One key to our fascination with dinosaurs is ambivalence. They are like us, yet unlike us. They are terrifying monsters, yet safely extinct. We look at the dinosaur as we look at the homeless or unemployed with mixed feelings of superiority and anxiety, pity, and apprehension. After all, we are not obsolete, homeless, or on the road to extinction… are we? And they can’t hurt us… can they?
The alien visitors will also see a parallel between the paradoxes of the dinosaur and a whole series of crises in modern history, a linkage between this image and controversies in politics, science, and culture. They will quickly discover that dinosaur bones have been put on display to make arguments for and against evolution; to express anxieties about uncontrolled migration and racial mixing, and to illustrate the consequences of failure to migrate and adapt to new conditions. They will observe that the greatest epidemic of dinosaur images occurs in the late twentieth century, just at the moment when widespread public awareness of ecological catastrophe is dawning, and the possibility of irreversible extinction is becoming widely evident. But they will also note the curious way in which the dinosaur image serves as a monument to the prestige of modern states and nations. Why, they will ask, does the United States have a “Dinosaur National Monument,” and why does every state in the union want its own dinosaur? (The New Jersey state legislature declared Hadrosaurus its “state dinosaur” in 1994; New Mexico claims Seismosaurus, the biggest dinosaur in the world, of which only a few tail bones have been found; Texas brags about its “Lone Star Dinosaurs” that “roamed where jumbo jets now roll down runways”; California has no real dinosaurs to brag about, but it displays them “in response to public demand” at the La Brea tar pits and Universal Studios.) We presume that Theodor Adorno’s famous remark that the appearance of the dinosaur is a symptom of the “monstrous total State” was directed at the fascist regimes of Europe. But suppose it has an unintended significance, an application to places like New Jersey and (of course) California? Or simply to that “state of affairs” we call the modern world?
THE TOTEM ANIMAL OF MODERNITY
By this I mean, first, that it is a symbolic animal that comes into existence for the first time in the modern era; second, that it epitomizes a modern time sense — both the geological “deep time” of paleontology and the temporal cycles of innovation and obsolescence endemic to modern capitalism; and third, that it functions in a number of rituals that introduce individuals to modern life and help societies to produce modern citizens. I call it the totem animal because it is unique, sui generis. The modern world has many symbolic animals and many monsters, but none of them function in precisely the way the dinosaur does. It is not just a totem animal of modernity, but the animal image that has, by a complex process of cultural selection, emerged as the global symbol of modern humanity’s relation to nature. The word “totem,” as Claude Lévi-Strauss reminds us, “is taken from the Ojibwa, an Algonquin language of the region to the north of the Great Lakes of northern America. The expression ototeman… means roughly, ‘he is a relative of mine.’” A totem (which is generally an animal, but can also be a plant, mineral, or even an artificial object) is thus a social symbol, a sign of the clan or collectivity. In the world of sacred or superstitious objects and images, totems occupy a kind of middle ground between the fetish (a private object of devotion or obsession) and the idol (a collective projection of absolute power and divinity). Totems are more social than fetishes, less absolute and authoritarian — less religious — than idols. Fetishes, in psychoanalytic theory, are associated with severed body parts, idols with human sacrifice. The totem animal, by contrast, is itself the sacrificial object, a substitute for the human victim.
Everything that concerned the true nature of the Dinosaurs must remain hidden. In the night, as the New Ones slept around the skeleton, which they had decked with flags, I transported it, vertebra by vertebra, and buried my Dead.
— Italo Calvino, The Dinosaurs
Totem animals in traditional, premodern societies played four basic roles. They served (1) as symbols of the social unit (tribe, clan, or nation); (2) as ancestor figures reminding the clan of its ancient origin and descent; (3) as “taboo” objects, both in the general sense of sacred or holy things, and in the more specific sense of a prohibition against touching or eating the totem animal or having sex with a member of the same clan; and (4) as ritual objects, connected with the sacrifice of the animal followed by a “totem meal,” in which the normally taboo animal is consumed. These functions are all independent of one another (it is relatively rare to find all of them present in traditional societies), and sometimes even contradictory: the forbidden object of sexual or culinary “consummation” may become the compulsory object of the sacrificial feast, the ritual meal or love object.
