Elephants and the Idea of Extinction

Elephants helped establish a new way of thinking about life and death of species on Earth.

Strange fossils dug from American soil looked elephant-like in some ways and different in others. Two hundred years ago, French naturalist Georges Cuvier compared these fossils with elephant bones. He determined that the fossils were from another species he ultimately named the mastodon, and concluded it was “lost” in the past. These observations led him to a bold idea: species could go extinct. 


Book with illustration of mastodon teeth, 1812

Georges Cuvier identified Asian and African elephants, mastodons, and mammoths as four different species. For him, the comparison of their molars was convincing. African elephants had diamond-like tooth ridges, while Asian elephant teeth were ribbon-like. The ribbon structures of a mammoth’s tooth were thinner. The mastodon’s pointed teeth were unique.

Georges Cuvier, Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes, loan from Smithsonian Libraries

Illustration of a fossil find, 1804

Some Native American groups understood from their fossil discoveries that certain animals no longer existed, long before Cuvier introduced his theory of extinction. For example, the mastodon was the “grandfather of the buffalo” to certain Native populations. 

Thomas Bewick, A general history of quadrupeds, courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries