The Anatomy of a Paleontologist

Elephant fossil
Illustration from Cuvier’s 1796 publication on fossil and living elephants. Top: fossil mammoth; Bottom: Indian elephant (Elephas maximus)

By David Patterson

December 16, 2013

For the past semester, I’ve been assisting students in the GW medical school with Human Gross Anatomy. This mainly involves the dissection of cadavers and identification of all the bones, muscles, blood vessels, organs and nerves of the human body. For the medical students, this course serves as the primary foundation upon which they build an ability to diagnose and treat their future patients. But, as a paleontologist that studies East African fossil mammals, finding me in a lab full of human cadavers might seem a bit strange. However, I assure you there is a precedent.

If there were such a thing as a “founder” of vertebrate paleontology, Georges Cuvier would be a great candidate. Born in 1769 into a working class family in Montbéliard, France, Cuvier began his studies into natural history at a very young age and at 12 he was considered “as familiar with birds and quadrupeds as a first-rate naturalist” (Lee, 1833). By age 15, Cuvier was learning anatomy and zoology by dissecting shore birds and marine mammals. After a relatively circuitous route to membership in the French Academy of Natural Sciences, Cuvier published a paper in which he described the morphology of African and Indian elephants as well as fossil mammoths and what was then known as the “Ohio Animal” (which later turned out to be a fossil mastodon). Based upon these descriptions, he deduced that all were different species and that the fossil forms were distinct from the extant (see image). Although this is commonly recognized today, it was revolutionary at the time because it confirmed something new to natural history: extinction.

At this point, you’re likely starting to see the connection between a broad understanding of anatomy and paleontology, but in case it’s still a bit fuzzy, here’s a case study. Although I learned of Cuvier within the first few days of my undergraduate biology course, I was unaware of his work on Proboscideans (i.e., elephants and their extinct relatives) until I began working on my Masters thesis. At the time, my project was to help excavate and describe a large sample of Columbian mammoth remains from a 20,000-year-old fossil locality on the coast of southeast Georgia.

Because this site was within a few hundred meters of the type locality (i.e., where the first Columbian mammoth was unearthed), these collections were, and still are, particularly relevant to our of understanding of mammoth evolution both in the southeast and the rest of the United States. Additionally, Charles Lyell, the brilliant geologist, close friend and great influence of Charles Darwin, played a role in collecting the original mammoth material from the site. Now, for a wet behind the ears biology major, this historical context added extra pressure to an already monumental task. However, by utilizing detailed anatomical descriptions by great paleontologists (and anatomists) like Vincent Maglio1, Jeheskal Shoshani2 and last but certainly not least Georges Cuvier3, my adviser and I painstakingly described the morphology of adult and juvenile individuals from the site. After this morphological evidence was paired with other ecological proxies from the site, it created a much fuller picture of the mammoth paleobiology in this region approximately 20,000 years ago.

Comparison of fossil juvenile Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) from southeastern United States and juvenile Indian elephant (Elephas maximus)

With my Masters research behind me and new research questions on the horizon, I exchanged the costal swamps of the Georgia for an extended transcontinental flight and a laborious four-day drive across Kenya. However, my experiences with mammalian anatomy and mammoth fossils in the southeastern United States remain invaluable. More often than not, the fossils that we find in association with hominin remains are highly fragmentary, so understanding the subtle anatomical differences that distinguish fossil mammals is an absolute necessity. Piecing together these fossil finds may unlock the key to many important questions within the study of human origins. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough find hominin remains, but if we’re especially lucky, we find elephant fossil or two.

Fragmentary mammal fossils associated with the original collection of KNM-ER 1470 at East Turkana, Kenya in 1972






Juvenile elephant mandible collected at East Turkana in 2013








1Maglio, V. (1973) Origin and evolution of the Elephantidae. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 3: 1-149.

2Shoshani, J., and P. Tassy (eds.). 1996. The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 472 pp.

3Cuvier, G. and R. Jameson (1827) Essay on the Theory of the Earth. W. Blackwood. 550 pp.