A moment’s reflection reveals that the dinosaur plays all four of these roles, albeit in modified ways, in modern societies. The dinosaur is a “clan sign” for a wide range of social collectivities, from national to federal “states,” from vanishing races to dominant, imperial civilizations, from warrior-hunter brotherhoods to dangerous new sisterhoods of “clever girls.” As social symbol, moreover, the dinosaur is not merely a single, positive symbol for a specific tribe, nation, or species, but is itself a figure of collectivity, a group or series of species whose differences may be mapped onto any parallel set of differences in human society. Thus, the contrast between carnivorous and herbivorous dinosaurs can be encoded as a gender difference, equating “male with devourer and female with devoured” (the dominant tendency in traditional societies), or inverted (as in Jurassic Park, in which all the dinosaurs are female, and all their human victims are male). The major “types” of dinosaurs in folk or vernacular taxonomy (the “cookie cutter” stereotypes of T.rex, Brontosaurus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Pterodactyl) provide a readymade bestiary for the differentiation of individuals and groups. Elementary schoolchildren are routinely encouraged to select (and identify with) their “favorite” dinosaur, inspiring role- playing fantasies of flight, monstrous ferocity, gentle giantism, and armored invulnerability. It is a tribute to Spielberg and Crichton’s inventiveness that they have actually succeeded in introducing a new member to the folk taxonomy of dinosaurs. Velociraptor, the packhunting, fast-moving, highly intelligent predator, has now entered the global vernacular, and has been adopted as the clan sign and emblem of Toronto’s professional basketball team. These differentiated dinosaurial types may also, on the other hand, be dissolved into a generalized figure of homogeneous mass society, as Capek does with his “Newts” or “erect salamanders.”
The ancestral function of the dinosaur is relatively straightforward: The Age of Reptiles precedes and makes way for the Age of Mammals in the master narrative of modern paleontology. Dinosaurs are the rulers of the earth before humankind. They must die out so that we can live; they must disappear or devolve into degenerate “creeping things” (or relatively harmless birds) so that we can appear and evolve into the dominant species. They are rather like the Chthonian (often reptilian) gods of the underworld in Greek mythology, the “giants of the earth” who had to be killed or imprisoned so that humanoid skygods, the Olympians, could assume dominance. This ancestral narrative is replayed, moreover, at the individual level in children’s identification of their parents as dangerous dinosaurial giants who (fortunately) will inevitably make room for their offspring by becoming extinct.
The most complex feature of the dinosaur totem is the cluster of taboos and rituals that surround its excavation and display. These form the core of public dinosaur fascination and “dinomania,” the set of emotional and intellectual associations that give dinosaurs “magic” and “aura” in mass culture. Here we must note a few salient differences between dinosaurs and traditional totem animals. The traditional totem was generally a living, actually existing animal that had an immediate, familiar relation to its clan. The dinosaur is a rare, exotic, and extinct animal that has to be “brought back to life” in representations and then domesticated, made harmless and familiar. The traditional totem located power and agency in nature; totem animals and plants bring human beings to life and provide the natural basis for their social classifications. By contrast, the modern totem locates power in human beings: we classify the dinosaurs and identify ourselves with them; we bring the dangerous monsters back to life in order to subdue them. The McDonald’s commercial perfectly illustrates this process: the resurrection of the monster followed by its transformation into a domestic pet that can be compelled to “play dead.” The not-so-hidden message of this commercial might be summarized as follows: let’s awaken and then subdue the totem animal of modern consumer desire (the T.rex as figure of rapacious, carnivorous appetite) with the totem vegetable of modernity, the french fry. Since the vast majority of the world’s potatoes wind up as french fries, this commercial is, in a very real sense, just telling it like it is.
