Philosophical Transactions. For the months of November and December, 1715. - Part V.

By Nicole Renee

V. Remarks upon the aforesaid letter and teeth, by Thomas Molyneux, M.D. and R.S.S. physician to the state in Ireland; Address'd to his Grace the Lord Archbishop of Dublin.

My Lord,

When your Grace was pleased to communicato to me a letter you received some while since, containing an account of an extraordinary natural curiosity, lately discover'd in the North of Ireland, in the country of Cavan, you desired I would give you my thoughts concerning it, and the purport of the letter; but truly when first your Grace gave me the opportunity of perusing this account and I consider'd the imperfect sketches of the teeth annex'd to it, I was not a little concern'd, that upon the making so surprizing a discovery, I could not command a sight of the originals themselves, from whence the draughts were taken; or that so great a curiosity should be exprest by the hand of an artist that shew'd so little skill; however, by the best judgment I could make from so imperfect an information, I told your Grace then, I was pretty well convinced they must have been the grinding teeth of an elephant; yet I ingaged, if hereafter I might be so lucky as to procure a view of the teeth themselves, I would be more positive in my opinion, and give the reasons on which I grounded my conjecture; as likewise I would have the shape of the teeth exprest in their full dimensions, by more true and exact figures.

Since that the four teeth, with some of the fragments of the bones that were found with them, have been brought here to Dublin, where, by the favour and assistance of my ingenious friend Sir Thomas Southwell, I procured the loan of them, so long as to examine them particularly, make some remarks, and take the following correct sketches, that express their from truly, just as big as the life; and your Lordship seem'd well satisfied with the performance of the artist, when at the same time I produced the draughts and the originals from whence they were copied, that we might compare them both together.

Upon the whole, I am now fully convinced, and I can upon sure grounds affirm to your Lordship, that they must certainly have been the four grinding teeth in the lower jaw of an elephant; and that the many loose fragments of those large bones that were found with them, must have been remains of the same animal. This I take to be one of the greatest rarities that has been yet discovered in this country.

In order to clear this matter 'twill be first requisite to have recourse to, and explain the annext figures.

Figure the 1st. AA is the large grinder of the under jaw on the right side, weighing two pounds and three quarters of a pound.

b.b.b.b.b.b.b. are white, rough, indented borders, seven in number, of an irregular shape, rising about the tenth of an inch higher than the hard black shining surface of the tooth; this rough raised work serves for the bruising and grinding the animal's food, the tough grains of rize, leaves, fruits and the boughs of trees; and is made of so extream an hard texture, that it resembles large knotted threads of white glass, laid on and closely fastned to the dark superficies of the tooth; and answers that glassy surface wherewith nature has armed the outside of the teeth of most animals, to prevent their wearing from the constant attrition in chewing of their foods.

c.c.c.c.c. is that part of the tooth which rises above the gumms, and continues even now distinguish'd from the rest of the bone, by having its colour of a different shade.

d.d.d.d.d.d.d. are many strong tangs of roots, seemingly unite altogether, by which the tooth received its sense and nourishment, and tho' it was so large and ponderous by these it kept firmly fixt into the jaw.

For the mechanism nature shews itself to have followed in framing the teeth of this animal, is no more than this; whereas in other creatures, she has divided that bony substance wherewith they chew their food, each having its peculiar roots to secure its articulation in the jawbone; she has in this of so great bulk (as Pliny the Naturalist stiles it Terrestrium Maximum Elephas,) for the greater strength, stabiliment, and duration of it's teeth, and the better to provide for a compleat attrition of the aliment, in order to perfect the digestion so thoroughly, as to sustain the life of the animal for two or three hundred years (as it is a common received opinion on in the East) she has, I say, contrived to make the substance of the teeth in their roots below, and in the upper parts above the gumms, closely unite together; and coalescing thus, form a few large massy teeth instead of many small ones.

As for instance, in man's body, that is of so much a less size, the number of teeth, (when the whole sett is compleat) reckons to thirty two, whereas in the large elephant, the teeth of both the jaws amount in all but to eight, besides it's two great tusks, which rather serve as horns for its defence than teeth to prepare it's food, and therefore I think not so very properly call'd teeth.

Figure be 2d. E.E. is the smaller grinding teeth of the under jaw on the same side; it's surface covered over with the same white indented work, as before describ'd for grinding of the food.

f.f.f. are three large roots that kept it firmly fixt in the jaw bone.

