Hardly anyone knows: The Darmstadt Mastodon is an American and a sensation in the history of paleontology. In 1801 it was the first mounted skeleton in North America and it was so important that president Thomas Jefferson regarded its excavation as a national matter and even Alexander von Humboldt visited it at the end of his American Journey in 1804.
Via detours the skeleton came to Darmstadt in 1854. It is a Darmstadt citizen for over 150 years, thus being a ‘Heiner’, as the locals call themselves.
The exhibition »American Heiner« traces the history of this world-famous fossil elephant skeleton, which according to its discoverer is also known as Peale’s Mastodon. It tells of the excavation of the skeleton by the portrait painter Charles Willson Peale at the banks of the Hudson River, of its spectacular presentation in Philadelphia in 1801 and of its importance for the self-image of the young American nation. Based on objects of art- and natural history, the exhibition documents the effects of the discovery on research and humanities and also presents little-known sketch material from German and American archives.
The illustrator Niels Schröder from Berlin illustrates this multifaceted story in large-format wall drawings. He has also produced a graphic novel to accompany the exhibition, whose individual comic pages illuminate the historical background to the story of the mastodon. As a continuous illustration element, there are little mouse cartoons to discover on the walls of the exhibition rooms as special fun.
The story of Peale’s Mastodon is closely related to the history of the United States. The discovery of mastodon bones at the Ohio River in 1739 sparked scientific debate in the Old and New World in the course of the 18th century. An important role was played by Charles Peale from Philadelphia, who was not only a sought-after artist, but also a valued collector of natural objects with an own museum. He was made aware of the excavations at the Ohio River by a Hessian military surgeon. When fossil bones were found in the Hudson River Valley in 1801, Peale and his son Rembrandt undertook some excavations and discovered the remains of two mastodon skeletons. Peale assembled a skeleton from these bones, added missing parts with wooden replicas, developed a metal frame that held the skeleton in place, and presented the result in his museum in Philadelphia to the great delight of the public.
At the time, the discovery of the mastodon caused such a sensation because it fundamentally questioned the valid understanding of the creation of the world. The fossil bones were obvious evidence that the world might have looked different. An outrageous thought. Because the biblical tradition and the doctrine of the origin of the world as divine creation were still decisive. In accordance with this, the scientists still assumed they held the bones of giants when the first bones were discovered in the early 18th century. That was an obvious conclusion, considering that giants were considered real. The understanding that these bones were of an extinct animal was therefore a scientific turning point and marked the beginning of a process that led to Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory in 1859.
The discovery of Peale’s Mastodon was important for the self-confidence of the young American nation. It contradicted a crude scientific theory of the 18th century claiming that the American fauna was degenerate because there were only small animal species. The famous Parisian naturalist Buffon had asserted this in the self-understanding of the superiority of the Old versus the New World. Although this apparently grotesque assessment was unsustainable, it gnawed on the self-esteem of the young American nation, which had just politically broke with England. At that moment, Peale's discovery of the majestic mastodon was spot on. The skeleton proved that there were large animals in America. Therefore, the excavation and presentation at Peale’s museum were matters of national importance, in which the American president was also very active. Thomas Jefferson knew Peale personally and provided financial support for the project. And if the bald eagle had not already been established as the heraldic animal of the United States, the mastodon certainly would have been considered at this point in time.
After Peale's death, it became quiet around the famous skeleton. It was sold and via Paris and London it arrived in Darmstadt in 1854. After the construction of the museum building by Alfred Messel in 1906, it got a permanent position at the department of Earth- and Life History.
The exhibition is under the patronage of US General Consul Frankfurt am Main Norman Thatcher Scharpf
Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt
Dr. Oliver Sandrock
T 06151 3601-262
Dr. Martin Faass
T 06151 3601-201
Extended until 3 July 2022
12 Euro / reduced 8 Euro
Family ticket: 20 Euro (2 adults, children under 18)
Group rate: 10 Euro per person
With generous support of