What about the sexual and culinary “consummation” taboos that were thought to accompany the traditional totem, the prohibitions on eating the totem animal and having incestuous relations with a member of the same clan? I do not see any direct analogy with the mandate for exogamy in the folkways surrounding the dinosaur, but I do see a link with the fundamental issue of procreation that underlies the incest taboo. Anxieties about proper sexual roles and reproductive potency are connected with stories of dinosaur extinction and resurrection. Dinosaurs may have died out because they stopped having babies, or because they laid eggs that became increasingly vulnerable to nest robbers. Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is not only about the biogenetic cloning of dinosaurs, but also about the danger that humans will fail to reproduce. The relationship of Drs. Grant and Sattler, the male paleontologist and female paleobotanist, is shadowed by her anxiety over his dislike for children, and the story is largely about his learning how to care for children. One of the most interesting changes in the public image of the dinosaur since the 1960s has been its transformation from a solitary predator, the lone male hunter, into a “good mother” figure, guarding the nest and living in social groups. Spielberg’s The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park, is a veritable hymn in praise of dinosaur family values, portraying its T.rex couple as ferociously nurturing parents. The Field Museum dinosaur exhibition that opened in the spring of 1997 to coincide with the release of The Lost World was, not surprisingly, entitled “Dinosaur Families,” building on the work of Montana paleontologist Jack Horner with the Maiasauras or “good mother lizard.” Horner was the paleontological consultant to Jurassic Park.
The other meaning of dinosaur “consummation,” having to do with the totem meal, reappears in the form of symbolic inversion. If the traditional totem animal was not to be killed, or was to be killed and eaten only under special ritual conditions, the dinosaur is an animal that cannot be killed (being already dead), but must be brought back to life so that it can be consumed as public spectacle. More generally, the dinosaur itself is generally portrayed as a massive eating machine. It provides a spectacle of rapacious consumption that becomes more fascinating the closer the meal comes to including one of our own species.
Perhaps the most subtle contrast between the modern and traditional totems lies in the question of their status, their authority and legitimacy as social symbols. We might be tempted to say that the traditional totem is religious and magical, an object of superstitious reverence and animistic thinking, while the modern totem enjoys the authority and prestige of science. But the contrast between science and religion is undermined by the tendency of science to play the role of a modern, secular religion, popularly misconceived as the final arbiter of truth and reality in all matters. This sort of “scientism” or scientific ideology needs to be distinguished, from the actual practice of science, which tends to be skeptical, provisional, and modest about the extent and durability of its claims. Traditional totems, similarly, are probably not as dogmatically religious or magical in their authority as early anthropologists thought. The notion of a radical distinction between the “savage” and “modern” mind is precisely what totemism tends to undermine. Traditional totem animals and plants may, in fact, have as much to do with ethnozoology and ethnobotany, traditional bodies of natural lore based in accumulated observations and experiments passed on over many generations, as with any magical or religious symbolism. As the rain forests disappear from our planet, we are learning too late that their human inhabitants possess a fund of “folk biology” that consists not of “superstition,” but of refined and precise understandings of numerous exotic plants and animals, including their medicinal and poisonous properties.
The crucial point here is that ethnoscience and magic, just like modern science and that modern form of magical thinking known as “scientism,” are woven together in the everyday life of human beings. There is no question that an essential part of the taboo (in the sense of aura or magic) of the dinosaur resides in its status as a scientific object, or more specifically, in its role as a monument to “Big Science,” and even more aptly to what might be called “pure scientism.” The dinosaur exemplifies pure science because it is useless and impractical, and yet it provides a highly visible speculative object in which areas of uncertainty and controversy are very broad. “The” dinosaur is so speculative, in fact, that (as we have seen) it may never have existed as a natural kind or a coherent scientific concept, but only as a name that survives because of its popular appeal. The attractiveness of the modern dinosaur totem is, like that of the traditional totem animal, marked by ambivalence. The dinosaur is monument and toy; monstrous and silly; pure, disinterested science, and vulgar, fraudulent commercialism. The taboos (in the sense of prohibitions) surrounding the dinosaur tend to manifest themselves, then, as efforts to deny or overcome this ambivalence by declaring the dinosaur to be a purely scientific object, a serious and real object untainted by magic, money, or “cultural” interest. Stephen Jay Gould’s fear that the authentic dinosaur will be destroyed by the “deluge” of commerce and vulgar publicity is an expression of this taboo. The truth is that the dinosaur is never really separable from its popular and cultural status; the flood of publicity that seems to threaten its existence is the very thing that keeps it alive.
