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The Lost Beasts: Nineteenth-Century Palaeontology and the Development of the Mammals

Chris Manias

When people today hear ‘palaeontology,’ they immediately think of dinosaurs. 

However, for much of the history of the discipline, scientists and public 

audiences seeking dramatic demonstrations of the history of life focused on 

something else: the developmental history of the mammals. Assumptions that

 ‘the Age of Mammals’ represented the pinnacle of animal life made mammals

 crucial for understanding the formation (and possibly the future) of the

naturaworld. Yet this combined with more troubling notions, that seemingly

 promising creatures had been swept aside in the ‘struggle for life’ or that

 modern biodiversity was ‘impoverished’ compared to previous eras. Why 

some prehistoric creatures, such as the sabre-tooth cat and ground sloth, 

had become extinct, while others seemed to have been the ancestors of

familiar animals like elephants and horses, were questions loaded with cultural

 assumptions, ambiguity and trepidation. And how humans related to deep 

developmental processes, and whether the ‘Age of Man’ was qualitatively different

from the ‘Age of Mammals,’ led to reflections on humanity’s place within the natural world.

This project examines how nineteenth-century scholars, writers, artists and publics understood the developmental history of the mammals – the animals they regarded as being at the summit of life. A major aim of the project is to investigate how engagement with nature, the environment and animals was conditioned by concepts of earth’s history and ‘deep time.’ Using mammal palaeontology as its central focus, the project examines how palaeontological theories of development and reconstructions of fossil animals led to new understandings of the environment and animal world. The project investigates how the history of the mammals was used to show tremendous change in climate, variety and complexity over geological time, and explain how many familiar creatures had originated. It argues that nineteenth-century interest in animals and the environment was preconditioned on ideas drawn from the deep-time sciences, and in order to fully understand engagement with new and familiar environments, it is essential to bring palaeontology fully into the picture.

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