Flesh-Eating Terror Elephants
Ryan Somma, via Wikipedia
Despite its awesomely death metal name, there's nothing particularly scary about a mastodon ... unless you lived in the 1700s, when it was assumed that mastodons had an insatiable hunger for human flesh. See, unlike vegetarian elephants and mammoths, whose teeth are flat so they can mash up soft plant matter, mastodon teeth were terrifying jagged saw blades bigger than a man's hand:
Kathryn Scott Osler/Denver Post/Getty Images
"This was nothing compared to the size of what our ancestors crapped upon seeing one."
A good number of scientists took one passing look at those chompers and assumed that they were ideal for grinding flesh and crushing bone, and nothing else. With no other evidence to go on, early paleontologists straight up panicked and let their imaginations run amok. This resulted in increasingly hyperbolic claims, like that mastodons had claws and the agility of a tiger and ruled the American continents with unparalleled ferocity. According to one anonymous author:
"Forests were laid waste at a meal, the groans of expiring animals were everywhere heard; and whole villages, inhabited by men, were destroyed in a moment."
It's amazing that guy knew these things hated humanity just by looking at a bone! Sounds like somebody has a bright future writing for Cracked.
Union County Parks Dept.
Especially if he just assumed this was a mastodon's fossilized terror dong.
Colonial Americans had an ulterior motive for believing in the flesh-eating mastodon. Unlike the wild continents of Africa and Asia, North America didn't really have any impressively dangerous animals like lions or rhinos. It soon became kind of a joke for the rest of the naturalist world. So the discovery of the mastodon became a source of nationalist pride for the early United States -- a monster so vicious and ferocious that even the rules of basic biology couldn't contain its bloodlust. Thomas Jefferson even assigned Lewis and Clark a secondary mission objective: to find evidence of living mastodons pillaging native villages in the wild uncharted West.