There is one conspicuous problem with the concept of totemism that needs to be faced at this point. Most anthropologists regard totemism as itself an obsolete notion, a relic of an earlier, Eurocentric, imperial phase of anthropology, when a radical division between the “savage” and the “civilized” mind was a basic assumption of all field research. Freud’s absorption of totemism into the psychoanalytic paradigm simply extended this boundary to include children and neurotics among the “savages” who continue to hold the sort of animistic, superstitious beliefs on which totemism relies. In the early 1960s, however, Claude Lévi-Strauss declared that totemism was an illusion. It had been inflated, he argued, into an umbrella term for “primitive religion.” Lévi-Strauss also pointed out that the totem had long been recognized as an incoherent scientific concept. As early as 1899, E. B. Tylor had noted that it had “been exaggerated out of proportion to its real theological magnitude.”
I trust that the parallels between the dinosaur and the totem are clear. Both are “scientific” concepts of dubious utility that have been inflated into master terms. Both involve a kind of back-projection into the “pre-history” of animal life and the human species, the one into the deep time of paleontology and geology, the other into the dreamtime of anthropology. Both were developed during the same imperial epoch of the sciences of nature and culture. Both involved the absorption of a diverse mass of evidence into a general concept of dubious coherence. Lévi-Strauss opened his critique of totemism with the following remark: “Totemism is like hysteria, in that once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifying interpretation.”
We might well ask, then, what is the point in using an obsolete concept from anthropology (the totem) to explain a possibly obsolete concept in paleontology (the dinosaur)? Can we use a dinosaur to catch a dinosaur? Or is this more like killing two birds with one stone? These questions are only made more vexing by the curious “afterlife” of both concepts. The dinosaur insists on living on as the marquee attraction of paleontology. Totemism continues to rear its head despite its authoritative dismissal by Levi-Strauss. In fact, Levi-Strauss himself rescued the concept by raising it to a higher level, linking it to an instinct for classification, an intellectual and ideological mapping of nature onto culture. There is a kind of uncanny parallel between the history of the dinosaurial and totemic concepts. Both enjoy an early flowering in the second half of the nineteenth century as key images and ideas in the development of paleontology and anthropology, respectively. Both fall into scientific disrepute and obsolescence in a middle period, the first half of the twentieth century, and enjoy a renewal in the sixties that has continued to the present day. The “dinosaur renaissance” inaugurated by John Ostrom and Robert Bakker is paralleled by a rebirth of totemism. As the anthropologist Roy Willis notes, “though officially pronounced dead nearly 30 years ago, totemism obstinately refuses to ‘lie down.’” It survives in social science and anthropology, now as a way of breaking down (rather than securing) the opposition between the “savage” and “civilized” mind and of reopening questions about the ecological and biological dimensions of modern culture and society. Similarly, the dinosaur, which had also been “pronounced dead” as a concept as well as a living thing, has been reborn in a new form. It is no longer an automatic synonym for failure and obsolescence, but has been refashioned as an evolutionary “success story” a 170-million-year saga of ruling reptiles that makes the prospects of human and mammalian world dominance look rather puny by comparison. We are almost tempted to say that the concepts of the totem and the dinosaur were made for each other, and that the dinosaur may well be not just a modernized version of the “savage” totem, but the first and last real totem in human history.
