Digging for clues
The first discovery of Dodo bones at Mare aux Songes in 1865
Article from L’Express – Monday 12th June 2006
The first discovery of Dodo bones at Mare aux Songes in 1865
Article from L’Express – Monday 12th June 2006
In the month of June 2006 a Mauritian-European Research Team are following up the discovery of fossil remains of the Dodo, and other extinct endemic animals and plants, which were found at Mare aux Songes in October 2005. The Dodo-Research Programme is a Mauritian-European research initiative to reconstruct the world of the Dodo, and to determine the factors which led up to its extinction.
While this important research is going on in Mauritius, it is interesting to look back to the very first time Dodo bones were found in Mauritius just over 140 years ago. At that time there was very little evidence to prove that the Dodo had ever existed. There were some eye-witness accounts by sailors who had visited Mauritius in the 1600s, a few paintings, and some bones in European museums. In the island which had witnessed its extinction, the Dodo had been wiped out of human memory. By 1778, a Mr. Morel, who was Secretary of the Port Louis Hospital, made an inquiry amongst the oldest inhabitants, and none of them had any knowledge of the existence of the Dodo. By 1816, at a banquet given by the Governor Robert Farquhar, nineteen guests, who were in their seventies, had never heard of it.
Most scientists, who had given the Dodo a Latin name of Raphus cucullatus in the mid-1700s, had almost forgotten about it. Luckily, in 1828, John Duncan, a Curator at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, reviewed all the available accounts and evidence he could find on the Dodo, and wrote a paper in the Zoological Journal. The Paper proved that there really had been a Dodo and that it had lived in Mauritius.
Naturally, Duncan’s paper aroused some interest in Mauritius, which, by this time, had become a British possession. Three educated men formed the Society of Natural History and went looking for Dodo bones, with no luck. Then, in 1831, one member of the Society went to Rodrigues, and found twelve unusual bones whilst digging in some caves there. These bones were sent to the Andersonian Museum of Glasgow, and to the Zoological Society of London, and one was given to an ornithologist called Hugh Strickland, who placed it in the Cambridge Museum. After studying the bones, they were found to belong to the extinct Solitaire (Pezophaps solitarius).
Later, in 1848, Strickland and Melville published their great book, “The Dodo and its Kindred”. It was written on the skeletal evidence of a skull and leg in Oxford, one part of a skull in Copenhagen, and a leg in London, and the visual evidence of paintings and pictures in some museums and archives.
In 1864, Edward Newton, a Colonial Secretary in Mauritius, found a few more Solitaire bones in Rodrigues, which encouraged more exploration, and many more specimens of the same bird were found. There was now scientific proof that the Rodrigues Solitaire actually existed, and that the description by François Leguat (1705), was true and accurate. This further encouraged and motivated the members of the Society of Natural Science in Mauritius to continue their own search for the bones of the Mauritian Dodo.
In the 1840s, the British Government tried to anglicise Mauritius by supporting Anglican clergymen to build churches and schools, where English was used as much as possible. One of the teachers appointed to this scheme was George Clark, who was born in Wedmore, Somerset, England in 1807, and married a Mary Slocombe in 1832. He came to Mauritius, together with his wife, in 1838 with a group missionaries working for the Mico Trustees. He was appointed as a teacher at the Diocesan School at Mahébourg in 1851. The first Anglican Bishop to the island, Bishop Vincent Ryan, mentioned George Clark in his Journal (1864): “[I visited] a large school, where a great number of day-scholars and boarders were assembled under Mr. George Clark, one of the most able and successful teachers in the island, from whose friendly assistance I have derived many advantages on subsequent occasions.”
Clark spent most of his spare time studying natural history and had made numerous attempts at finding remains of the Dodo. In about 1860, a Dr. Philip Ayres, requested Clark to join him in a search for bones at the Fort Hendrick site, but they found nothing. Clark had already been puzzled by the fact that the Natural History Society had been unlucky in their constant search for bones. He thought that the reason lay in the fact that much of the land was either covered by volcanic rock or thick clay, which was not conducive to the laying down of deposits of bones. The heavy rains would strike this hard floor of soil and rock and wash everything away into rivers before they had time to be embedded in the ground. He believed that the only places where it would be possible to find bones were in the alluvial deposits found in the mouth of rivers.
Since he was teaching in Mahébourg, he concentrated his efforts in the south-eastern part of the island. On his map, he noticed three rivers running into the sea, forming a rather muddy and marshy delta in an area close to where the airport is now located. He assumed that if any bones had been washed away by these rivers, they would finally be deposited in the mud of the delta.