This smaller tooth weighed full six ounces.

Figure the 3d G.G. is the large grinder of the under jaw on the left side, much of the size and shape and weight with its fellow tooth describ'd figure the st. It shews its roots and all its parts, with the rough protuberant white work on its upper surface made after the same contrivance, and formed after the same strong model as the former.

And truly if one considers it, 'tis plain that were not the teeth of this creature made of so large a size, and withal of so massy and firm a substance, 'twere absolutely impossible they could resist the force, and bear all that pressure wherewith those vast muscles exert themselves, that move the lower jaw in mastication in this so strong an animal.

Figure the 4th. H.H. is the smaller grinding tooth of the under jaw on the same side; it is less compleat than the small tooth describ'd before in Figure 2d. for some of the root is wanting, and part of its outward grinding surface is broke off at k.k. so that it weighs somewhat less; yet what remains exactly shews the same kind of work and shape of the other tooth, that answer'd it on the right side.

These four teeth here describ'd, fully compleat the sett of the teeth, wherewith nature has furnished the lower jaw of the elephant; and are answered by just as many more, formed after the same manner in the upper jaw, as Dr. Moulins informs us, who dissected the elephant that was burnt here at Dublin in 1681. In it's anatomy p.40. speaking of the teeth he assures, there were besides the tusks only four teeth in each jaw, two in every side; and that these eight teeth were all molares, so that he had no incisores.

But notwithstanding this, perhaps it will be said, we may not hastily conclude from hence, that our great teeth dug up in Ireland must certainly have been the four grinders of an elephant, since they might as well belong to some other kind of terrestrial or marine animal. As for the hint of their being human or gigantick, 'tis so groundless a thought, and so contradictory to comparative anatomy and all natural history, it does not deserve our consideration.

To observe this, I shall take notice first in general, that the differing kinds of living creatures, wherewith nature has stock'd the world, are not more distingusih'd by the make of any part of their bodies from one another than by the various shape and disposition of their teeth; and hence it is, we shall not find any two distinct classes of animals that do exactly agree in the same make and ranging of their teeth.

But yet to be more particular, and make this point so plain, I hope, as that it may admit of no controversy, I shall here set down at length, as I find them the words of two late authors, that purposely have described the teeth of the elephant.

The first I shall mention is Mr. Patrick Blair, who has publish'd a treatise he calls Osteographia Elephantina, or a description of the bones and other parts of an elephant, that died and was dissected near Dundee in Scotland, anno 1706. in the London Philosophical Transactions for April, May, June, July, August and September, 1710. Numb. 326 and 327. Here giving us a description of the teeth of this animal pag. 110. he says, Dr. Moulins well observes that they are all molares, being two inches broad in that part of them wherewith they grind, and six inches and a half long on the right side, and five inches and a half on the left their surface, tho' flat, is yet very unequal, for they have alternately placed, running from th right to the left side, an Hollowness and then an Eminence; and this Eminence is surrounded by a rough protuberant border. There are nine of these hollownesses and as many eminences, undulated as they paint sea waves.

'Tis remarkable how very exactly all this agrees with our figures; 'tis true those hollownesses and eminences which he mentions to be nine, do not so nicely hit with the number of those in our teeth; but this difference proceeds from hence, that he describes here the grinders of the upper, whereas ours are the teeth of the lower jaw; tho' such a distinction as this, I am apt to think, may very well arise even in those of the same jaw, in various animals, from some peculiar disposition in one from another, nay and perhaps in the same animal, at differing times, according as it happens to be older or younger, but this by the bye.

A littler farther pag. 114. and 115. where he gives an account of those of the under jaw, he says

The hind tooth of the right side is four inches, and that on the left five; the one half of their surface, where they begin to appear above the gumms, is semicircular, with the forementioned ridges and sulci running transversly, four on the right side and five on the left, the other half (or tooth I suppose he means) has five of these eminences where it grinds on the right, and four on the left; each of the four teeth is six inches long, and has six or seven of the forementioned eminences as many depressions; these teeth are the most firm, solid and weighty bones of any animal yet known.

So much from Mr. Blair.

