Monday, 4 November 2013

The first bones - early dinosaur discoveries


I got wondering the other day, as I do, who the first people were to come across the remains of dinosaurs. What did they make of them? Who was the first to realise that they had unearthed a long extinct creature from the distant past? My initial google search soon had me reading deeper into the story and as often happens I  have ended up writing another blog post on a random subject that I wasn't planning to cover. Perhaps that is the best way to do it? So here we go. Ironically enough, our story begins with a man of the cloth.
In 1676 the Reverend Robert Plot, who was also professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, published his work Natural History of Oxfordshire. Within it he discussed an unusual discovery that he had once come upon in a local quarry. Clearly identifiable as the top part of a femur, the fossilised bone fragment was far too large to have come from any creature native to Britain that Plot was aware of. Falling back on his history, Plot opined that perhaps the specimen was the remains of one of the elephants which Tacitus tells us were brought over to overawe the natives during Claudius’ invasion of 51 AD. It was such a good piece of deduction that it deserved to be right but Plot would have been astounded to learn that what he had actually described was the first recorded discovery of dinosaur remains.
He would have scoffed at the idea of a seven metre long, one and a half ton giant lizard roaming around the Oxfordshire countryside. Indeed, having dismissed his reasonably sensible Roman elephant idea as fanciful, Plot had eventually decided that his bone must have belonged to a British Goliath. Giants after all were attested in the Bible whereas enormous lizards patently were not.
Robert Plot 1640-1696

In an age before the concept of evolution, the idea that the earth and all the creatures upon it had not remained precisely as God had made them, unchanged since the day of creation, was considered risible even by some of the most learned of men. As the enlightenment gathered pace however, it became harder for some to deny the evidence of their own eyes. James Hutton was such a man. This well-travelled geologist came to the conclusion that the very rocks of the earth were part of an ever changing ‘great geological cycle’ in which the twin forces of erosion and volcanic activity shaped and renewed the landscape. Hutton was convinced that such processes had taken place over long millennia and that the evidence in the rocks belied the prevailing biblical view of an earth that was just six thousand years old.
In an even greater leap of logical deduction recorded in his work of 1794 Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge Hutton wrote:
If an organised body is not in the situation and circumstances best adapted to its sustenance and propagation, then, in conceiving an indefinite variety among the individuals of that species, we must be assured, that, on the one hand, those which depart most from the best adapted constitution, will be the most liable to perish, while, on the other hand, those organised bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race.
He was thus a man well ahead of his time. The work was never published and the proposal of the mechanism of evolution by  natural selection would not appear in print until Charles Darwin’s 1859 Origin of Species.

James Hutton 1726-1797

Despite Hutton’s insight into these essential truths, the study of geology continued within the constraints of a biblical framework. William Buckland, another Oxford man who combined the seemingly contradictory duties of a clergyman with the pursuit of scientific enquiry, set out to reconcile the two. In his treatise of 1820 Vindiciae Geologiae Buckland was obliged, in order to secure the academic future of the discipline, to explain the stratification of sedimentary rock formations and the presence of fossilised animal remains within them as evidence of the great flood of Noah. The presence of creatures not native to Britain was put down to their bodies having been swept here from far off lands by the flood waters.
The evidence however told a different story and Buckland was later convinced by the quantity of remains that he had found that these creatures must have lived here all along. By comparison of similar features of the British landscape with those he had seen during a visit to Switzerland, Buckland was persuaded that the land had been gradually shaped and that layers of rock had been laid down by the action of glaciers over thousands of years, rather than by a single catastrophic event.
Buckland’s  arguments met with much hostility but he had made one electrifying discovery over the course of his investigations into the remains of long dead creatures. In 1815 at Stonesfield Quarry in Oxfordshire, teeth and bones of a previously completely unknown beast had been uncovered. After a decade of painstaking reconstruction Buckland announced that he had found the remains of a giant carnivorous lizard. He named it Megalosaurus. Although the name dinosaur had not yet been coined, the first example of their kind had been found.
Megalosaurus Bucklandii

