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Hippos of the Thames

The discovery in Victorian London of the remains of ancient animals – and a fascination with their modern descendants – helped to transform people’s ideas of the deep past, as Chris Manias reveals.

Hippopotamus amphibius, an illustration from William Jardine’s The Naturalist’s Library, 1833-43.

Florentijn Hofman’s sculpture HippopoThames was towed up the River Thames in 2014, past Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, to rest at Nine Elms on the south bank for several weeks. It was an event greeted with interest and surprise. London’s Natural History Museum issued a press release at the time headed ‘Hippos make a splash return to the River Thames’, discussing how, 125,000 years ago, hippos wallowed in the river, in the presence of mammoths, rhinos, aurochs, lions and other prehistoric animals. This was not, however, the first time that Londoners had been reminded of the primeval fauna that once roamed the territory occupied by the modern city. The first discoveries of these animals dated back to the 19th century, when the immense popularity of science, large-scale building works in the capital and reflections on the natural world all combined to bring the lost animals of prehistory to the public eye.  

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