A history of the marsupial lion – with science, colonial politics and bunyips

Marsupial lions” lived on the Australian continent from about 24 million years ago up until the end of the Pleistocene era, about 30,000 years ago.

Of course they weren’t really lions, but an extinct species of marsupial with lengthened premolar teeth.

I’ve recently published a colonial history of the scientific identification and naming of the species Thylacoleo carnifex. It reveals the power dynamics that existed within colonial science, and the important and overlooked roles played by Aboriginal knowledge and testimony.

Read more: A new species of marsupial lion tells us about Australia’s past

Unknown beast of prey

Colonial discussion of extinct predators began when New South Wales pastoralist George Rankin discovered the first herbivorous Australian megafauna fossils at the Wellington Caves in 1830. He invited local polymath and Presbyterian minister John Dunmore Lang to inspect his fossils.

Lang saw the Wellington site as akin to the UK’s Kirkdale fossil caves, discovered by William Buckland in 1821. The Kirkdale caves contained fossilised hyenas and their prey. Comparing the two sites led him to speculate that the Wellington fossils were dragged into the caves by some, as yet unknown, “beast of prey”.

According to Lang, in the absence of local palaeontological experts, the best way to determine whether a fossil was from an extinct or still living animal was to consult local Indigenous people.

Read more: The Dreamtime, science and narratives of Indigenous Australia

In 1842, the Wellington finds and local Aboriginal knowledge led the Queensland squatter Frederick Isaacs to search for fossil sites in his recently acquired Darling Downs sheep station. The search was sandwiched between his farming and involvement with frontier conflict.

Scientific imperialism

Once he found fossils, Isaacs established contact with the British comparative anatomist Richard Owen. During and after his life Owen gained a reputation as a controlling agent of scientific imperialism that “reached out its tentacles” across the globe, robbing colonists of their scientific dues.

Unaware of or uncaring about Owen’s dubious character,…

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