The other author I shall produce for the further illustration of this matter, is the laborious and accurate naturalist Mr. Ray, who, in his synopsis Animalium Quadrupedum, when he comes to give us the description of the elephant, has the following words. Os pro mole belua parvum, quatuor in utraque maxilla dentibus molaribus seu dentium molarium massis instructum; si quidem plutimi dentes in os solidum & durum ita infixi sunt, ut cum eo & inter se unum & continuum corpus efficiant. dentes hi lineas parallelas undulatas octo vel novem in superficie massa efficiunt; suntque reliquo osse candidiores; massa integra, dentium singularium modo, per gomphosin maxillis inseruntur. incisoribus omnino caret.

Thus Mr. Ray in very proper and expressive terms describes the teeth of this animal; and truly if your Grace will but compare Mr. Blair's words with his, and the particulars of both accounts with the description and figures we have before given of the teeth dug up in Ireland, and observe how they all agree exactly, even so as one may say they tally together, I think it will amount to nothing less than demonstration, and that all our ideas have been taken from one and the same natural object; and as they, so we, must certainly have described no other teeth but those of the elephant.

But then perhaps it will be ask'd what is become of all the rest of the teeth that were in the upper jaw, which being as firm and solid bones as those that are her preserved, might for the same reason have still remained intire.

But since we find it otherwise, 'tis obvious to imagine a probable conjecture how this might come about. From what Mr. Nevil mentions in his letter, 'tis plain that the bed where all these bones were found, must once have been the outward surface of the earth, the green-sod, producing rushes, fern and nutts; and when the heavy beast first fell dead upon this spot, the skull, with all the bones and teeth of the upper jaw, being the highest parts of the animal, might likely fall in such a posture, as to be exposed some while above the earth; tho' those of the under jaw first coming to the ground, might make themselves a bed, and being covered with the mould remain preserv'd, whilst the upper teeth, and most of the other bones, lying exposed to the injuries of the air and weather, before they got a covering, might rot and quickly moulder all away.

But tho' this be allowed, yet still a greater difficulty remains unsolv'd; how this large body'd animal, a native of the remote warm climates of the world, should be deposited in this wild Northern Ireland, (where Greeks or Romans never had a footing) so many miles from the sea, and distant from those places of the Isle where people might most probably resort.

And still to make the difficulty yet greater, we must consider, not only from the dark black colour of the teeth, contracted by their lying long under ground, and the remarkable alteration wrough on their bony substance, which (by the mineral streams and exhalations it has imbib'd whilst it was in the earth) is now become more solid, hard, and ponderous, than it was naturally at first, (nay in some parts we find it plainly petrified) but also from the perishing of all the other bones of the animal's body, and from the considerable depth of earth that covered those that were found; we must conclude, I say, from hence, that they have lain in this lace for many centuries; 'I won't say with Mr. Nevil ever since the flood, because I can't suppose that the flight texture of vegetable substances, nutts and the seeds of the rushes, could possibly have been preserv'd so long; but this, at least, may safely be affirmed, that these remains must be contemporaries with some of the remote ages of the world; which carries us so far back into the earliest times, that we can ne'er imagine the rude inhabitants of Ireland, or any of their neighbouring countries, were masters of so much art, in those days of ignorance and darkness, as to make carriages by sea strong and capable or of curiosity and politeness enough, to transport a beast of this large size from those far distant countries where 'twas bred; which they that now attempt do find a work of vast care, trouble and expence, even in this age wherein navigation is brought to such perfection.

These considerations, my Lord, grounded on other instances of the like kind, make me inclined to think this elephant we are speaking of, might not be brought hither by any care or industry of man; but the surface of this terraqueous globe might, in the earliest ages of the world, after the deluge, but before all records of our oldest histories, differ widely from its present geography, as to the distribution of the ocean and dry-land, its islands, continents and shores, so as to allow this beast, and others of its kind, for ought I know, that may be some such accident hereafter be luckily discovered, a free and open passage into this country from the continent.

For otherwise, how can we e're explain that that other vast large stately animal the moose-deer, little inferior to the elephant itself, could have been brought to Ireland, (where elsewhere I have shewn it formerly was common) from distant North America, even long before that quarter of the world was known, and is the only region I can hear, where this great beast is found at present.

And can we well imagine that foxes, otters, badgers, tigers, wolves, with linxes and such ravenous animals as we have been told, have lately been discovered by the great snows that fell this present winter in the Island of Sardinia and other places, should ever be imported (being useless noxious beasts of prey) by the industry of man, to propagate in Islands, that they might destroy men's food and flocks, and make their lives not only uneasy but unsafe?