The relation between the dinosaur and the totem, finally, is not merely a matter of strikingly similar functions, or even of similar and parallel histories. The two concepts, and the real objects associated with them, constantly appear together in the concrete space of natural history exhibitions. Dinosaurs and totem poles are the marquee attractions of the two disciplinary “wings” of the natural history museum, the cultural and the biological. The McDonald’s commercial stages their encounter quite explicitly: the dinosaur passes in review before the silent witness figures of the Indian totem poles; the shadow of the modern dinosaur skeleton passes over the faces of the traditional animal ancestors. Which object is more magical and superstitious, we must ask ourselves: the silent totem poles glaring out of the darkness, or the ghastly monster brought back to life by the miracle of digital animation?
What difference does it make to see the dinosaur as the totem animal of modernity? The crucial shift is in the one feature that the dinosaur does not share with traditional totems, and that is precisely the consciousness of its function as a totem. The disavowal of the “savage” or “mythical” character of the dinosaur is what is crucial to its workings as the modern totem. Many people who might be willing to grant that the dinosaur functions as a cultural symbol would still hold out for a distinctively modern and scientific (that is, nonsymbolic, nonimaginary, and purely “real”) role for the terrible lizards. My claim, however, is that this holdout position is no longer tenable once one sees that the dinosaur is a totem, not just a symbol. In other words, scientific interest in the dinosaur is not to be seen as a separate enclave, protected from contamination by “cultural” issues (values, myths, superstitions, false-and-true beliefs). Science is also a cultural practice, a ritual activity with traditions, customs, and taboos. The realization that this is so should not prevent science from producing the kind of knowledge it is equipped to produce, nor should it prevent nonscientists from trusting the validity and usefulness of that knowledge.
The dinosaur, however, may be another matter. Insofar as the successful functioning of the dinosaur as totem animal (and as scientific object) depends upon the disavowal of its mythical status, the dinosaur might not survive exposure as a cult object. When a magical object depends upon mystification and disavowal, its exposure to the light of reason may transform it or cause it to disappear. Could it be possible that the current worldwide epidemic of dinomania is making its cult status undeniable? Could Jurassic Park actually be the last hurrah of the terrible lizards, a premonition that they could disappear a second time?
My prediction is that second extinction of the dinosaur will be a slow, gradual process, but one in which the final decade of the twentieth century will be seen as decisive. A similar fate befell the dragon at the end of the sixteenth century. Spenser’s Faerie Queene was the “apex of medieval dragon lore,” providing the richest narrative and iconographic representation yet known. Jurassic Park (both the novel and the film) may be the greatest dinosaur story ever told, but that doesn’t mean it will have any worthy successors. It may have the effect of killing off the genre (except for parodies, sequels, and spin-offs) for a long time. (Crichton’s own sequel is remarkably lame, even stooping to the theft of the title of an earlier dinosaur classic, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World; Spielberg’s sequel is a pale imitation of a pale imitation.) With the death of Spenser’s dragon at the hands of the Redcrosse Knight (Saint George), as Jonathan Evans points out, “the dragon itself passes from English literature — or at least goes dormant. On the Continent, dragons remained active only as subspecies of serpents in encyclopedias and works of natural history.”
ON THE EVOLUTION OF IMAGES
The very concept of an “evolution of images” is an ideal place to try out such a synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Darwin. Images are, as we have seen, a kind of artificial species. The dinosaur image is the intersection of cultural and natural determinants, a crossroads of scientific knowledge, social interests, and psychological desires. The dinosaur, as we shall see, has itself “evolved” from its original function as a counter-example to Darwinism into its current role as a kind of monument to the reign of Darwinism. Unlike most images, the dinosaur has an origin and development that are open to investigation. We know when it was invented, and we can describe how it changed.
