Why This 18th-Century Naturalist Believed He’d Discovered an Eyewitness to the Biblical Flood |
At the Smithsonian
Fossils have fascinated and puzzled people since prehistoric occasions. They incessantly have unusual shapes in contrast to something we all know in the world round us at the moment. And their thriller has confounded naturalists and students for hundreds of years. Take for instance, an odd skeleton that was uncovered close to a small city in southern Germany in the early 18th century by a Swiss scholar who stated he’d found the “bony frame of a man” that had drowned in the flood recounted in the Bible’s e book of Genesis.
Archaeological discoveries present that early members of our species already collected fossils and even used them for private adornment. Throughout human historical past and throughout cultures, fossils have been prized as amulets or utilized in people drugs. For instance, “tongue stones,” the tooth of the extinct shark Carcharocles megalodon from the island of Malta, have been lengthy thought to shield in opposition to poisons and snake bites.
But what are fossils? Philosophers in historical Greece have been the first to ponder this query. Yet neither the Greeks nor these of later ages answered it convincingly. Were fossils mere performs of nature, or ludes naturae? How did they kind? Was it attainable that they have been the stays of historical animals and vegetation?
Aristotle held that fossils grew inside rocks due to an natural pressure or “seed.” Following him, most students posited the existence of such a pressure, or vis plastica, able to creating buildings that appeared like animals and vegetation. Starting in the late Middle Ages, nonetheless, some forward-thinking savants began to see fossils as the stays of once-living creatures. The nice Italian artist and polymath Leonardo Da Vinci was an early proponent of this concept.
This led to different theories primarily based on observations of fossils in rock layers. Why have been they often discovered excessive in the mountains? Early scientists appeared to the biblical story that instructed of a flood that was stated to have lined the whole earth, and thus, to 17th-century students akin to the Danish doctor Nicholas Steno and the German mathematician and thinker Gottfried Leibniz, it made excellent sense that fossils on mountain sides and deep in the floor had been left there in the wake of the flood. The English scholar John Woodward additional developed this concept in his 1695 Essay Toward a Natural History of the Earth, the place he proposed that when the waters started to recede, objects sank in accordance to their weight, with the heaviest ones ending up at the backside. This situation, Woodward surmised, defined the layering of rocks noticed in lots of locations.
Woodward’s essay fascinated the Swiss doctor and naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733) a lot in order that he translated the essay into Latin, then the language of studying throughout Europe—giving it huge readership.
After research in drugs and arithmetic, Scheuchzer, a local of Zürich, had settled in his hometown to follow drugs. He ultimately turned the city’s doctor and a professor at the native college. Incredibly interested in the world round him, Scheuchzer amassed a big assortment of fossils, which led him to ponder their origin. And therein lies the story of how Scheuchzer got here to insist that the fossil he had acquired should have been a human witness to the flood.
For Scheuchzer, the biblical flood was the most believable mechanism for the formation of fossils. He set out to collect scientific proof—a proposition that aroused consternation amongst his fellow townspeople who regarded Scripture as the literal fact and in no want for verification. Indeed, the Zürich censors denied permission to print one among Scheuchzer’s books till he had purged all references to the Copernican principle of the photo voltaic system.
In his quest, Scheuchzer would get fairly forward of himself when he got here throughout a fossil that, in his eyes, supplied incontrovertible proof that people had perished in the biblical flood.
The fossil in query is an incompletely preserved unusual skeleton that had been found in a limestone quarry close to the small city of Öhningen in southern Germany. Scheuchzer recognized his prize fossil as Homo diluvii testis, that means “man, witness of the Flood.” In 1726 he revealed a broadside to announce his discovery. In his nice work on the pure historical past of the Bible, Physica sacra of 1731, Scheuchzer cited the Reverend Johann Martin Miller as expressing the hope that the “sad bony frame of an old sinner” would soften the “heart of new children of evil!”
Scheuchzer’s interpretation of the Öhningen skeleton quickly got here below scrutiny. Other students thought-about the fossil the stays of a fish or a lizard. But Scheuchzer would go to his grave in 1733 satisfied of his discovering.
It was the nice French zoologist and paleontologist Georges Cuvier, who lastly demonstrated the true identification of the “witness of the flood.”
After Scheuchzer’s dying, the Öhningen fossil had been acquired for the collections of Teylers Museum in Haarlem in the Netherlands, the place it’s nonetheless exhibited at the moment. When that nation was conquered by Napoleon’s military, Cuvier, then the emperor’s inspector of establishments for larger training, visited Haarlem in 1811.
With permission of the museum director, Cuvier examined Scheuchzer’s fossil and set out to expose the bones extra clearly from the comfortable surrounding rock. Using a pointy needle, he uncovered the shoulder girdle and each arms of the animal. With that, Cuvier established the decidedly non-human skeleton was, in truth, that of an extinct big salamander.
Today there are 5 residing species of big salamanders, 4 in East Asia and one, the Hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis, in the central and japanese United States. The Japanese big salamander, Andrias japonicus, can attain a complete size of about 5 toes.
The extinct species represented by the skeleton from Öhningen, now named Andrias scheuchzeri, is so comparable to the Japanese one which some scientists regarded the two as a single species. The rocks from which Scheuchzer’s fossil was collected date from the Miocene Epoch and are about 13 million years previous. They shaped in a lake inside an extinct volcanic crater lined by forest.
Historians have puzzled over how a well-respected medical physician might presumably have mistaken the skeleton of an enormous salamander for that of a human. A believable clarification is that, in his eagerness to discover scientific proof of the biblical flood, Scheuchzer should have seen solely what he needed to see. Furthermore, big salamanders have been nonetheless unknown in Europe at the moment.
While posterity remembers him primarily for his discovery of the alleged witness of the flood, Scheuchzer’s interpretation of fossils as the stays of once-living beings reasonably than merchandise of some mysterious pressure was nicely forward of his occasions. He was amongst the first to open humanity’s eyes to the undeniable fact that life has an inconceivably lengthy historical past on our planet.
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