During the 1860s, the first railway lines were being constructed in Mauritius, and George Clark extended his search area to the railway excavations taking place from Curepipe to Mahébourg. During his searches he would have met a young civil engineer by the name of Harry Higginson who arrived in Mauritius in 1862 to work on the railway project. Higginson was born in Thormanby in Yorkshire, England in 1838, and after working in Mauritius he became Chief Railway Engineer in New Zealand. It must have been an exciting moment when he recorded the following in his Journal:
“Shortly before the completion of the railway [19th October 1865], I was walking along the embankment one morning when I noticed some Coolies removing some peat soil from a small morass. They were separating and placing into heaps a number of bones and various sorts among the debris. I stopped and examined them as they appeared to belong to birds and reptiles, and we had always been on the lookout for bones of the then-mythical Dodo. So I filled my pocket with the most promising ones for further examination. A Mr Clarke, the Government schoolmaster of Mahébourg, had Professor Owen’s book on the Dodo so I took the bones to him for comparison with the book plates. The result showed that many of the bones undoubtedly belonged to the Dodo. This was so important a discovery that Clarke obtained leave to go out to the morass and personally superintend the search for more. He eventually despatched a large quantity to the British Museum, which sold for several hundred pounds.”
As Professor Owen’s book was not published until August 1866, it seems that Higginson and Clark would have compared their bones to pictures in Strickland’s book which was published in 1848. Higginson later recorded that he sent a full box of bones to the museums at York, Leeds and Liverpool, and to this day, the York Museum proudly displays the Journal and bones donated by their benefactor.
George Clark does not mention Harry Higginson in his Journal, but it is important that we give some credit to the young railway engineer who alerted Clark to look in the marsh beside the new railway line. Clark records that his school pupils also told him of the discovery of bones at Plaisance, so he immediately took leave from his work at the school and supervised the search for more material:
“[I] repaired to this spot, called ‘La Mare aux Songes’, and mentioned to Mr. De Bissy, proprietor of the Plaisance Estate, of which this marsh forms part, my hope that, as the bones of one extinct member of the fauna of Mauritius had been found there, those of another, and a much more interesting one, might also turn up. He was much pleased with the suggestion, and authorized me to take anything I might find there, and to give orders to his workmen to put aside for me any bones they found. They were then employed in digging up a sort of peat on the margin of this marsh, to be used as manure…”
After many fruitless visits to the spot, Clark requested that some men feel around with their feet where the water was about three feet deep. After some searching, a Dodo tibia was found. Encouraged by this discovery, they cut away a mass of floating weed which covered the deepest part of the marsh and found most of the Dodo bones there.
As these bones showed no cutting or gnawing marks, and had not been burnt, it was concluded that the birds had lived in the neighbourhood and died a natural death. Clark commented on the reaction of some of the locals after his discovery:
“The astonishment of some very aged Creoles, whose fathers remembered Labourdonnais, at seeing a quantity of bones of large birds taken from the mud in this marsh, was really ludicrous. ‘How,’ said they, ‘could these bones have got there? Neither our fathers nor our grandfathers ever knew of any such birds, or heard of such bones being found’”.
The marsh had been named Mare aux Songes after the vegetable called Songe (Arum colocasia) which was probably introduced by the French to help feed the slaves on the sugar estates. Indeed there was much complaint in 1750 when an estate owner wanted to clear his marshes of the plant.
It is interesting to read how George Clark described Mare aux Songes as it was in the 1860s:
Mare aux Songes in the South of Mauritius where remains of the Dodo were found.
“The Mare aux Songes comprises of an area of four or five acres. It is about a quarter of a mile from the sea, from which it is separated by low sand hills and basaltic rocks. It is originally a ravine, the bottom of which consisted, like that of most ravines in this country, of masses of basalt varying in weight from a few pounds to several tons. It receives the drainage of about two hundred acres, inclining towards it by a gentle slope. In the course of ages the interstices between these masses of basalt have been filled up by alluvium. A luxuriant growth of fern, sedge, and flags have spread from the borders over the deeper parts of the marsh, forming a mass sufficiently compact to allow of a person’s walking across it. This covering, by preserving anything beneath it from the action of the atmosphere, is probably a principle cause of the perfect state of preservation in which the bones under it were found.
The Mare aux Songes and the lands around it were covered with thick forests at the beginning of the present century; now not a tree remains. From its sheltered position and the perennial springs which flow in it, it must have afforded a suitable resort for birds of all kinds, and was probably a favourite abode of Dodos and marsh birds.
I have opened diggings in several marshes which appear to me likely receptacles for the relics of the Dodo, but I have not found a single bone except in the Mare aux Songes. Several gentlemen, witnesses of my success there, have made experiments in other places, but have obtained nothing.”