These changes, however, clearly do not reflect a model of progressive evolution, but rather a dialectical, punctuated model of controversy, debate, and paradigm shift. The dinosaur is never seen “as such.” It is always governed by the rule of what Ludwig Wittgenstein called “seeing as”: the visual image is riddled with metaphor, with the representation of the unknown and the invisible in terms of the known and the familiar. The Victorians saw dinosaurs as terrible lizards, as reptilian hippos and rhinos, as scaly mammals, as kangaroos, as leathery, bat-like birds, or just as all-purpose monsters and hybrids reminiscent of medieval dragons. The moderns settled on a view of them as giant erect reptiles. Now the postmoderns are attempting to forge a consensus around seeing them as birds. But this is occurring in a time when the relation of the unknown to the known, the invisible to the visible, has changed. The dinosaur is no longer an exotic, unfamiliar novelty; it is now the most publicized animal image on the planet. It hardly comes as a surprise, therefore, that the direction of “seeing as” is reversing field, and some paleontologists are beginning to urge us to see birds as dinosaurs! At this point, however, dinosaurology becomes so successful that it threatens to glut the market, to kill the romance and mystery of its object, and to disperse it into a dead metaphor, a framework for seeing almost anything “as” a dinosaur. When Bakker concludes The Dinosaur Heresies by urging us to say, when we see Canadian geese flying north, “The dinosaurs are migrating, it must be spring!” we know that the cart is pulling the horse.
The internalist, progressivist history of scientific images depends upon a notion of visual transparency that ignores the inevitable role of metaphor in visual imaging. Paleontologist Dale Russell puts it this way: “Artists are the eyes of paleontologists, and paintings are the windows through which nonspecialists can see the dinosaurian world.” This clearly cannot be right. Artists, no matter how obedient, are not simply “eyes,” nor are paleontologists simply “brains” waiting to be wired up to a cooperative retina. (If you want to think of the art-science collaboration in terms of body parts, a better comparison would be to think of the scientist as the eye and the artist as the hand. Their collaborative relation would then be more like “eye-hand coordination.”) But the important point is that both scientists and artists are human beings, participants in cultures that impinge on their “pure” scientific pursuits, guaranteeing that their work will never be pure or pristinely objective. And even if their images were “windows through which nonspecialists can see the dinosaurian world” (which they clearly are not), those nonspecialists would also be coming to those windows not with pure, innocent eyes, but with preconceptions, fantasies, and prejudices much like those shared by the scientists and artists. There is no getting around “seeing as” to simple seeing as such. The innocent eye, as E. H. Gombrich showed long ago, is blind.
All this might be put in the form of a much less controversial claim: that the history of dinosaur images (like that of any other scientific representation, especially one put into mass circulation) is the product of a larger history than the sequence of events internal to science. From the standpoint of an iconologist, who looks at the history of images across media and across the boundaries of art and science, their history is more like the history of everything else in the period from 1840 to 2000: filled with crises, conflicts, reversals, and multiple levels of determination. The wonderful histories of paleontology by Adrian Desmond, Martin Rudwick, Peter Bowler, Robert West Howard, Edwin Colbert, and others have made clear what a weird and intricate relation bone and fossil science has with social, political, and cultural issues. While the evolution of dinosaur images might seem incredibly brief compared with the history of dinosaurs themselves (150 years as contrasted with 170 million), their iconological history is probably just as complex and filled with incident. After all, not a whole lot happened in the average century or millennium of the long “Age of Reptiles.” It is what Lévi-Strauss characterizes as a “cold” historical period, in contrast to the “hot” era of modernity. It has the temporality of a “frozen zone.” Even a catastrophic (much less a gradual) extinction probably took many thousands of years to occur.
By contrast, the century and a half since dinosaurs first appeared in public has been filled with momentous transformations in the human condition and the physical condition of the earth. In that time, empires have risen and fallen, major revolutions and radical social experiments have occurred, new technologies, scientific paradigms, and habitats have been created, and the global ecosystem has itself begun to be modified by human activity. Most notably, the rate of extinction of plant and animal species has accelerated rapidly, and a new, distinctly modern phenomenon has emerged in the mass extermination of human beings. The technologies of mass destruction, and the willingness to industrialize genocide and mass death, have reached unprecedented levels.
