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Thomas Jefferson had so many serious interests and accomplishments that’s it’s difficult to name even half of them. Besides helping to found a nation, he analyzed the gospels, started a university, promoted fine dining and bought half our continent from the French.
He also squeezed in a few hours now and then to theorize about the origin of some peculiar bones dug out of the earth. (That bit of work made him a cousin to all of us geologists – or so I like to think.)
But despite his brilliance in many fields, Jefferson got something important quite wrong, and we perhaps can learn from the fact that so great a mind clearly stumbled.
Up and down the eastern seaboard of North America, some odd sets of bones had been discovered in the gravel bars and riverbanks of colonial America. Many of them appeared to come from an elephant-like creature with enormous, curved tusks. No one had ever seen such an animal in the flesh.
Today, every schoolchild would call the remains woolly mammoths and mastodons, but such identifications weren’t obvious if you were Joe Farmer in 1750 and you unearthed just a bone or two from a creek bank.
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