Palaeontology developed as a field dependent upon comparison. Not only did reconstructing the fragmentary records of fossil organisms and placing them within taxonomic systems and evolutionary lineages require detailed anatomical comparisons with living and fossil animals, but the field also required thinking in terms of behavioural, biological and ecological analogies with modern organisms to understand how prehistoric animals lived and behaved. Yet palaeontological material often worked against making easy linkages, bringing a sense of mystery and doubt. This paper will look at an animal whose study exemplified these problems: the Chalicothere. Increasingly (although not unproblematically) recognized as a specific type from finds across North America and Eurasia from the early nineteenth century onwards, these prehistoric mammals showed short back legs terminating in pawed feet, long front limbs ending in sharp claws, a long flexible neck, and herbivorous grinding teeth. The Chalicothere became a significant organism within palaeontological studies, as the unexpected mix of characters made it a textbook example against the Cuvierian notion of “correlation of parts,” while explaining how the animal moved, fed and behaved became puzzling. However, rather than prevent comparisons, these actually led to comparative analogies becoming flexible and varied, with different forms of comparison being made with varying methods and degrees of confidence, and with the anatomy, movement and behaviour of giraffes, bears, horses, anteaters, primates and other organisms all serving at various points as potential models for different aspects of the animal. This paper will examine some of the attempts to reconstruct and define the Chalicotheres across a long timescale, using this to show how multiple comparisons and analogies could be deployed in a reconstructive and evolutionary science like palaeontology, and illustrate some of the limits and tensions in comparative methods, as they were used to reconstruct organisms which were thought to be incomparable to any modern animal.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
As this article will highlight, the taxonomic description of the Chalicotheres underwent considerable revaluation over the period being considered. This paper will broadly use the term ‘Chalicothere’ to refer to the family as a whole, and refer to lower taxonomic ranks by their genus or species names.
The term ‘pachyderm’ was often used as general category for four-footed herbivores in this period.
The Dinotherium would be understood by later scientists as a land-dwelling proboscidean and grouped with the elephants, lacking claw-like feet.
Abel, O. (1920). Studien über die Lebensweise von Chalicotherium. Acta Zoologica, 1, 21–60.
Anderson, T. (2013). Aepyornis as moa: Giant birds and global connections in nineteenth-century science. British Journal for the History of Science, 46, 675–693.
Andrews, C. W. (1923). An African Chalicothere. Nature, 112, 696.
Bowler, P. J. (1976). Fossils and progress: Paleontology and the idea of progressive evolution in the nineteenth century. New York: Science History Publications.
Bowler, P. (1983). The eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian evolution theories in the decades around 1900. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Bowler, P. J. (1996). Life’s splendid drama: Evolutionary biology and the reconstruction of life’s ancestry, 1860–1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Brinkman, P. (2010). The second Jurassic dinosaur rush: Museums and paleontology in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cohen, C. (2011). La méthode de Zadig: la trace, le fossile, la preuve. Ed. du Seuil, Paris.
Cuvier, G. (1823). Recherches sur les ossemens fossile, ou l’on rétablit les caractères de plusieurs espèces d’animaux dont les révolutions du globe ont détruit les espèces (Vol. 5). Paris.
Dawson, G. (2016). Show me the bone: Reconstructing prehistoric monsters in nineteenth-century Britain and America (p. 2016). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Falconer, H. (1868). On Chalicotherium sivalense. Fauna antiqua sivalensis. London 208–226.
Filhol, H. (1892). Etudes sur les mammifères fossiles de Sansan. Annales des sciences géologiques, 21, 1–319.
Gaudant, J. (1991). Albert Gaudry (1827–1908) et les «Enchaînements du Monde animal». Revue d’Histoire des Sciences, 44, 117–128.
Gaudry, A., & Lartet, E. (1856). Résultats des recherches paléontologiques entreprises dans l’Attique sous les auspices de l’Académie. Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des sciences de Paris, 43, 271–274.
Holland, W. J., & Peterson, O. (1913). The osteology of the Chalicotheroidea: With special reference to a Mounted Skeleton of Moropus elatus Marsh, now installed in the Carnegie Museum. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Institute.
Kaup, J. J. (1832). Description d’Ossements Fossiles de Mammifères inconnus jusqu’à présent, qui se trouvent au Muséum grand-ducal de Darmstadt. Darmstadt.
Nieuwland, I. (2010). The colossal stranger. Andrew Carnegie and Diplodocus intrude European culture, 1904–1912. Endeavour, 34, 61–68.
Osborn, H. F. (1892). The ancestry of Chalicotherium. Science, 19, 484.
Osborn, H. F. (1893). The Acylopoda, Chalicotherium and Artionyx. American Naturalist, 27, 118–133.
Osborn, H. F. (1910). The age of mammals in Europe. New York: Asia and North America.
Osborn, H. F. (1913). Eomoropus, an American Eocene chalicothere. Bulletin AMNH, 32, 261–274.
Podgorny, I. (2013). Fossil dealers, the practices of comparative anatomy and British diplomacy in Latin America, 1820–1840. British Journal for the History of Science, 46, 647–674.
Pycraft, W. P. (1923). The world of science: On the track of a fugitive: A “Bogey” monster of Central Africa. The illustrated London news.
Regal, B. (2013). Searching for sasquatch: Crackpots, eggheads, and cryptozoology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rieppel, L. (2012). Bringing dinosaurs back to life: Exhibiting prehistory at the american museum of natural history. Isis, 103, 460–490.
Rieppel, L. (2015). Plaster cast publishing in nineteenth-century paleontology. History of Science, 53, 456–491.
Rudwick, M. J. S. (1976). The meaning of fossils: Episodes in the history of palaeontology. New York: Science History Publications.
Rudwick, M. (2005). Bursting the limits of time: The reconstruction of geohistory in the age of revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rudwick, M. (2008a). Worlds before Adam: The reconstruction of geohistory in the age of reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rudwick, M. (2008b). Georges Cuvier, fossil bones, and geological catastrophes: New translations and interpretations of the primary texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rudwick, M. J. S. (2014). Earth’s deep history: How it was discovered and why it matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Scott, W. B. (1913). A history of land mammals in the western hemisphere. New York: Macmillan.
Scott, W. B. (1937). A history of land mammals in the Western Hemisphere (2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan Company.
Vetter, J. (2008). Cowboys, scientists, and fossils: The field site and local collaboration in the American West. Isis, 99, 273–303.
About this article
Cite this article
Manias, C. Reconstructing an incomparable organism: the Chalicothere in nineteenth and early-twentieth century palaeontology. HPLS 40, 22 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-018-0187-0