Friday, May 17, 2013

Native American Legends of the Woolly Mammoth

Native American Legends of the Woolly Mammoth

In the carving, we have the most interesting mammoth picture in existence; not a mere drawing of the animal itself, but a picture of primitive life, in which the mammoth takes a conspicuous part in the actions and thoughts of man, --a carving made with a bone or flint instrument upon a tablet of slate at least four hundred years ago,--the hairy elephant, drawn in unmistakable outline, and attacked by human beings,--a battle-scene which thrills our imagination, and the importance of which the ancient draughtsman magnifies by the introduction of the symbols of his religion, the sun, the moon, and stars, and the lightning alone powerful to overthrow the great enemy.

      IN the spring of 1872, eight years after the discovery of the famous mammoth carving in the cave of La Madeleine, Perigord, France, Barnard Hansell, a young farmer, while ploughing on his father's farm, four miles and a half east of Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, saw, to use his own words, a "queer stone" lying on the surface of the ground, and close to the edge of the new furrow. The plough had just missed turning it under. He stopped and picked it up; it was the larger piece of the fractured "gorget stone," in fig. 1, (frontispiece). By wetting his thumb and rubbing it he could see strange lines and a carving representing an animal like an elephant, but without troubling his boyish head much about it, he carried it several days in his pocket, and finally locked it up in his chest, where, along with his other relics, arrowheads, spear-points, axes, and broken banner stones, thrown in from time to time as he found them on the farm, it remained until the spring of 1881.

     That the mammoth had survived into the time of the Indian can hardly be doubted. Early travelers had frequently seen its bones at the "Big-Bone Licks" in Kentucky, whether the huge animals had come, like the deer and buffalo of modern times, to lick the salt. The great bones often seemed hardly older than those of the modern animals with which they were mingled, and, judging from their position along the modern buffalo-trails through the forest, it seems that the latter animals had followed the ancient tracks of the mammoth to and from the licks.

     Not a few of these early travelers thought it worth their while to question the Indians about the huge bones and note down their answers. Jefferson, in his "Notes on Virginia," devotes several pages to the subject. He even believes the mammoth to be still in existence in his time in some remote part of the American continent. He tells the story of a Mr. Stanley, who, "taken prisoner by the Indians near the mouth of the Tanissee," relates that "after being transferred through several tribes from one to another, he was at length carried over the mountains west of the Missouri to a river which runs west-wardly; that these bones abounded there, and that the natives described to him the animal to which they belonged as still existing in the northern parts of their country, from which description he judged it to be an elephant."
     Further, in support of his theory, he gives an Indian tradition of a great monster known as the Big Buffalo, and obtained, he says, from, a Delaware chief by one of the governors of Virginia during the American Revolution. Nothing has seemed more interesting in a study of the carvings on the Lenape Stone than the remarkable similarity between this tradition of the Lenni Lenape or Delawares and the carvings on this relic, discovered in the middle of their ancient territory. The chief, as the account runs, being asked as to the bones at the Big-Bone Licks in Kentucky, says that it was a tradition handed down from his fathers that "in ancient times a herd of these tremendous animals came to the Big-Bone Licks and began a universal destruction of the bear, deer, elks, buffaloes, and other animals which had been created for the use of the Indians. That the Great Man above, looking down and seeing this, was so enraged that he seized his lightning, descended on the earth, seated himself on a neighboring mountain, on a rock on which his seat and the print of his feet are still to be seen, and hurled his bolts among them till the whole were slaughtered except the big bull, who, presenting his forehead to the shafts, shook them off as they fell; but missing one at length, it wounded him in the side, whereon, springing around, he bounded over the Ohio, over the Wabash, the Illinois, and finally over the great lakes, where he is still living at this day."
    David Cusic, the Tuscarora Indian, in his history of the Iroquois, among other instances, speaks of the Big Quisquis, [A word meaning " hog " in modern Iroquois.] a terrible monster who invaded at an early time the Indian settlements by Lake Ontario, and was at length driven back by the warriors from several villages after a severe engagement; and of the Big Elk, another great beast, who invaded the towns with fury and was at length killed in a great fight; and Elias Johnson, the Tuscarora chief, in his "History of the Six Nations," speaks of another monster that appeared at an early period in the history of his people, which they called Oyahguaharb, supposed to be some great mammoth who was furious against men, and destroyed the lives of many Indian hunters, but who was at length killed after a long and severe contest."
Another instance of a terrible monster desolating the country of a certain tribe "with thunder and fire" appears in a collection of Wyandot traditions published by one William Walker, an Indian agent, in 1823; and again the great beast appears in the song tradition of the "Father of Oxen," from Canada, and in a monster tradition from Louisiana, both spoken of by Fabri, a French officer, in a letter to Buffon from America in 1748.
       "The Reliqux Aquitanicae," published by Lartet and Christy, page 60, quotes a letter from British America of Robert Brown to Professor Rupert Jones, which speaks of a tradition common to several widely separated tribes in the Northwest, of lacustrine habitations built by their ancestors; to protect themselves against an animal who ravaged the country a long time ago.
Hardly less remarkable in its description of the animal than any of the others is, perhaps, the Great Elk tradition as mentioned by Charlevoix in his "History of New France."
"There is current among these barbarians," says the author, "a pleasant-enough tradition of a Great Elk, beside whom all others seem like ants. He has, they say, legs so high that eight feet of snow do not embarrass him, his skin is proof against all sorts of weapons, and he has a sort of arm which comes out of his shoulder and which he uses as we do ours."
Whatever we may have previously thought of these legends, their evidence now combined with that of the carving is irresistible. Nothing but the mammoth itself, surviving into comparatively recent times and encountered by the Indians, could suffice to account for the carving, and we can no longer suppose that the size and unusual appearance of the mammoth bones seen by the Indians in Kentucky could alone have originated the traditions.