Nay how can we suppose that birds of shortest flight, the various sorts of poisonous serpents, and of offensive creeping vermin, with all the various tribes of smaller insects, could possibly be found in Islands, unless they had been stock'd with those inhabitants when the intercourse between them and the continent was free and open.

But in whatever manner this elephant (to return to our subject) might first have made its way for Ireland; this is beyond dispute, that the bones of elephants have been discovered deep under ground, in other places as well as this kingdom; and those too out of the way, far distant from the native countries of this animal.

For not many years ago, in a hill near Erfurt, a town of the upper Saxony in Germany, several parts of the skeleton of an elephant were dug up; on which occasion Wilhelmus Ernestus Tentzelius historiographer to the Duke of Saxony, writ a letter to the very learned Antonio Magliabechi, Library Keeper to the great Duke of Florence. This treatise is published, but I have not been so lucky as to procure a sight of it, and know no more but just the title-page Wilhelmi Ernesti Tentzelii Historiographi Ducalis Saxonia Epistola, de Sceleto Elephantino Tonna nuper effosso, and Antoniam Magliabechium, Magni Ducis Hetruria Bibliothecarium.

And I am well persuaded, by the the best construction I can make of those imperfect and obscure accounts, we have in Evert Isbrand Iddes curious travels from Muscovy to China over land; Chap. the 6th, (which he confesses he only gathered from the barbarous Ostiacks inhabitants of that country) concerning the vast teeth and bones and limbs of philo-trans-25 as he calls them, frequently found (and diligently sought after to make profit of them) in the hills, and banks of several rivers in Siberia, the Keta, Fenize, Trugan, Montgamsea and Lena; that they are nothing else but the remains and skeletons of elephants buried there, and accidentally discovered by the Earth's opening, and falling down on the sudden thaws, after severe long frosts. But of this, please to consult the author, whose words are too prolix to be inserted here.

But to bring this matter still nearer home to ourselves, Mr. Cambden in his Britannia is of opinion, that those great monstrous teeth and bones, which he takes notice to have been at several times dug up in many parts of Great Britain, must have been the remains of elephants; but then he thinks, they must be of those that Dion Cassius the Historian, tells us, the Roman Emperor Claudius brought over, when he made his expedition into that Island. But that this truly is so, I own is but surmise as yet, and had not been so fairly proved by him or any other, as that we can rely upon't with satisfaction.

What Mr. William Somner the learned Antiquary has published in his discourse of Chartham News is more remarkable; (this is reprinted lately in the Philosophical Transactions for July 1701. No. 272.) where he informs us, that in the year 1668 in the village of Chartbam near Canterbury in England, digging within 12 rods of a river, they found a parcel of strange monstrous bones, some whole, some broken, together with four teeth perfect and sound, each weighing something above half a pound, and some of them almost as big as a Man's fist. They are all cheek-teeth or grinders; the earth in which they lay being like a sea earth, or fulling earth with not a stone in it.

'Tis observable how this account in many of it's circumstances, agrees with that of Mr. Nevil in his letter to your Grace; as that the teeth were all grinders, four in number found with other large broken bones near a brook, and in a claiey earth, without a stone; but then the weight and magnitude of our largest teeth, so far surpass those that were found in England, that these did not come up to a fifth part of those, which shows they could not be the teeth of the same animal. I must confess the author does not so much as suspect they were elephant's teeth, but on the contrary is of opinion that they belong'd to another species, the hippopotamus or river-horse, a beast that's yet a greater stranger in these parts of the world, than the elephant itself; and therefore it's passage hither can never be accounted for, but by some such like supposition as we have made.

However Mr. John Luffkins in his letter, wherein he designs to have reference to that discourse; and which is inserted in the Philosophical Transactions for Sept. 1701. No. 274. differs in his judgments from Mr. Somners about these teeth; as he is positive those large bones he describes in the same letter, and found near Harwich in Essex, certainly must have been.

Not having seen, much less examined, any of the bones or teeth concern'd in this controversy; either those that were found in Kent or those in Essex; I cannot well take upon me to determine anything in this matter; tho' those dug up at Chartham, as I understand, may still be perused by the curious among the natural rarities of the Royal Society in their repository at London. But this at present I can safely say, that if the figures of the teeth given us by Mr. Somner, and represented in the plate of the foremention'd Transaction No. 272. be genuine and well exprest (as I have no reason to doubt, as coming from one so skilful and so accurate) they no way seem to agree either in shape or make, or in that particular and characteristick work on the grinding supersicie, with the teeth of the elephant; or with the description and figures we have given, which I am sure are both correct and natural.