COMING TO AMERICA
“Westward the course of empire takes its way,” wrote Bishop Berkeley over two hundred years ago in his treatise “On the Prospect of Planting the Arts and Sciences in America”. The dinosaur image was naturally destined to migrate to America, and ultimately to the rest of the world. (It was already, in the nineteenth century, migrating from France to Germany and to Eastern Europe, where Louis Dollo’s reproductions of the Belgian Iguanodon led the way.) Today the modernization of backward African countries is measured in part by their willingness to sustain up-to-date scientific dinosaur excavation and give up traditional superstitions about the great bones. Everywhere that the modern world goes, it finds the dinosaur already there waiting for it. Places that don’t have dinosaurs by nature (like Southern California) produce them by art. The La Brea tar pits may boast their authentic mastodons, but they must also offer life-size robotic dinosaur models to gratify popular demand. The migration of dinosaurology to America is sometimes seen as a natural inevitability, given the brute fact of the abundance of easily accessible bones in the New World and the longstanding interest in natural history as a national pursuit. North America’s “bone fields,” like its reserves of minerals and precious metals, were a natural resource awaiting exploitation in the midst of what chroniclers never tire of calling a “Virgin wilderness,” a phrase that erases the presence of native populations. From a scientific point of view, the abundance of fossils and the vast number of complete skeletons promised an access to ancient times unheard of in the fragmentary and deeply buried fossil record of Europe. Actually, the survival of the North American bone reserves was not merely a “natural fact,” but a result of a rather consistent set of Native American cultural attitudes toward them. The Delaware Indians who reported their legends about the mastodon to Jefferson made it clear that the bones were taboo, and had left them largely untouched. Associated with memories (and perhaps premonitions) of famine and war, the bones were relics of God’s justice and mercy — his destruction of the enemies of the Indians and his protection of them from extermination.
There were similar legends about large animal bones among the Plains Indians. The big bones found in the bluffs of Nebraska and Dakota were thought by the Sioux to be the remains of the Unktehi, subterranean and sub-aquatic giants and reptilian monsters who were big enough to eat men, and whose appearance would make one go crazy or blind. The Unktehi were sometimes described as huge oxen, or as giant rattlesnakes with legs, and their destroyers were the sky gods, especially the Thunderbird. Despite their archaic, ancient pedigree, the Unktehi were often depicted with modern metaphors: “Its back-bone is like across- cut saw, being flat and notched like a cog wheel”; its “den” is “constructed of iron.” One legendary sighting even makes the water monster sound like a strangely familiar spectacle on the Missouri in the 1870s: “Long ago … the people saw a strange thing in the Missouri River. At night there was some red object, shining like fire, making the water roar as it passed upstream.” Given the catastrophic results for Indians of the arrival of the iron horse and the paddle-wheel steamboat in their country, it is hard to see their perception of these monsters as Unktehi as a mistake. One of the still unsolved puzzles of the bone rush is the curious tolerance shown by the Indians for bone hunters.
Dinosaur bones were not, like the relics in Indian burial mounds, sacred traces of the ancestors that it would be impious to disturb, but relics of enemies whose death had made Indian life possible. C. Marsh, the leader of the Yale paleontological expeditions after the Civil War, was actually able to befriend Chief Red Cloud when the Indians decided that the bone hunters (unlike the miners and ranchers) were not attempting to take possession of their land. In return, Marsh helped to publicize the reduction of the Sioux to abject poverty as a result of corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Marsh’s chief rival in the bone rush from 1864 to 1889, Edward Drinker Cope, managed to charm the Crow Indians into tolerating his excavations during the very summer (1876) when Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were being wiped out 150 miles to the south of his dig. Cope’s theatrical haunting of his false teeth reportedly led to his being named “Magic Tooth” among the Crow. One senses in these stories a toleration for the manifestly crazy white men who would want to risk their lives for worthless and probably dangerous relics. The bones of “enormous serpents” found in the Black Hills, for instance, were thought to be certain death to the finder. The testimony of frontiersman James H. Cook about paleontologists is that “they were usually spoken of as bone or bug-hunting idiots.” In any case, the Indians were in no position to challenge the paleontologists, who were working with the permission and protection of the US government (and often a company of cavalry). The Indians were probably too concerned with their own extinction to worry about a few crazy white men robbing the bones of dead monsters.
