Mar 30, 2008

Big Bone Lick State Park: The Birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology

It’s almost impossible to talk about the Ice Age without including Big Bone Lick in Boone County.  Large Ice Age animals frequented the Lick, which had vegetation and salty soil around the springs that the animals used to supplement their diet.  The land was soft and marshy and some of the animals may have become mired in the bogs and died.  Mammoths and mastodons, as well as ancestors of the sloth, bison and horse frequented Big Bone Lick. 


The first European to discover the many bones of Ice Age animals at Big Bone Lick was French Canadian commander Baron de Longueil in 1739 while on a military expedition against the Chickasaw Indians in Louisiana.  On route the Baron and his troops camped near a swampy area close to the Ohio River.  It is hard now to even imagine what these men saw.  Lying about everywhere were huge bones and teeth, some even sticking out of the ground.  The teeth were over 6-inches long and weighed 4½-pounds each.  Some of the bones were a full 3-feet long.  Baron de Longueil had his men gather these curiosities and carried them south to Louisiana.  By 1740 the Baron had taken his treasures back to France.  These bones and teeth were the first vertebrate fossils to be received in Europe from North America.  The very best scientists in France, including world-famous scientist Georges Cuvier, the founder of vertebrate paleontology, studied the bones extensively. 


From that point on explorers made mention of and collected bones from Big Bone Lick.  In 1776 explorer Colonel George Croghan sent some bones to Benjamin Franklin, who was then in LondonFranklin’s response, “I return you many thanks for the box of elephants’ tusks and grinders.  They are extremely curious on many accounts; no living elephants having been seen in any part of America by any of the Europeans settled there, or remembered in any tradition of the Indians.” 


A survey party in 1773 reported using huge rib bones of the mammoth and mastodon for tent poles.  Vertebrae were used as stools or seats.  The first map of Kentucky, prepared by John Filson in 1784, made mention, “Big Bone Lick.  Large bones are found there.”  In 1804 Dr. William Goforth of Cincinnati made a large collection of bones at Big Bone Lick.  Unfortunately, the bulk of Goforth’s collection of bones, 5 tons, went to Great Britain.


President Thomas Jefferson though was probably the most instrumental American in the development of the science of vertebrate paleontology.  In 1807 Jefferson sent an expedition led by William Clark (of Lewis and Clark) to Big Bone Lick to collect bones, this being the first organized vertebra paleontology expedition in the U.S.  Clark acquired three huge boxes of more than 300 bones for the president, which were studied by Jefferson and famed anatomist Dr. Caspar Wistar.  Jefferson had a special room in the White House to display the Big Bone Lick collection.  Eventually the collection was divided between the Museum of Natural History in Paris, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and to Jefferson’s Monticello where much of the collection was ground into fertilizer, though some of the Big Bone collection still remains there.

Big Bone Lick State Park was created to memorialize the Lick and its fossil-treasure.  The newly renovated museum has an interesting collection of Ice Age bones and Indian relics.  The Diorama Interpretive Trail has a life-like display of Ice Age animals in their natural setting.  A couple of the salt/sulphur springs still flow today.  Big Bone Lick is both a national and local treasure, as it is recognized as the key to understanding the lives of many Ice Age animals and should be on everyone’s list of  “places to visit.”  The park is open daily.  Museum hours are 9 to 4, Monday through Friday.  Visit at or call 859-384-3522.


“Friends of Big Bone” is a group of concerned citizens who are dedicated to education, research and preservation at Big Bone Lick.  They offer programs in partnership with the Boone County Library, Big Bone Lick State Park, and the Boone County Historic Preservation Review Board.  Programs can be tailored to the needs of individual groups or school classes.  Membership is a mere $10.00.  Contact them at



Special thanks to Todd Young of Big Bone Lick State Park for his help with this article.


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