At the Galerie de Paléontologie

by Justin E. H. Smith

Since the Paris World Fair in 1900, the Galerie d’Anatomie Comparée of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle exhibition has been housed together with the Galerie de Paléontologie, featuring the fossils of extinct creatures: the dinosaurs and outsized Pleistocene mammals that so enrapture the children, and that often compel them to pose some of their first philosophical questions about the nature of existence (dinosaurs do not exist, yet they are not, for that reason, fictional; how is this possible?). I feel more at home in Comparative Anatomy. It reveals a static, Polaroid-like slice of nature as it is at present. But nature is not really like this. Nature is always unfolding, and it is the Gallery of Paleontology that reveals the effort of the Muséum’s founders (most of whom, again, were creationists) to take into account the entire film of it, so to speak, rather than only the single still that the present provides.

Entering the Gallery of Paleontology from the north staircase, we immediately encounter three large dinosaur skeletons. All of these turn out, on closer inspection, to be casts made of metal, rather than skeletons of bone. The kids running around don’t seem to care. Successive waves of them flow by, all declaring that they are in the presence of ‘dinosaurs’: not bones of dinosaurs, let alone models of bones of dinosaurs, but dinosaurs. One of the three models, of the peculiarly named Allosaurus fragilis, is the only bipedal carnivore on display, the only one approximating the Platonic form of the dinosaur established for all time by the Tyranosaurus rex. Another of the three is the Iguanadon bernissartensis, a species whose gait, and the proper display of whose bones, has been the source of sustained controversy. Does it walk upright? Does it walk on all fours? The masses of six-year-olds are eager to know. Finally, the largest of the three is a cast of a Diplodocus Carnegii, a brontosaurus-like dinosaur, one of the lumbering, gentle vegetarians, given to the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle as a gift from Andrew Carnegie in 1908, who was at the same time building up one of the world’s great natural history museums in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A year earlier, Carnegie had been one of the principal donators to the French Muséum; like Jefferson to Buffon before him, the American continued to think of Paris as one of the great centers of natural history.

We also find the holotype of the Sarcosuchus imperator, not a dinosaur but rather a gigantic –as in, characterized by gigantism– extinct relative of modern crocodiles dating from the early Cretaceous. A holotype is a paleontological specimen that is used for the original species-defining description. This means that at the Gallery of Paleontology one can see the Sarcosuchus imperator itself, the standard against which all subsequent finds are measured. In this respect modern paleontology retains a trace of Platonism, to the extent that there is an exemplary measure of what it is to be a member of a given kind. Yet rather than casting its exemplars into some otherworldly realm of transcendental forms, it locates them in actual fossils, than which nothing can be more concrete.

There is a cast of a pteranodon hanging nearby, and there are glass cases with a Pelagosaurus typus and a Lystrosaurus Murrayi. These names, I am finding, are exhausting and unevocative. Other than a few of the most well-known –T. Rex, bronto, sabertooth, etc.–, for obvious reasons extinct animals do not have popular names parallel to their binomial nomenclature. One of the most intriguing things about the ground floor of the gallery is the way the Latin binomials variously complement and contrast with the names that have bubbled up spontaneously for the animals in the vulgate (taupe, tatou, etc.). This is a possibility paleontology lacks, since for the most part it studies creatures that departed before there was language in the world.

There is a composite Cryptoclidus oxoniensis, pieced together from several representatives of this marine reptile species dug up in Oxfordshire. There is an Ichthyosaurus tenuirostris not yet removed from the rock in which it was found, and a Tarbosaurus Bataar, discovered, as its name implies, in Mongolia, by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest and paleontologist who believed that evolution is a testimony to God’s greatness.

Before coming to the half-way point of the main floor of the exhibition hall (the point at which, one floor below in the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, the display of terrestrial mammal skeletons gives way to the Cetaceum), we begin to find remains of the great mammals that thrived throughout the last glacial period, particularly the skulls of gargantuan Rhinocerotidae. Only one of these is known by a folk name, the ‘woolly rhinoceros’, which is to say the Coelodonta antiquitatis. These various skulls are mixed in with a cast of from a triceratops, and other remnants of the Cretaceous period, which preceded the Pleistocene of the great mammals by 65 million years or so. But no one seems to notice the anachronism, and least of all the children, who are running about indiscriminately labelling everything they see a ‘dinosaur’. And it is hard to blame them, for the Rhinoceros megarhinus, the Acerotherium Persiae, and most of all the Arsinoitherium of the early Oligocene, with two massive blades for horns, do indeed appear nearly indistinguishable, in mass and in monstrosity, from the saurians. Sometimes, even their names are misleading, as is the case with the Dinoceras mirabile, an Eocene mammal whose name means ‘wonderful terrible-horn’. This creature is like the dinosaurs, in name, only to the extent that it is deinos, terrible, but its ceras has nothing to do with a saurus.