If the dinosaur was at the leading edge of the advancement of empire, then, it played a role rather different from those self- evidently valuable objects of imperial expansion — fertile land and mineral resources. In the transit from England to America, it encountered both straightforward resistance and complex forms of ambivalence and transformation. Jefferson may have established the institutional space in which big American bones could find a home, but the contention about those bones had not ended with the Mammoth Presidency. Peale’s attempt at a national museum of natural history was in ruins, his mastodon destroyed by fire, his museum in the hands of P. T. Barnum. Waterhouse Hawkins came to America at the invitation of New York City’s Central Park Commission in 1868 with the goal of establishing a Jurassic Park near the Sixty-third Street entrance, adjacent to the present location of the American Museum of Natural History. His hopes for repeating his Crystal Palace triumph were dashed, however, when thugs hired by Boss Tweed and the Tammany Hall ring broke into his studio and destroyed his dinosaurs with sledgehammers. Adrian Desmond speculates that the motive (aside from the usual power struggles of big city politics) may have been “religious prejudice”: Tweed referred to Hawkins’s dinosaurs as “specimens of animals alleged to be of the pre- Adamite period.” “Antediluvian monsters,” victims of Noah’s Flood, were one thing. At least they could be reconciled with the Bible. But pre-Adamite monsters, even the specially created divine “archetypes” of Richard Owen, were enough to produce a coalition of Catholic and Protestant reaction, countered only by Quakers, Unitarians, and some quiet support from Episcopalians.
Although dinosaur research and the bone rush became a mania in post-Civil War America, dinosaur publicity (with the exception of the Cope Marsh “bone wars”) lagged behind. Dinosaurial fame in America seems to begin not with the bones, but with the bone hunters. Marsh was probably the most famous scientist in the United States in the late nineteenth century. Waterhouse Hawkins, despite some successes (most notably the construction of a short- lived plaster Hadrosaurus for the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in Washington), never managed to adapt his reconstructions to the conditions of American mass culture. He returned to England shortly after completing his Hadrosaurus and died in obscurity in a cottage near the Crystal Palace.
The American public had plenty of other spectacles to distract them in this era. P. T. Barnum had once considered hiring Hawkins to make some replicas of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs for his American Museum, but he decided that it was a “European phenomenon” and confined himself to pious hoaxes such as the “Cardiff Giant,” a ten-foot fake “fossil corpse” that had been “excavated” (after a discreet burial) in upstate New York. The Bible did say that there were “giants in the earth” before the Flood, and Milton had depicted the serpent as walking erect before God condemned him to crawl on his belly for tempting Adam and Eve. (We have already noted the uncanny resemblance between the erect reptilian tempter and Hawkins’s Hadrosaurus). But the American public after the Civil War was simply not ready for the dinosaur. Perhaps the surplus of public attractions was compounded, paradoxically, by a surplus of dry bones. The wealth of authentic and complete skeletal reconstructions being assembled in Philadelphia, New Haven, and later New York were not accompanied by the kind of widely circulated sculptural or pictorial “restorations” necessary to create a public image of the dinosaur for America. That had to await the formation of a modern image of the dinosaur, one that would break decisively with the Victorian archetype and epitomize the New World Order at the end of the nineteenth century.
W.J.T. Mitchell, excerpt from The Last Dinosaur Book (1998, The University of Chicago Press)