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By M. le Baron CUVIER

Commander of the Legion of Honour and of the Order of the Crown of Wurtemberg, Regular Councillor on the State Council and the Royal Council for Public Instruction, one of the forty members of the French Academy, Permanent Secretary to the Academy of Sciences, Member of the Academies and Royal Societies of Science in London, Berlin, Petersburg, Stockholm, Turin, Gottingen, Copenhagen, Munich, Member of the Geological Society of London, of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, etc.

Third French Edition

Paris, 1825


Since the English and German translations of this Discourse have appeared separately, some people have wanted a French edition to be made available as well, something distinct from the major work it introduces. In acceding to this wish, we have sought to benefit from the observations of the different foreign editors and to follow the progress made since the publication of the last edition in a science cultivated nowadays more keenly than ever. Finally, we thought it necessary to end the text with a summary listing of the species of animals which the author has discovered and described in the major work, so that people who do not have the leisure time to plumb these difficult matters thoroughly could derive from this text at least a general idea and appreciate both the rational argu-ments based upon these findings and the important consequences which result from them for the history of the earth and of human beings.

In my work on Fossil Bones, I set myself the task of recognizing to which animals the fossilized remains which fill the surface strata of the earth belong. This project meant I had to attempt to travel along a path where we had so far still taken only a few tentative steps. As a new sort of antiquarian, I had to learn to restore these memorials to past upheavals and, at the same time, to decipher their meaning. I had to collect and put together in their original order the fragments which made up these animals, to reconstruct the ancient creatures to which these fragments belonged, to create them once more with their proportions and characteristics, and finally to compare them to those alive today on the surface of the earth. This was an almost unknown art, which assumed a science hardly touched upon up until now, that of the laws which govern the coexistence of forms of the various parts in organic beings. Thus, I had to prepare myself for these studies through a much longer research on existing animals. Only an almost universal review of present creation could provide the nature of a proof for my results concerning this life created long ago. But at the same time such a study had to provide me with a large collection of no less demonstrable rules and interconnections, and in the course of this exploration into a small part of the theory of the earth, the entire animal kingdom in some way could not escape finding itself subjected to new laws.

Thus, I was sustained in this double task by the interest which it promised to have, both for the universal science of anatomy, the essential basis of all those sciences dealing with organic entities, and equally for the physical history of the earth, the foundation of mineralogy, geography, and, we can say, even of human history and everything which is most important for human beings to know about themselves.

If one finds it interesting to follow in the infancy of our species the almost eradicated traces of so many extinct nations, how could one not also find it interesting to search in the shadows of the earth’s infancy for the traces of revolutionary upheavals which have preceded the existence of all nations? We admire the force with which the human spirit has measured the movements of planets, something nature seemed to have concealed for ever from our view; human genius and science have stepped beyond the limits of space; some observations developed by reasoning have unveiled the mechanical workings of the world. Would there not also be some glory for human beings in knowing how to step beyond the limits of time and to recover, through some observations, the history of this earth and a succession of events which have preceded the birth of mankind? No doubt the astronomers have proceeded more rapidly than the naturalists. The theory of the earth at the present time is rather like the one in which some philosophers believed that the sky was made of freestone and the moon was as big as the Peloponnese. But, following Anaxagoras, Copernicus and Kepler opened up the road to Newton. And why one day should natural history not have its own Newton, as well?


In this discourse I propose above all to present the plan and result of my work on fossil bones. I will try also to sketch a rapid picture of the attempts made up to the present time to rediscover the history of the earth’s upheavals. No doubt, the facts which I have discovered form only a really small part of those which must make up this ancient history; but several of these lead to significant con-sequences, and the rigorous way in which I have proceeded in determining them encourages me to believe that people will look on them as points definitely settled, things which will constitute a special age in science. Finally, I hope that their newness will excuse the fact that I focus the major attention of my readers on them.

My object will be, first, to show by what connections the history of the fossil bones of land animals is linked to the theory of the earth and the reasons why they have a particular importance in this respect. Then I will develop the principles on which rests the art of sorting out these bones, or, in other words, of recognizing a genus and distinguishing a species by a single bone fragment, an art on whose reliability depends the reliability of all my work. I will give a quick indication of new species, of genera previously unknown, which the application of these principles has led me to discover, as well as of the various sorts of formations which contain them. And since the difference between these species and those today does not exceed certain limits, I will show that these limits are considerably greater than those which today distinguish the varieties of a common species. I will thus reveal just where these varieties can go, whether by the influence of time, or of climate, or finally of domestication.

