Cuvier and Smith were exact contemporaries, both men having been born in 1769, that "fertile year" which gave the world also Chateaubriand, Von Humboldt, Wellington, and Napoleon. But the French naturalist was of very different antecedents from the English surveyor. He was brilliantly educated, had early gained recognition as a scientist, and while yet a young man had come to be known as the foremost comparative anatomist of his time. It was the anatomical studies that led him into the realm of fossils. Some bones dug out of the rocks by workmen in a quarry were brought to his notice, and at once his trained eye told him that they were different from anything he had seen before. Hitherto such bones, when not entirely ignored, had been for the most part ascribed to giants of former days, or even to fallen angels. Cuvier soon showed that neither giants nor angels were in question, but elephants of an unrecognized species. Continuing his studies, particularly with material gathered from gypsum beds near Paris, he had accumulated, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, bones of about twenty-five species of animals that he believed to be different from any now living on the globe.
The fame of these studies went abroad, and presently fossil bones poured in from all sides, and Cuvier's conviction that extinct forms of animals are represented among the fossils was sustained by the evidence of many strange and anomalous forms, some of them of gigantic size. In 1816 the famous Ossements Fossiles, describing these novel objects, was published, and vertebrate paleontology became a science. Among other things of great popular interest the book contained the first authoritative description of the hairy elephant, named by Cuvier the mammoth, the remains of which bad been found embedded in a mass of ice in Siberia in 1802, so wonderfully preserved that the dogs of the Tungusian fishermen actually ate its flesh. Bones of the same species had been found in Siberia several years before by the naturalist Pallas, who had also found the carcass of a rhinoceros there, frozen in a mud-bank; but no one then suspected that these were members of an extinct population--they were supposed to be merely transported relics of the flood.
Cuvier, on the other hand, asserted that these and the other creatures he described had lived and died in the region where their remains were found, and that most of them have no living representatives upon the globe. This, to be sure, was nothing more than William Smith had tried all along to establish regarding lower forms of life; but flesh and blood monsters appeal to the imagination in a way quite beyond the power of mere shells; so the announcement of Cuvier's discoveries aroused the interest of the entire world, and the Ossements Fossiles was accorded a popular reception seldom given a work of technical science--a reception in which the enthusiastic approval of progressive geologists was mingled with the bitter protests of the conservatives.
"Naturalists certainly have neither explored all the continents," said Cuvier, "nor do they as yet even know all the quadrupeds of those parts which have been explored. New species of this class are discovered from time to time; and those who have not examined with attention all the circumstances belonging to these discoveries may allege also that the unknown quadrupeds, whose fossil bones have been found in the strata of the earth, have hitherto remained concealed in some islands not yet discovered by navigators, or in some of the vast deserts which occupy the middle of Africa, Asia, the two Americas, and New Holland.
"But if we carefully attend to the kind of quadrupeds that have been recently discovered, and to the circumstances of their discovery, we shall easily perceive that there is very little chance indeed of our ever finding alive those which have only been seen in a fossil state.
"Islands of moderate size, and at a considerable distance from the large continents, have very few quadrupeds. These must have been carried to them from other countries. Cook and Bougainville found no other quadrupeds besides hogs and dogs in the South Sea Islands; and the largest quadruped of the West India Islands, when first discovered, was the agouti, a species of the cavy, an animal apparently between the rat and the rabbit.
"It is true that the great continents, as Asia, Africa, the two Americas, and New Holland, have large quadrupeds, and, generally speaking, contain species common to each; insomuch, that upon discovering countries which are isolated from the rest of the world, the animals they contain of the class of quadruped were found entirely different from those which existed in other countries. Thus, when the Spaniards first penetrated into South America, they did not find it to contain a single quadruped exactly the same with those of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The puma, the jaguar, the tapir, the capybara, the llama, or glama, and vicuna, and the whole tribe of sapajous, were to them entirely new animals, of which they had not the smallest idea....
"If there still remained any great continent to be discovered, we might perhaps expect to be made acquainted with new species of large quadrupeds, among which some might be found more or less similar to those of which we find the exuviae in the bowels of the earth. But it is merely sufficient to glance the eye over the maps of the world and observe the innumerable directions in which navigators have traversed the ocean, in order to be satisfied that there does not remain any large land to be discovered, unless it may be situated towards the Antarctic Pole, where eternal ice necessarily forbids the existence of animal life."