Shawnee legend tells of a herd of huge bison rampaging through
the Ohio Valley, laying waste to all in their path. To protect the
tribe, a deity slew these great beasts with lightning bolts,
finally chasing the last giant buffalo into exile across the Wabash
River, never to trouble the Shawnee again. The source of this
legend was a peculiar salt lick in present-day northern Kentucky,
where giant fossilized skeletons had for centuries lain undisturbed
by the Shawnee and other natives of the region. In 1739, the first
Europeans encountered this fossil site, which eventually came to be
known as Big Bone Lick. The site drew the attention of all who
heard of it, including George Washington, Daniel Boone, Benjamin
Franklin, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and especially Thomas
Jefferson. The giant bones immediately cast many scientific and
philosophical assumptions of the day into doubt, and they
eventually gave rise to the study of fossils for biological and
historical purposes. Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American
Paleontology recounts the rich history of the fossil site that gave
the world the first evidence of the extinction of several mammalian
species, including the American mastodon. Big Bone Lick has played
many roles: nutrient source, hallowed ground, salt mine, health
spa, and a rich trove of archaeological and paleontological
wonders. Natural historian Stanley Hedeen presents a comprehensive
narrative of Big Bone Lick from its geological formation forward,
explaining why the site attracted animals, regional tribespeople,
European explorers and scientists, and eventually American pioneers
and presidents. Big Bone Lick is the history of both a place and a
scientific discipline: it explores the infancy and adolescence of
paleontology from its humble and sometimes humorous beginnings.
Hedeen combines elements of history, geology, politics, and biology
to make Big Bone Lick a valuable historical resource as well as the
compelling tale of how a collection of fossilized bones captivated
a young nation.
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