I should now, my Lord, make some apology for detaining your Grace so long upon what may seem so light and trivial a subject, a piece of meer curiosity; but I am so vain as to hope, whatever others may fancy, it may not appear so inconsiderable altogether to your Lordship's more discerning judgment.

For I am inclined to think, (even from these imperfect hints) that if we had more correct histories and observations of this kind, made in distant countries, and skilfully registered, with all their instructive circumstances, they might lead us into great and momentous truths relating to the Deluge; to the wise methods of providence, in replenishing all regions of the world with animal beings soon after the flood; and to the knowledge of several important changes that may have happen'd on the surface of this our terraqueous globe; inquiries that are truly worthy the utmost application of the most learned Divine and the most sagacious philosopher.

But I shall stop here, and only beg leave to subscribe myself, with the utmost respect,

My Lord,
Your Graces most devoted
faithful and humble servant.
T. Molyneux.

This letter of Mr. Nevile with Dr. Molineux's curious draughts of the teeth and his learned remarks upon them, having been produced and read before the Royal-Society, they ordered that what teeth they had of like sort should be look'd out and laid before them; to which Sir Hans Sloane was pleased to furnish a yet greater variety, out of his incomparable collection of natural rarities. And to obviate all doubts, there being at this time in Westminster the entire skull of a large elephant with the teeth in it, that was likewise ordered to be viewed and compared with the figures; which done, it appeared that the teeth in question could no other than those of an elephant.

By this enquiry we were likewise satisfied, that the number of teeth found, being but four, was no objection; it appearing that the number of molares in this animal is not certain. Pliny Lib. XI. Cap, 37. says exprestly Dentes Elephantointus ad mandendum quatuor, praeter eos qui prominent. And in the remains of that mighty elephant described by Tenzelius. Phil. Trans. No. 236, there were no more than four teeth found. In that at Westminster there are six, viz. One in each lower jaw, and two in each of the upper, whereof the inner tooth is about three times as long as the other, and both together longer than those of the under jaw by about an inch; the upper small teeth being much worn by grinding. These we have thought fit to represent by Fig. 5. shewing the rough grinding surface of the left under tooth, being considerably concave; and by Fig. 6. the same roughness on the upper teeth is shewn, having a convexity tallying with the concavity of the under, which is a circumstance not observed by any of those that have described them.

And also, by the observation of Mr. Du Verney, Dr. Moulins, and Mr. Blaire, who dissected three different elephants, it appear that each of them had eight molares; yet from them it is also evident that in the division of them nature observes no rule, for Mr. Moulins found the two teeth in each of the upper jaws of that he dissected, to be divided after a different manner; so that the inner tooth on the one side, and the outer on the other, was bigger than its adjoining fellow, yet not so as to be very unequal; and Mr. Duverney and Mr. Blaire had on both sides the much greater tooth outwards; whereas the Westminster-skull on the contrary, has only a small one outwards, and the much greater grinderwithin. All which considered, we may with assurance conclude, that this elephant found in Ireland had but four teeth in his head when he died; and that the two greater were those of the upper jaws, and the other two those of the under.

Again, by the size of the grinding part, we may conclude these to be the teeth of a very young and small elephant; since they are not much above half the length of those that are to be seen at Westminster, which belonged to a beast of not more than between 10 and 11 foot high; nor much above one third of the length of a fossile elephant's grinder in the Royal Society's repository, the which is here represented by Fig. 7. (all the figures being drawn to the scale of half their true dimensions). Hence it is not to be marvelled that the bones of so young an animal, having not acquired their firmity, as being in a growing state, should be dissolved by lying in the earth, as also the roots of the teeth.

On this occasion, perhaps it may not be amiss to quote a passage out of Mathew Paris his History, who assures us, that in his time Louis IX. (afterwards St. Louis) King of France, made a present of an elephant to his contemporary Henry III. of England; and that in the year 1255, after the English had been fourscore years master of Ireland. Of this says Mathew, Nec credimus quod unquam aliquis elephas visus est in Anglia praeter illum.


A pdf version of the entire text of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London can be found here (this article begins on page 370).

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