We are now half-way through. The second segment of the hall, directly above the Cetaceum, begins, from left to right, with a bloc ossifère, a fossil-bearing stone block, with scattered vestiges of the ancient horse known as ‘hipparion’; then a glass case with dodo bones (originally called by Linnaeus a Didus ineptus; was it out of respect for the departed that this name was subsequently changed?) on top of a wooden cabinet with locked and unlabelled drawers; then the complete skeletons of two extinct fossil species of manatee. Behind these, Cuvier’s own complete skeleton of a Megatherium Americanum, which translates simply as ‘great American beast’: a fitting name for this Pliocene ground sloth at least as large as any African elephant. It is a sort of prototypical beast, a hungry mound of fur, without many distinguishing features beyond this. Even the name ‘great American beast’ seems too specific for it.

To its left is the complete skeleton of a Hipparion mediterraneum, and behind it a complete Equus hemionus (a ‘half-ass’) and a cast of a Hippidion principale. The horse lineage does not seem to have exhibited the diversity of the rhinoceroses or even the elephants: all equids seem, more or less, to be horses. There is another sort of ground sloth behind them, and to their right two skulls of the Pleistocene Hippopotamus major, and also a complete Glyptodon asper, to which we will return shortly. There are scattered skulls, jaws, and tusks of extinct proboscidians; to the left a composite skeleton of an Archaeobelodon, and to the right a rather small skeleton of a juvenile Mammuthus primigenius. In the middle rear of the hall, directly above the fin whale one floor below, is the Pleistocene pièce de résistance, a complete Mammuthus meridionalis skeleton, a behemoth extracted out of deepest, coldest Siberia. Even its skeleton seems woolly, somehow. Surrounding the mammoth are various casts, of a saber-toothed tiger (known in the nomenclature by the evocative name of Smilodon, which unfortunately has nothing to do with smiling); and of a Diprotodon australis, a sort of rhinoceros-sized wombat. There is a cast of a male Irish elk, and a skeleton of a much smaller female.

In the middle, behind the great mammoth, there are two glass cases. One contains the skeletons of three cave bears (Ursus spelaeus), two lions, a wolf, and a hyena, all displayed, though skeletons, in the middle of some species-specific activity (rearing up, scavenging). The rearing cave bear is the only display in the Gallery, on either floor, that has been able to induce in me a frisson of fear. Behind these creatures is another glass case, filled with extinct ‘ratite’ birds (giant, flightless, ostrich-like), including the shockingly large Aepyornis maximus, along with five of its watermelon-sized eggs. These do not invoke fright, as does the cave bear, but a much more familiar feeling from other encounters in the museum: a sort of wonder mixed with queasiness, a sort of fascinated nausea. It is peculiar that there is no word for this.

As at the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, here as well there are glass cases surrounding the exhibition floor. In the Gallery of Paleontology though they are much more haphazard; the numbering, as one moves clockwise around the hall from the north entrance, is odd, going up to 115 at the other end of the hall, at which point one arrives at an even 116 and begins to count down from there to cabinet number 2. Many of the cases are empty, and many contain models made of styrofoam, felt, and what look like fishing lures, the sort of re-imaginings of the Jurassic one might find at a high-school science fair. There is extensive information, often presented on what looks like construction paper, about various excavations that took place in France in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cabinets 59 through 67, running alongside the hipparion skeleton on the main floor, tell of the evolution of equids; and on the opposite side cabinets 106 through 98 run through the history of primates, and feature a cast of the Lucy skeleton, whose original is on permanent display in Addis Ababa. Cabinet 86 features the still furry and gristly leg and face of a Siberian mammoth; cabinet 18, the still scaly fossil of a Lepidotus laevis fish. Cabinet 10 teaches us, in cut-out construction paper, that among fish it is a mark of advanced evolution to have fewer and softer bones; as the French puts it, ‘ossification regresses’ in fish evolution.

And there is much that I missed besides: the skull of an Odobenocetops, a sort of tusked Pliocene whale; a display on the neoteny of stegocephalids; the Ichthyosaurus platyodon skull found by Mary Anning, Cuvier’s English correspondent from Dorset, who from 1826 until her death ran a small shop, Anning’s Fossil Depot, near the Blue Lias cliffs in Lyme Regis, where she sold devil’s-fingers and the fossils of ‘verteberries’: her own spontaneous folk term, a sort of diminutive, for ‘vertebrates’.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website