to be proper prey for their wit. I refer to the common paleontological custom of “proving” the vast age of primeval bones by their “extreme fragility,” and then accounting for their wonderful preservation by the fact that they were “petrified and fossilized by deposits of calcareous salts.” If cavilers had brains enough to comprehend this, they would not cavil so much about it.

6. In the celebrated paleontological “cave of Aurignac” were found bones of primeval men, woolly elephants, huge bears and elks and wolves of a singular pattern, and also bones of the august mastodon. What do my fellow paleontologists call that place? A “primeval graveyard.” Why? Why graveyard? Reader, I have looked carefully into this matter and discovered the significant fact that they never found a single tomb-stone. Nor any sign of a grave. Then why call it a graveyard? Does a tangled mess of of bones of men and beasts necessarily constitute a graveyard? I would not disturb any man’s faith in the primeval cemetery, though, merely to hear myself talk. I have opened the subject for a nobler purpose to give the paleontological student’s faith a new direction and worthier one. I have investigated the evidences and now feel tolerably satisfied that the contents of the cave of Aurignac are not the remains of a primeval graveyard, but of a primeval menagerie. I ask the intelligent reader if it is likely that such rare creatures as a woolly elephant, a mastodon, and those huge and peculiar bears, wolves, etc., would simply happen together, along with a man or two, in a comfortable, roomy cave, with a small, low door, just suited to the admission of single files of country people, to say nothing of children and servants at half price? I simply ask the candid reader that question and let him sweat as the historian Josephus used to say. If I should be asked for further suggestions in support of my hypothesis, I should hazard the thought that the treasurer of the menagerie was guilty of a hideous general massacre, while the proprietor and the beasts were asleep, and that his object was robbery. It is admitted by nearly one-sixth of all the paleontologists [observe the unusual unanimity] that the first part of the quaternary period must have been an uncommonly good season for public exhibitions and in this one fact alone you have almost a confirmation of the criminal motive attributed to the treasurer. If I am asked for final and incontrovertible proof of my position, I point to the significant fact that the bones of the treasurer have never been found, and THE CASH BOX IS GONE. It is enough to make one’s hair stand on end.

I desire nothing more than my dues. If I have thrown any light on the mystery of the cave of Aurignac, I desire that it shall be acknowledged if I have not, I desire that it may be as though I had never spoken.

7. As concerns the proud paleontological trophy, the “flint hatchet” and its companion the “flint knife,” I am compelled again to differ with the other scientists. I cannot think that the so-called “flint knife” is a knife at all. I cannot disabuse my mind of the impression that it is a file. No knife ever had such a scandalous blade as that. If asked by scholars of the established faith what the Primeval Man could want with a file, I should, with customary paleontological diplomacy, ask what he could want with such a knife? Because he might file something with that thing, but I will hang if he could ever cut anything with it.

8. And as for the oval shaped flint which stands for the lauded primeval “hatchet,” I cannot rid myself of the idea that it was only a paper-weight. If incensed brother-paleontologists storm at me and say the Primeval Man had no paper, I shall say calmly, “As long as it was nobody’s business but his own, couldn’t he carry his paper-weight around till he got some?”

But there is nothing intractable about me. If gentlemen wish to compromise and call it a petrified hoecake, or anything in reason, I am agreeable; for the Primeval Man had to have food, and might have had hoecakes, but he didn’t have to have a flint “hatchet” like this thing, which he could not even cut his butter with without mashing it.

If any one should find fault with any arguments used by me in the course of the above chapter, and say that I jump to a conclusion over so much ground that the feat is in a manner ungraceful; and if he should say further, that in establishing one paleontological position of mine I generally demolish another, I would answer that these things are inseparable from scientific investigation. We all do it all scientists. No one can regret it more than we do ourselves, but there really seems to be no remedy for it. First we had to recede from our assertion that a certain fossil was a primeval man, because afterward when we had found multitudes of saurians and had grown glib and facile in descanting upon them, we found that that other creature was of the same species. What could we do? It was too big a job to turn a thousand saurians into primeval men, and so we turned the solitary primeval man into a saurian. It was the cheapest way. And so it has always been with us. Every time we get a chance to assert something, we have to take back something. When we announced and established the great discovery of the “Glacial Period,” how we did have to cart the dead animals around! Because, do not you see, the indiscriminate sort of distribution of fossil species which we had accommodated to the characteristic action of a general flood would not answer for a nicely discriminating “glacial period” which ought to transport not only walruses, white bears, and other frigid creatures, from the North Pole down into Africa and not meddle with any other kind of animals. Well, we had only got the several species of fossil animals located to “back up” the “glacial period” when here comes some idiot down from Behring’s Strait with a fossil elephant a hundred thousand years old! Of course we had to go to work and account for him. You see how it is. Science is as sorry as you are that this year’s science is no more like last year’s science than last year’s was like the science of twenty years gone by. But science cannot help it. Science is full of change. Science is progressive and eternal. The scientists of twenty years ago laughed at the ignorant men who had groped in the intellectual darkness of twenty years before.

We derive pleasure from laughing at them. We have accounted for that elephant, at last, on the hypothesis that when he was alive Alaska was in the tropics. Twenty or thirty years from now the new crop of paleontologists will be just as likely as not to find an elephant and a petrified iceberg roosting in the same quaternary cave together up there in Alaska, and if they do, down we go, with our tropical theory, that is all.


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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