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A fossil was a rallying point for a new American nation. In 1806 the prize attraction at the Philadelphia Museum was an 11-foot-tall skeleton thought to be a flesh-eating American "monster" dubbed "Peale's mastodon." Its large tusks were mounted upside down, giving it a fierce look. Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers took a particular interest in the beast, as its existence belied the "American degeneracy" theory of naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon. Buffon said America's climate made all species there smaller and weaker. The ancient beast (its proper tusk placement and herbaceous diet were discovered later) was an ideal counterpoint. Surely nothing so fearsome had roamed Europe!

Sources: Article by Paul Semonin, author of 'American Monster' (New York university Press, 2000) on www.common-place.org; American Philosophical Society website: amphilsoc.org

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