Constantine Samuel Rafinesque bigraphy, stories - naturalist

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque : biography

October 22, 1783 - September 18, 1840

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, as he is known in Europe (October 22, 1783 – September 18, 1840), was a nineteenth-century polymath who made notable contributions to botany, zoology, the study of prehistoric earthworks in North America and Mesoamerican ancient linguistics.

Rafinesque was eccentric, and is often portrayed as an "erratic genius". He was an autodidact who excelled in various fields of knowledge, as a zoologist, botanist, writer and polyglot. He wrote prolifically on such diverse topics as anthropology, biology, geology, and linguistics, but was honored in none during his lifetime. Today, scholars agree that he was far ahead of his time in many of these fields.



Rafinesque published 6,700 binomial names of plants, many of which have priority over more familiar names. The quantity of new taxa he produced, both plants and animals, has made Rafinesque memorable or even notorious among biologists. The standard author abbreviation Raf. is used to indicate Rafinesque as the author when citing a botanical name.

Rafinesque applied to join the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but was twice turned down by Thomas Jefferson. After studying the specimens collected by the expedition, he assigned scientific names to the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), the white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) and the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus).

Walam Olum

In 1836 Rafinesque published his first volume of The American Nations. This included Walam Olum, a purported migration and creation narrative of the Lenape ("Delaware Indians"). It told of their migration to the lands around the Delaware River. Rafinesque claimed he had obtained wooden tablets engraved and painted with indigenous pictographs, together with a transcription in the Lenape language, from which he produced an English translation of the tablets' contents. Rafinesque claimed the original tablets and transcription were later lost, leaving his notes and transcribed copy as the only record of evidence.

For over a century after Rafinesque's publication, the Walam Olum was widely accepted by ethnohistorians as authentically Native American in origin. But, as early as 1849, when the document was republished by Ephraim G. Squier, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft wrote to Squier saying that he believed the document might be fraudulent. In the 1950s the Indiana Historical Society published a "re-translation" of the Walam Olum, as "a worthy subject for students of aboriginal culture".Walam Olum: or, Red Score, The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians. See

Later linguistic, ethnohistorical, archaeological and textual analyses, particularly from the 1980s and 1990s onward, suggested that the Walam Olum account was largely or entirely a fabrication, and described its record of authentic Lenape traditional migration stories as spurious. After the publication in 1995 of David Oestreicher's thesis, The Anatomy of the Walam Olum: A 19th Century Anthropological Hoax, many scholars concurred with his analysis, and concluded that Rafinesque had been either the perpetrator, or perhaps the victim, of a hoax. Other scholars, writers, and some among the Lenape continue to find the account plausible and support its authenticity.

Study of prehistoric cultures

Rafinesque made a notable contribution to North American prehistory with his studies of ancient earthworks, especially in the Ohio Valley. He was the first to label these the "Ancient Monuments of America." He listed more than 500 such archaeological sites in Ohio and Kentucky. Rafinesque never excavated; rather, he recorded the sites visited by careful measurements, sketches, and written descriptions. Only a few of his descriptions found publication, but his work was used by others. For instance, he identified 148 sites in Kentucky. All sites in Kentucky which were included by E. G. Squier and Davis in their notable Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (1848), were originally identified by Rafinesque in his manuscripts.

Living octopus

Living octopus

In countries which are located near sea coasts, sea food is an important part of national cuisine