The gigantic bones found long ago in southwestern Boone County shook the minds and beliefs of top scientists east and west of the Atlantic Ocean in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Europeans and Americans had never seen the likes of the massive skeleton of extinct mastodons until French Capt. Charles Lemoyne de Longueil came upon them during a 1739 military expedition at a place called Big Bone Lick.
The bones, molars and tusks that belonged to vanished mastodons and woolly mammoths forced the country's future third president, Thomas Jefferson, and scientists around the world to recast their beliefs about the workings of nature and the very concept of extinction. Jefferson and others couldn't comprehend that God, in creating the perfect world of nature, allowed a type of creature to vanish forever.
The Boone County bones even led to a debate that touched on America's national pride: Given that mammoths and mastodons were extinct, could it be that North American soils or climates were inferior to those of the Old World, as French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon suggested?
Jefferson led those who refuted that concept. Jefferson noted, in fact, that the mammoth's bones were as large as anything that had been found in Europe, and larger than those of an elephant. Those debates and others are described in Xavier University professor emeritus Stanley Hedeen's book Big Bone Lick; The Cradle of American Paleontology (2008, University Press of Kentucky).
Today, the 525 acres of Kentucky's Big Bone Lick State Park are a quiet area of hilly woods where breezes from the Ohio River, more than a mile to the west, carry the music of songbirds. Even the big signs and impressive bronze markers don't fully reveal to visitors the impact this place had on the national consciousness and on the evolution of scientific thought.
According to excerpts from the Journal of Nicholas Cresswell (1774-77), which are on file in the Boone County Public Library, Cresswell visited the area he knew as "Elephant Bone Lick" on June 17, 1775, after a 600-mile journey on the Ohio River with a "motley, rascally and ragged crew."
"Where the bones are found is a large muddy pond, a little more than knee deep with a salt spring in it, which I suppose preserves the bones sound," Cresswell wrote.
"Found several bones of a prodigious size, I take them to be elephants, for we found a part of a tusk, about two foot long, Ivory to all appearance, but by the length of time had grown yellow and very soft."
All 14 on the excursion "stripped and went into the pond to grabble for teeth and found several," he wrote. "Joseph Passiers found a jaw tooth which he gave me. It was judged by the company to weigh 10 pound(s)."
Scientists say during and since the most recent Ice Age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, many mammals visited the salty bog about 11 miles south of where Burlington is today to lick the salt, which is a necessary mineral for both humans and animals. Various tribes hunted those animals.
So many animals became forever trapped in the swampy lands that by some estimates the skeletons of 100 mastodons have been found nearby, along with bones of mastodons, giant ground sloths and huge bison.