chapter  1
13 Pages

Mammoths in the landscape

ByNigel Rothfels

An unusual hunting story by a Henry Tukeman appeared in McClure’s magazine in the fall of 1899. The account begins with a transcript of a letter addressed to ‘H. Tukeman, Esq.’ residing in Kent, England, from Horace P. Conradi. In the letter, Conradi – introduced as a recently deceased eccentric millionaire – releases Tukeman from his promise never to reveal how Conradi obtained an internationally famous specimen of mammoth, the taxidermized remains of which were then being exhibited at the Smithsonian. Thus begins a tale which over the last century has come to the attention most often of those interested in historical hoaxes. In many ways, in fact, the story seems to be just another one of those now predictable accounts of prehistoric megafauna surviving on uncharted islands and in hidden valleys. 1

If, in some ways, the story might seem unremarkable, it deserves a quick retelling and some refl ection because it not only gives a vivid idea of how people at the end of the nineteenth century imagined the lives of extinct mammoths, but it also shows particularly well how we actively create the ‘natural histories’ of animals. No modern human has ever observed living mammoths, but this apparently unintended hoax – the editors at McClure’s felt they had been clear that the work was fi ction – was somehow deeply convincing. When people later wrote to the editors and also the curators at the Smithsonian for more information about the ‘Conradi mammoth’, it was because the account seemed so real ; what made it that way has largely to do with the historical moment in which it was written. In this, the story shows well at least part of what is driving the expanding interest in researching our cultural ways of understanding animals. While it is true that some quite important observations about the presence and signifi cance of animals in human cultures stretch back to the beginnings of what have become the modern academic disciplines, it is really only in recent decades that animals have become a central and, more signifi cantly, persistent focus for scholars from a

wide array of fi elds outside the life sciences. This is not the place for a full discussion of the profound impact of this shift in focus; to oversimplify, when scholars begin to attend to the presence of animal life in their research, their perspectives on their fi elds seem to change quickly.