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The Victorian Father-Son Duo Who Ate Their Way Through the Animal Kingdom

A few hours before Frank Buckland was due to give a lecture at the Brighton Aquarium in May 1874, his nephews came to call. They would not have been surprised to find their uncle cooking—in fact, as they passed the small menagerie of monkeys, parrots, and other caged animals that lived in Frank’s home, they might well have spotted his dish's main ingredient: an old rhinoceros, which had been a resident at the local zoo before its recent death. Frank had spent the day slicing up the animal to make a giant meat pie for his audience.

Though the dish was intended for Frank’s admiring public, he’d made enough to offer the boys a small sample. Despite its exoticism, the meat tasted familiar, they said—like tough beef.

Frank’s dietary habits were adventurous—a tendency he inherited from his father, William. Both men were accomplished (if not always respected) naturalists who left a huge mark on early zoology. But they also sampled some rather unusual meats, including giraffe, panther, and boiled elephant trunk.

Today, eating such meats isn’t just frowned upon; in many places, it's illegal due to conservation laws. But the attitude of the Victorian age was much different. Animals were, as Frank put it, “destined to multiply and to serve ... the behests of man.” No matter how scarce it was, any creature could serve as food. As William Buckland himself once declared, “The stomach, sir, rules the world. The great ones eat the less, and the less the lesser still.”

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

Frank grew up in a household dominated by the scholarly fascinations of his father, an Anglican minister with a deep love for earth science. William Buckland’s passion had begun at a very young age: Born in 1784, he grew up near the quarries of Axminster, which were teeming with fossils. With a little help from his father, Charles Buckland, young William would gleefully gather prehistoric shells and other treasures like wild bird’s eggs.

William became an ordained Anglican priest and, in 1808, earned an M.A. from Oxford. Afterward, he spent a few years exploring the English countryside, gathering bags of fossils. He landed a dream job in 1813 when his alma mater named him professor of mineralogy. Thus began Buckland’s impressive climb up the academic ladder; in 1845, he was appointed the Dean of Westminster Abbey, a post he held for 11 years. 

Throughout his career, Buckland Senior had a real knack for making huge discoveries. In 1823, the geologist dug up Britain’s oldest known human remains; one year later, he became the first person to scientifically describe a dinosaur. He also coined the word coprolite, which means “fossilized dung,” and owned a coprolite-covered table top.

Today, William Buckland’s personal quirks are remembered in greater detail than many of his accomplishments. He and his son owned a pet bear, for example, which they dressed in a cap and gown and took to wine parties around Oxford. And every class was a performance: Lively and theatrical, the man would keep his pupils wide awake with the aid of grandiose props like a large hyena skull.

The Buckland dinner table was no less entertaining. William popularized an offbeat diet he dubbed zoophagy, which basically meant that the minister ate any creature he could get his hands on. Bear, crocodile, and hedgehog were all regular parts of the family diet. Unsuspecting guests learned the hard way that their host didn’t always bother to identify the main course by name before everyone started digging in. Still, at least one of William’s friends appreciated these bizarre meals. “I have always regretted [the] day,” wrote critic John Ruskin, “… on which I missed a delicate toast of mice.”

Apparently, though, there were still a few creatures that even William’s adventurous palate found repulsive: common mole was awful, he said, but blue bottle fly may have been even worse.

FROM THE AUTOPSY TABLE TO THE DINNER TABLE

Born in 1826, Frank was the eldest of William and Mary Buckland's nine children (only five of whom survived to adulthood), and he was very much his father's son. By 4, he could already identify fossils with ease: When a friend of his father's brought a few bones to the Buckland home, Frank correctly recognized them as the “vertebrae of an Ichthyosaurus,” a type of Mesozoic reptile that resembled a dolphin. His love of bones continued into adulthood; he loved collecting body parts from an assortment of species, and once, when a boy with an unusually shaped head walked past, Frank muttered, “What I wouldn’t give for that fellow’s skull!”

Frank’s career followed an odd path. In 1851, he put his interest in anatomy to good use by becoming a surgeon—but his love of nature far outweighed his esteem for the medical field. In 1852, the 25-year-old Buckland published “Rats” in the literary magazine Bentley’s Miscellany; readers were captivated by Frank’s lively writing style. Accessible and entertaining in almost equal measure, “Rats” was so warmly received that the publication asked Frank to pen a regular column, which would be collected into a volume called Curiosities of Natural History.

Soon, Frank had established himself as the United Kingdom’s most popular science communicator—the Bill Nye of his time, if you will. Like his father, he was a masterful lecturer. According to one journalist, “Few have excelled him in the power of conveying at once information and amusement. He inherited from his father the faculty of investing a subject, dry in other hands (and how dry lectures often are!), with a vivid, picturesque interest.” Before the year 1852 wrapped up, Frank retired from surgery to concentrate on writing, lecturing, and natural history full-time.

Of course, William’s adventurous appetite rubbed off on Frank. Nowhere was this fact more apparent than at the Royal Zoological Garden (today’s London Zoo). When a display animal died, Frank was usually on call to perform an autopsy. As he was dissecting, he gave the staff explicit instructions to save any and all remains that seemed appetizing. There was just one rule of thumb: “If they look good to eat, they are cooked; if they stink, they are buried.”

This system worked well. Over time, Frank checked off such entrées as viper, roast giraffe, bison, and a “whole roast ostrich.”

Frank preached what he practiced and proudly evangelized zoophagy. In 1860, he helped found the Acclimatisation Society of Great Britain , serving as its first secretary. The primary purpose of Acclimatisation Societies—which had also turned up in France, New Zealand, and the U.S., among other countries—was to introduce foreign plants and animals to new ecosystems. This is how starlings made the leap from Britain to America, where they are now considered invasive, and how rabbits ended up wreaking havoc in Queensland, Australia. Zoophagy was a big part of the acclimatisation platform; Frank’s group hoped to transform odd or foreign meats into familiar household staples.

To that end, on July 12, 1862, the British Society’s inaugural dinner was held in London. Attendees were served sea slug and deer sinew soup (both of which Frank called “glue-like”), kangaroo stew (“not bad, but a little gone off”), Syrian pig, Algerian sweet potatoes, and various ducks. Delighted by this exotic spread, Frank approvingly called the event “one of the most agreeable dinners … I ever was present at.”

AN ECCENTRIC LEGACY

By the standards of their day, William and Frank Buckland were considered eccentric—a reputation that has only grown with time. In The Secret History of Oxford, Paul Sullivan says that the pair "were two of the most colorful characters ever produced by the university," and the book Marylebone Lives: Rogues, romantics and rebels. Character studies of locals since the eighteenth century, edited by Mark Riddaway and Carl Upsall, called Frank "one of those true Victorian oddballs" who today "would most likely be starring in some animal-based reality show on Channel 4."

But then again, Marylebone Lives notes that Frank was "England's foremost naturalist," an opinion shared by science historian Allen Debus, who called Frank "one of Great Britain's foremost promoters of natural history" in his time. And Shelley Emling writes in her biography of early paleontologist Mary Anning that the elder Buckland was "the kind of man people were instinctively drawn to ... Graced with an agile mind, he was a great debater and a born experimenter who couldn't have cared less about what others thought of him."

Great minds often belong to unusual people, and no pair makes that clearer than the Bucklands—a father and son who, between their odd gastronomic escapades, advanced and popularized the study of our world and the life forms we share it with.

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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History
How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
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iStock

Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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