The Last Dinosaur Book

W. J. T. Mitchell begins The Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a Cultural Icon (University of Chicago Press, 1998) by hypothesizing a post-human future, when visitors from another galaxy — imagined as erect bipedal reptiles — arrive on earth and attempt to reconstruct human life from the fossil remains. To these visitors, dinosaurs would appear to be central to human life, particularly at the end of the 20th Century. Mitchell, a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, describes himself as an iconologist — interested in the images humans create and consume — and unlike the focus of art historians, these images don’t need to have artistic merit or status. Mitchell also notes that for the scholar studying images of dinosaurs, there is an overabundance of material.

Mitchell’s book was published in 1998, just five years after the blockbuster Jurassic Park hit theaters, and a year after the sequel, Jurassic Park: The Lost World premiered. While Sax’s cultural study of dinosaurs takes a much more broader and sweeping approach crossing human history and cultures, Mitchell is much more specifically concerned with American and English culture from the modern era onwards. Mitchell discusses a number of cultural images and texts through 40 short chapters, including a 1990s McDonald’s commercial, the 1988 short story by Sharon Farber “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi,” 1 Robert Bakker’s 1995 novel Raptor Red, Italo Calvino’s story “The Dinosaurs,” the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby, the paintings of Charles Knight, Rudolph Zallinger’s Age of Reptiles mural, and others.

One of Mitchell’s primary theses is the dinosaur as the “totem animal of modernity:”

“The dinosaur is the totem animal of modernity. By this I mean, first that it is a symbolic animal that comes into existence for the first time in the modern era; second, that it epitomizes a modern time sense—both the geological “deep time” of paleontology and the temporal cycles of innovation and obsolescence endemic to modern capitalism; and third, that it functions in a number of rituals that introduce individuals to modern life and help societies to produce modern citizens.” p. 77

Mitchell describes the totem as a social symbol and outlines four characteristics: 1.) the totem serves as a symbol of the social unit, 2.) totems are regarded as ancestor figures, 3.) totems are sacred or “taboo” objects, and 4.) ritual objects. Mitchell argues that as a social symbol, dinosaurs serve a multifaceted role in which they are not just one symbol for a specific group, but a collectivity that can be associated with any variety of human identities. Mitchell provides the examples of children identifying with a favorite dinosaur, or the Toronto Raptors professional basketball team (founded 1995). As ancestral figures, the Age of Reptiles precedes and makes way for the Age of Mammals. Finally, Mitchell explains that traditional totem animals were generally living animals that had an immediate familiarity to the respective clan, but as rare, extinct animals, dinosaurs are both taboo in their remoteness and ritual objects in that they must be “brought back to life” through representations and reconstructions.

The dinosaur as the totem animal of modernity fits within a broader framework that Mitchell outlines in the Schematic History of Dinosaur Images:

American Revolution to Civil War
Gilded Age to Depression
WWII to end of Cold War
Mammoth to Victorian dinosaur
Classic or modern dinosaur
Postmodernism: dinosaur renaissance
Extinction scenario
Historical Schema
Ark, frame building
Train, automobile
Energy source
Water and wind
Fossil fuels
Nuclear energy
State of capitalism
Manufactory production
Mechanical production
Biocybernetic production
Exhibition site
Peale’s museum Crystal Palace
Peabody Museum, AMNH, Carnegie, Smithsonian
Shopping mall, Theme park
Jefferson, Queen Victoria
Peabody, Morgan, Carnegie, Sinclar
McDonald’s, InGen Corp., Universal Studios
Image makers
C. W. Peale, W. Hawkins
Charles Knight, R. Zallinger, Winsor McCay, Walt Disney
Gregory Paul, John Gurche, Steven Spielberg
Jules Verne
Conan Doyle, E. R. Burroughs
Michael Crichton, Italo Calvino
Journey to the Center of the Earth
Gertie the Dinosaur, Lost World, King Kong, Fantasia
Flinstones, Godzilla, Jurassic Park
Cuvier, Richard Owen, T. H. Huxley
Cope & Marsh,
H. F. Osborn, Barnum Brown, R. C. Andrews
Robert Bakker, Jack Horner, Paul Sereno

Writing in the late 1990s, Mitchell’s schematic ends with the end of the Cold War, and now leaves us with several decades unaccounted for. Considering the categories of dino-type, exhibition sites, and narratives, for example, I can’t help but think of the meaning of the simulation, particularly when considering simulation and survival video games such as Jurassic World: Evolution, ARK: Survival Evolved, Saurian, and The Isle.

  1. The cover art by Bob Walters featured on the November 1988 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine is also featured as the cover of Mitchell’s book.