In this way, I will proceed to the conclusion (and I shall invite my readers to conclude with me), that there must have been great events to bring about the much greater differences which I have recognized. I will develop then the particular revisions which my research must introduce into the opinions accepted up to the present time about the earth’s revolutions. Finally I will examine up to what point the civil and religious history of people agrees with the results of the observations dealing with the physical history of the earth and with the probabilities which these observations set concerning the time when human societies could have established permanent homes and arable fields and when, conse-quently, societies could have taken on a lasting form.

The First Appearance of the Earth

When the traveller passes through those fertile plains where tranquil waters nourish with their regular flow an abundant vegetation and where the ground, trodden by numerous people and decorated with flourishing villages, rich cities, and superb monuments, is never troubled except by ravages of war or by the oppression of men in power, he is not tempted to believe that nature has also had its internal wars and that the surface of the earth has been overthrown by revolutions and catastrophes. But his ideas change as soon as he seeks to dig through this soil, today so calm, or when he takes himself up into the hills which border the plain; his ideas expand, so to speak, with what he is looking at. They begin to embrace the extent and the grandeur of these an-cient events as soon as he climbs up the higher mountains of which these are the foothills, or when, by following the stream beds which descend from these mountains, he moves into their interior.

The First Proofs of Upheavals

The lowest and most level land areas show us, especially when we dig there to very great depths, nothing but horizontal layers of material more or less varied, which almost all contain innumerable products of the sea. Similar layers and similar products form the hills up to quite high elevations. Sometimes the shells are so numerous that they make up the entire mass of soil by them-selves. They occur at elevations higher than the level of all seas, where no sea could be carried today by present causes. Not only are these shells encased in loose sand, but the hardest rocks often encrust them and are penetrated by them throughout. All the parts of the world, both hemispheres, all continents, and all islands of any size provide evidence of the same phenomenon. The time is past when ignorance could continue to maintain that these remains of organic bodies were simple games of nature, products conceived in the bosom of the earth by its creative forces, and the renewed efforts of certain metaphysicians will probably not be enough to make these old opinions acceptable. A scrupulous comparison of the forms of these deposits, of their make up, and often even of their chemical composition shows not the slightest difference between these fossil shells and those which the sea nourishes. Their preservation is no less perfect. Most commonly one observes there neither shattering nor fractures, nothing which signifies a violent movement. The smallest of them keep their most delicate parts, their most subtle crests, their slenderest features. Thus, not only have they lived in the sea, but they have been deposited by the sea, which has left them in the places where we find them. But this sea has remained in these locations; it has remained there for a sufficient length of time and with a sufficient calm to form there deposits so regular, so thick, so extensive, and in places so solid, that they are full of the remains of marine animals. The sea basin therefore has provided evidence of at least one change, whether in extent or location. See what results al-ready from the first inspections and the most superficial observation.

The traces of upheavals become more impressive when one moves a little higher, when one gets even closer to the foot of the great mountain ranges. There are still plenty of shell layers. We notice them, even thicker and more solid ones. The shells there are just as numerous and just as well preserved. But they are no longer the same species. Also, the strata which contain them are no longer so generally horizontal. They lie obliquely, sometimes almost vertically. In contrast to the plains and the low hills, where it was necessary to dig deep to recognize the succession of layers, here we see them on the mountain flank, as we follow the valleys produced by their tearing apart. At the foot of the escarpments, immense masses of debris form rounded hillocks, whose height is increased by each thawing and each storm.

And those upright layers which form the crests of secondary mountains do not rest on the horizontal layers of hills which serve as their lower stages. By contrast, they sink under these hills, which rest on the slopes of these oblique strata. When we bore into the horizontal strata near mountains with oblique layers, we come across these oblique layers deep down. Sometimes, when the oblique layers are not very high, their summits are even crowned with horizontal strata. The oblique layers are therefore older than the horizontal layers. Since it is impossible, at least for most of them, not to have been formed horizontally, evidently they have been lifted up again and were in existence before the others which rest on top of them.[1]

Thus, before forming these horizontal layers, the sea had formed other strata. These were for some reason or other broken, raised up, and overturned in thousands of ways. As several of these oblique layers which the sea formed in a previous age rise higher than the horizontal layers which succeeded them and which surrounded them, the causes which gave these layers their oblique orientation also made them protrude above the level of the sea and turned them into islands or at least reefs and uneven structures, whether they were raised again by an extreme condition or whether the subsidence caused by a extreme condition with an opposite effect made the waters sink. The second result is no less clear or less proven than the first for anyone who will take the trouble to study the monuments which provide evidence for these results.


[1]Even if we accept that the idea which some geologists hold, that certain strata were formed in the oblique position in which we find them now, is true for some which would have been crystallized, as Greenough claims, like the deposits which encrust the entire insides of jars where gypsum waters are brought to a boil, it is quite impossible to apply this idea to those strata which contain shells or rounded stones, which could not have waited, suspended in this way, for the formation of the binding material which had to hold them together.

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