In 1822 a quarry in Tilgate Forest Sussex, not a stone’s throw from where I grew up, began to yield up fragments of another strange beast. Gideon Mantell, a doctor by profession and keen amateur fossil digger by inclination had already turned up a variety of extinct marine creatures in the Sussex chalk when his long suffering wife Mary Ann one day brought him a large fossilised tooth that she had come across during a walk. Mantell was convinced that this must belong to an entirely new type of creature; a giant herbivorous reptile. Comparison with the teeth of the modern iguana convinced him that the creature must have resembled a larger version of the lizard, perhaps as large as one hundred feet long.
Mantell's dig in Tilgate Forest

For the next decade Mantell laboured to turn up more fragments of the beast and eventually succeeded in making the case for his discovery in the face of opposition from the doyen of the zoological academic establishment and later founder of the Natural History Museum Richard Owen. The debate between the two turned bitter as Owen, the anatomical expert, argued that the Iguanodon, as it had come to be known, could not have been so large and that it had walked upon all fours like modern large mammals. Mantell conceded defeat on the size of the creature, having initially based his estimate on an up-scaled  iguana and come up with Godzilla. He later proved however that the iguanodon’s forelimbs were shorter than its hind limbs and re-envisioned the creature as standing upright. In reality it probably spent most of its time on all fours but at the time it was Mantell’s interpretation, as depicted in the Victorian illustration at the top of this post, that prevailed. The Sedgwick Museum’s example cast of a specimen found in Belgium, pictured below, was mounted in a bipedal posture in accordance with this view.
Cast of Iguanodon skeleton - Sedgwick Museum Cambridge

Mantell is something of a tragic figure. Mary Ann finally left him after he reduced his family to penury, having abandoned his successful practice in Lewes and moved to Brighton where the family home was turned into a museum with the family forced into a single room. One can hardly blame the poor woman for taking the very unusual step of divorcing her husband in 1839. Mantell was later crippled in a carriage accident and in a supreme irony, following his death in 1852 from an overdose of opiates, he ended up as a specimen himself with his scoliosis-wracked spine preserved in a jar in the collection of his nemesis Richard Owen.
It was Owen therefore who ended up as the public face of the study of dinosaurs, having coined the word itself in 1842 and presided over the creation of full scale models of iguanodon and megalosaurus to be exhibited in Crystal Palace Park in 1853. Six years later however his opposition to Darwin’s theories would leave his credibility permanently tarnished in the eyes of a new generation of scientists.
Overlooked and somewhat sneered at in the refined air of academic circles at the time was another tireless bone digger named Mary Anning, who today is probably better known than most of those mentioned above for the same reason that she was scorned at the time. As a woman in a man's world and lacking a university education to boot, Mary Anning could never hope for inclusion at the top table. Dependant for much of her life upon charity and reliant on searching the cliffs of Lyme Regis for fossil remains which she could then sell to wealthy collectors, Mary could be dismissed as merely a finder and seller of fossils. Those who knew better knew her to be an expert in the location and identification of fossil remains and a first rate self-taught anatomist. Buckland, Mantell and Owen all beat a path to her door and her abilities were respected throughout the academic world. Her discovery of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and pterosaurs in the Dorset cliffs introduced prehistoric creatures of the deep and of the air into the public consciousness.
Mary Anning 1799-1847
Mary Anning died from breast cancer in 1847, fondly remembered by the academic establishment but hardly lauded. Her story alone however was the only one it was deemed necessary for me to have been taught about school, a fact which doubtless had more to do with her gender than her accomplishments. From my viewpoint the greatest compliment one can pay notable women from the pages of history is neither to tolerate the prejudices that they endured in their own day, nor to subscribe to the modern agendas that seek to put them on a pedestal, but simply to give them their due. That, after all, is all most of them ever wanted.
This example of an ichthyosaur discovered by Anning which today resides in the Sedgwick Museum illustrates the lack of recognition that she received for her discoveries. It is not Anning's name writ large upon the slab but that of the donor Thomas Hawkins;author of a fanciful work entitled The Book of Great Sea Dragons, whom William Buckland described as 'A young man with more money than wit.' Hawkins was in the habit of adding extra bones to the specimens he purchased from Anning to make them appear more complete, a practice which Anning herself frowned upon.
In her own lifetime Mary Anning described herself as 'ill-used' by the academic community. In modern times she has found a measure of restitution. And when we look upon the treasures she unearthed, who would begrudge her that?
Ichthyosaur - Sedgwick Museum Cambridge

Robert Plot
James Hutton
William Buckland
Gideon Mantell
Mary Anning

You may also enjoy: Austen Henry Layard - Discover of Nineveh

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