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Winning Your Election the Wellstone Way
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The Search for Al Qaeda
Civil Disagreement
Stones of Contention
Becoming King
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Labor's Story in the United States

Big Bone LickBig Bone Lick

The Cradle of American Paleontology

Stanley Hedeen

Narrated by Ted Brooks

Available from Audible

Book published by University Press of Kentucky

On March 7, 1808, President Thomas Jefferson received a long-awaited shipment of approximately 300 fossils from William Clark, who had just completed his westward expedition with Meriwether Lewis. The fossils were unearthed at Big Bone Lick in northern Kentucky, and over the years they had gained the interest of such prominent figures as Daniel Boone, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson’s receipt of the fossils was the realization of more than twenty years of the philosopherstatesman’s interest in the site and its natural treasures. Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology recounts the rich history of the fossil site that gave the world the first evidence of the extinction of several mammalian species, including the American mastodon. Big Bone Lick has played many roles: nutrient source, hallowed ground, salt mine, health spa, and a trove of archaeological riches and paleontological wonders. Natural historian Stanley Hedeen presents a comprehensive and accessible narrative of Big Bone Lick from its geological formation forward, explaining why the site attracted first animals, then Native peoples of the region, European explorers and scientists, and eventually American pioneers and presidents. Big Bone Lick is a history of both a place and a scientific discipline: it explores the infancy and adolescence of paleontology from its humble and sometimes humorous beginnings. Hedeen combines elements of history, geology, politics, and biology to make Big Bone Lick an entertaining story as well as a valuable historical resource.

Shawnee legend tells of a herd of huge bison rampaging through the Ohio Valley, laying waste to all in their path. To protect the tribe, a deity slew these great beasts with lightning bolts, finally chasing the last giant buffalo into exile across the Wabash River, never to trouble the Shawnee again. The source of this legend was a peculiar salt lick in present-day northern Kentucky, where giant fossilized skeletons had for centuries lain undisturbed by the Shawnee and other natives of the region. In 1739, the first Europeans encountered this fossil site, which eventually came to be known as Big Bone Lick. The site drew the attention of all who heard of it, including George Washington, Daniel Boone, Benjamin Franklin, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and especially Thomas Jefferson. The giant bones immediately cast many scientific and philosophical assumptions of the day into doubt, and they eventually gave rise to the study of fossils for biological and historical purposes.

Stanley Hedeen is professor emeritus of biology and former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Xavier University. He has written several books on the natural and environmental history of the greater Cincinnati region.


“History and science come together in this fascinating story of a woodland salt lick and how the fossil bones found there influenced the beginnings of paleontology in America.”

Publishers Weekly

“This excellent work by Stanley Hedeen is the most comprehensive account of Big Bone Lick that has yet been produced. The author has touched and expounded upon many facts that have sometimes been overlooked by others. I highly endorse it for those who cherish our heritage and this unique site.”

—Bruce Ferguson, former Boone County Judge/Executive and former president, Big Bone Lick Park Association

Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology focuses on the century-long search for the true identity of the bones of various prehistoric animals found at this salt lick in northern Kentucky. In this ambitious chronicle, Hedeen incorporates a multitude of personalities and ideas that helped to shape the odyssey of the bones’ discovery—from Indian myths and religious beliefs to the first theories developed in the embryonic scientific fields of geology and paleontology.”

—Paul Semonin, author of American Monster: How the Nation's First Prehistoric Creature Became a Symbol of National Identity

“This outstanding book provides new details and new perspective on one of the most extraordinary discoveries on the American frontier—the seemingly inexhaustible collection of huge animal fossils at Big Bone Lick. Hedeen explains why the bones, tusks, and teeth captured the attention of scientists and the public and shows how Thomas Jefferson used the Mammoth bones to refute the European idea that the New World environment was inferior and unable to grow large animals. The book gives us greater understanding of why frontier travelers turned aside to visit the site. Gradually unfolding the intriguing story of how anatomists identified the fossils, Hedeen demonstrates that Big Bone Lick was the birthplace of American paleontology.”

—James A. Ramage, author of Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby

“Sure to be in demand, this is recommended for most collections.”

Library Journal

“In his examination of Big Bone Lick, Hedeen is remarkably thorough: He provides maps of the area, as well as drawings and pictures of the various animals that eventually were discovered. More important, Hedeen is able to re-create the thought processes among top scientists in the world at the time. Following their collective confluences and deviations, Hedeen crafts a story of outlandish theories of existence, first vehemently denied, then gradually accepted, slowly chiseling away at the mountain of accepted science.”

Lexington Herald-Leader

“Hedeen has produced a most comprehensive study of the story of Big Bone and its significance....Big Bone Lick is the story of both a place and a scientific discipline. It explores the infancy of paleontology and the author includes elements of history, geology, politics and biology to produce a valuable historical resource as well as a compelling tale of how this site captivated a young nation.”

Northern Kentucky Heritage

“History and science come together in this fascinating story of an enigmatic salt lick in a Kentucky forest and how the discoveries there influenced the rise of paleontology in America.”

Kentucky Monthly

“Although it is difficult to produce a book that will both interest a wide audience and maintain scholarly integrity, Stanley Hedeen has succeeded in doing so with this history of the fossil beds at Big Bone Lick.”

Journal of Southern History

“Hedeen tells the story of Big Bone Lick from all viewpoints: geological, paleontological, and human.... a wonderful summary of a complex site with a special place in American history.”

Indiana Magazine of History

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University Press Audiobooks