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Building Baluchitherium and Indricotherium: Imperial and International Networks in Early-Twentieth Century Paleontology

Abstract

Over the first decades of the twentieth century, the fragmentary remains of a huge prehistoric ungulate were unearthed in scientific expeditions in India, Turkestan and Mongolia. Following channels of formal and informal empire, these were transported to collections in Britain, Russia and the United States. While striking and of immense size, the bones proved extremely difficult to interpret. Alternately naming the creature Paraceratherium, Baluchitherium and Indricotherium, paleontologists Clive Forster-Cooper, Alexei Borissiak and Henry Fairfield Osborn struggled over the reconstruction of this gigantic fossil mammal. However, despite these problems, shared work on the creature served as a focus for collaboration and exchange rather than rivalry between these three scientific communities. Not only did the initial interpretation and analysis depend on pre-existing connections between British and American paleontological institutions, but the need for comparative material, recognition and contacts brought British and American scholars into communication and exchange with their counterparts in the Soviet Union. This article examines these processes. It first uses these excavations as a comparative case-study of different manifestations of colonial science in this period, examining how scholars in the Britain, the Russian Empire and the United States used formal and informal colonial links to Asia to pursue new research. It then moves to examine how the common problem of reconstructing this giant animal drew metropolitan scientific communities together, at least for a time. The construction of the Baluchitherium and Indricotherium illustrates the drives to expand research both imperially and internationally in the early-twentieth century, but also the continual problems in resources, institutionalization, transport and communication that could run up against scientific work.

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Manias, C. Building Baluchitherium and Indricotherium: Imperial and International Networks in Early-Twentieth Century Paleontology. J Hist Biol 48, 237–278 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-014-9395-y

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Keywords

  • Paleontology
  • Empire
  • Evolution
  • Museums
  • Expeditions
  • Colonialism