The newly discovered bones were sent to museums all over the world and helped ornithologists put together skeletons of the Dodo. Since all the bones were mixed up in the marsh, the reconstructions were made from bones belonging to a number of different birds. The most common bones found by Clark were the metatarsals (feet), vertebrae (backbones), tibiae and fibulae (lower legs), pelvic bones (hips) and mandibles (lower beaks).
A request for Dodo remains had been made by the British Museum in 1856, and this could now be fulfilled by sending a hundred bones to Richard Owen, who was the Superintendent of the museum. Owen was a great authority on the anatomy of living and extinct backboned animals, and after studying the bones he gave a number of lectures around Britain, and published his “Memoir on the Dodo” in 1866. After examining the bones, zoologists had to agree with Richard Owen’s view that the Dodo had been a large, short-winged, fruit-eating pigeon.
Some bones were sent by Edward Newton, who was working in Mauritius at the time, to his brother, Alfred Newton who was a Professor of Zoology at Cambridge University. Other bones were sent to the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, and to various private collections.
Sadly, this great discovery did not feature as one of importance in Mauritius itself, as the population was facing a series of serious epidemics. Following an outbreak of cholera which killed over 12,000 people, the great malaria epidemic from 1865 to 1868, saw the deaths of 75,000 people. A few Dodo bones was of no interest to a population that had just lost one fifth of its inhabitants in the space of three years.
In 1889, the Colonial Government of Mauritius promoted further research at Mare aux Songes, and Théodore Sauzier excavated more bones there between 1891 and 1892. Some of these were then sent to Cambridge where they were mounted into skeletons before being returned to the Natural History Museum in Port Louis., or forwarded to museums in Europe, the United States and South Africa.
Soon, workers at the Plaisance Sugar Estate were referring to Mare aux Songes as Mare aux Dodos. The marshy area was regarded as “non-productive” by the estate managers, and became overgrown with weeds and marsh plants. It was left in lonely solitude, except when the estate workers harvested bundles of Songe for eating.
At a time when Mare aux Songes is being re-discovered, it is important to remember the discovery of the first Dodo bones by Harry Higginson and George Clark. Higginson went on to a successful career in New Zealand, where he died in 1900. In Wellington Cathedral there is a stained glass window which commemorates his life, and one of the panels depicts a Dodo. Clark remained in Mauritius until his death in Mahébourg on the 7th February 1873. It is hoped that this article will draw attention to the dedication that George Clark gave to the island for thirty years of his life, and the discoveries he made at Mare aux Songes.
In 2007, the author and Andrew Frost searched for the grave of George Clark in order that his life may be better commemorated. Against all odds we found it in the Western Cemetry outside Port Louis where he is buried with his wife, Jane Pitt. A future project is to clean up the grave and give it some recognition.
• The Board of Directors of the Mon Trésor Mon Désert Ltd., especially Christian Foo Kune.
• Staff and employees at the Mon Trésor Mon Désert Ltd., who have helped in so many ways.
• Dr Kenneth Rijsdijk, Dr Frans Bunnik, Dr Pieter Floore and Dr Els Floore, all members of the original Team to find bones in October 2005.
• Bob Latimer who filmed our find in October 2005.
• All the members of the Dodo-Research Programme coming from Mauritius, Holland and the UK in June 2006.
• Andrew Frost, for his help in tracking down some aspects of the life of George Clark.
CLARK, George. 1859, ‘A Ramble Round Mauritius with some Excursions in the Interior of the Island – A Familiar description of its Fauna and some subjects of its Flora by a country school-master’ in The Mauritius Register.
CLARK, George. 1865, ‘On the discovery of bones of the Dodo in Mauritius’ in Mauritius Commercial Gazette.
CLARK, George. 1865, ‘Account of the late discovery of Dodo remains in the Island of Mauritius’ in Ibis, vol. ii, p 141-146.
DUNCAN, John. 1828, ‘A summary review of the authorities on which naturalists are justified in believing that the Dodo, Raphus cucullatus (Didus ineptus), was a bird existing in the Isle de France, or the neighbouring islands, until a recent period’ in the Zoological Journal.
GRIHAULT, Alan. 2005, “DODO – the bird behind the legend”, IPC, Mauritius.
GRIHAULT, Alan. 2005, ‘A Study of Mare aux Songes in Mauritius: the site of the first discovery of Dodo bones in 1865’, Unpublished Paper.
LEGUAT, François. 1705, Voyage et avantures de François Leguat et de ses compagnons en deux isles désertes des Indes Orientales, Amsterdam.
OWEN, Richard. 1866, Memoir on the Dodo; Introduction by William J. Broderip, Taylor and Francis, London.