There was a time when the eyes of the world were drawn to Kentucky. Long before the run for the roses, international intrigue came not by animals running a derby but by animal bones unearthed at Big Bone Lick. Stanley Hedeen’s book Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology tells the story of those bones.
If you grew up in Kentucky you know about Big Bone Lick. That knowledge though is little more than a passing thought of the mammoth bones discovered at the site. This book puts that passing thought into prospective. The story is far more interesting than this oversimplification, the bone discovery was huge news at the time and reverberated around the world. Scientist in European countries studied the bones taken at Big Bone Lick. Debates spurred over the exact species of the animal. Many did not believe God would allow extinction but were confused by the bones that seemed to be elephant but had different characteristics and were in a region without elephants. Americans Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame) also took interest in the site or excavated bones.
Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology weaves the history and science of Big Bone Lick into a well written story. Intermingled with the famous mammoth bone narrative Hedeen includes the recounting of legends behind the site from different native tribes. You also learn about the bones of other extinct animals found at Big Bone Lick, including a mastodon and two different sloths. (I did not know that these animals once roamed our state.) The geography of the area is discussed as well as the circumstances that led to the amassing of such a large concentration of bones in the area.
We have traveled to many Kentucky state parks. My hope has always been to take my son to visit each one in the state. After reading Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology I have moved Big Bone Lick to the top of my list. I can only imagine what it must have been like when Native Americans and the first frontiersmen discovered the area, it must have been quite the sight to behold. I hope my son can experience just a little bit of that wonder and understand Big Bone Lick’s significance.
Map by early Kentucky historian John Filson. Quote from The Embargo a satirical poem denouncing, among other things, Thomas Jefferson’s preoccupation with Big Bone Lick. Both can be found in the book.