Hold on to your butts! There might be a Gallimimus-esque stampede this weekend to your local movie theatre as the long-awaited and much-hyped sequel to Jurassic Park (1997), Jurassic World hits the big screen. But the true dinosaur hunters know that you won’t find fossils at the bottom of your popcorn bucket—you’ll find them at Big Bone Lick State Park in Union, Kentucky.
Thomas Jefferson waited almost 30 years to lay eyes on the immense bones collected at Big Bone Lick. When Europeans first came into contact with this site in 1739, the fossils immediately garnered fame around the world and cast many scientific and philosophical assumptions of the day into doubt. The remains exceeded the size of any species found in America: huge femur and rib bones, great ivory tusks, jawbones wider than the span of a man’s arms, molars the size of pumpkins. In 1807, William Clark, who had recently returned from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, collected about 300 fossils for President Jefferson.
In 1781, when Jefferson’s interest in the fossils piqued, little-to-nothing was known about the colossal skeletons found, and considerable controversy surrounded their interpretation. The Shawnee believed that they were the remains of man-eating monsters destroyed by a benevolent god to protect them. Early European discoverers made conjectures that the remains were of now-extinct human-like giants, elephants, and bison. Others, committed to a belief in the perfection of God’s creation, found it hard to accept the notion of extinction. Jefferson thought that the very concept violated the inherent balance of nature. Until Lewis and Clark returned from their historic expedition, Jefferson and others believed that the mysterious creatures discovered at Big Bone Lick still inhabited lands west of the Mississippi River.By 1806 French scientist Georges Cuvier had identified the extinct species, Mammut americanum, or the American mastodon. Since then thousands of fossil specimens have been excavated from Big Bone Lick and seven extinct species have been discovered there. Fossils from the lick have made their way into museums and collections east and across the Atlantic. A number of Big Bone Lick fossils were deposited in the collections of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia; others resided in the Cabinet du Roi, the French king’s collection of curiosities in Paris. Bones and teeth sent to London sparked debates before the Royal Society. The fossils even found their way into the Tammany Society’s museum in New York City.
Today, you can visit Big Bone Lick State Park to observe current archaeological research, view bones and fossils found on-site, learn about the Native American cultures who came across the first discoveries, or spend the night at the Park’s campgrounds.
For more information on the history and discoveries at Big Bone Lick, and what implications they might have on current scientific research, Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology, is a fascinating and comprehensive book from natural historian Stanley Hedeen. Hedeen 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. 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.