Adrienne Mayor, a classical folklorist, has penned The First Fossil Hunters, Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, our book for review this month. This 359 page work published by Princeton University Press retails for $35.00. The book is illustrated with black and white photographs and some line drawings where necessary to illustrate key points.
Mayor has studied the myths and folklore of ancient Greece and Rome in an effort to determine if the roots of such legends are embedded in reality. Myths of many ancient cultures have been found to have their original basis in an actual event or people but, just like the party game, as they are handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, details and meanings are often lost or distorted. In addition, ancient peoples did not have the level of understanding of the natural world that we have today. Consequently, explanations of events or, in the case presented in The First Fossil Hunters, fossils have to be "invented" based upon the level of understanding at the time.
Mayor has sorted this out in the realm of the ancient Greeks and Romans and presented her findings and theories within this book. She has worked with both paleontologists and archaeologists in the course of her research. Prime sources used in her research are the writings of the ancient scholars from the sixth century B.C. to the sixth century A.D. These include some people that you will have heard of: Augustine (later to become a saint), Cicero, Claudian, Herodotus, Josephus, Ovid, Palto, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Strabo, Virgil, and Xenophanes. Quotes from the writings of these and many others are presented in Appendix Two and are keyed to the text. Ancient art as early as 3000 B.C. illustrates the artists conception of some of the legendary creatures.
As Mayor points out, the greater Mediterranean area contains a great bounty of Tertiary and Quaternary bones including mastodons, mammoths and other extinct elephant relatives, rhinoceroses, odd giraffids, giant tortoises, saber-toothed tigers, giant hyenas, whales, giant cattle, and cave bears. The localities where these fossils are found are listed in Appendix One. Invertebrate marine fossils are also present. Fossil bones are apparently frequently exposed through storm erosion, earthquakes, and the plowing of farm fields.
The first ancient legendary creature investigated was the griffin. The griffins were said to be lion sized creatures with strong curved beaks similar to eagles. In some renditions the griffins exhibited wings as well as four legs. The griffin was said to be a fierce creature that protected the gold fields of the far east. Protection of gold was secondary for the griffins as they were really protecting their eggs that they had buried in the sand. Unfortunately for the griffin, the gold was in the sand too. The ancient gold seekers did their digging at night to avoid contact with the fierce creatures.
Mayor contends that the griffin is none other than the very abundant dinosaur fossil of Mongolia, the Protoceratops. A people 6,000 years ago, ignorant of the age of the earth, the concept of extinction, and comparative anatomy, came up with an explanation for the fossilized remains they found on gold hunting ventures. As far as they knew these creatures were alive somewhere in the area and their unbelievable appearance was very frightening. This theory appears to have at least some support from paleontologists with whom Mayor consulted. Peter Dodson made mention of this in his 1996 book The Horned Dinosaurs (reviewed in this column in June of 1997).
You're probably curious about dragons too. Did they have a Paleontological connection as well? Apparently so. After presenting the myths, Mayor discusses an area near the border of Pakistan and India where fossils of giant extinct giraffes are found. The First Fossil Hunters has a photograph of a skull of one of these creatures, Giraffokeryx, that for all intents and purposes could be the skull of every dragon that you have seen depicted in art or movies.
There is a great deal of information in The First Fossil Hunters that I was not familiar with concerning Greek and Roman myths and legends. I guess I always had trouble separating the real people from the mythical ones and the Greek ones from the Roman ones. This material is spread throughout the book. Both the Greeks and Romans had myths of gods, heros, and monsters that explained both geological phenomena in their tectonically active area and paleontological finds of "Ice Age" bones.
Remember hearing of the one-eyed Cyclops monster? Mayor's theoretical hard evidence is the multitude of mammoth, mastodon, and other elephant skulls found around the Mediterranean. A skull without tusks is especially convincing since elephant skulls have a huge single round opening directly in the middle of the front of the skull.
Isolated bones were excellent evidence for the ancients that giant humans had previously existed. Amongst these were their heros that had slain the giant monsters and made the world safe for their civilization. Mayor shows photographs and illustrations of leg bones and shoulder blades from mammoths next to the human equivalents. For the ancients, and those of us who are not anatomists, the bones were identical to human bones save for size and some "insignificant" differences. They were able to discount the differences by allowing that giants would undoubtedly have some amount of changes due to their size. These bone finds were big events. Each find was attributed to a specific hero or monster. The local town would enshrine these bones in their temples as "religious" objects. Part of the riches taken from a town after conquest were these fossilized bones of the heros.
One of the interesting chapters in The First Fossil Hunters deals with the artistic and archaeological evidence that supports Mayor's contentions. Until very recently, fossil bones found during archaeological digs were largely ignored or thrown away all together. Partly through the work of the author, this trend is changing. By researching the records of excavations and by talking to active archaeologists, Mayor was able to find out that fossil bone finds in archaeological settings were common. Mayor has provided the explanation for their presence. Here again is another instance wherein two widely varying disciplines (historians, paleontologists and archaeologists) can benefit by working together.
A window into the past provides a lesson for today in the chapter on Mythology, Natural Philosophy, and Fossils. The lesson is that the general populous can more easily understand and believe in miraculous myths and legends than they can in scientifically derived truths that shake their belief system to the core.
In the same chapter, Mayor takes exception to a statement that Jack Horner had made: [that] the concept of extinction and the formation of new life forms was not known until the 1600's. She points out that pre-Christian myths and philosophies in Greek and Roman times, as well as in ancient Hebrew traditions, held that species were not all created at one time. They also held that some creatures had died out and that other new ones had come about over long periods of time. The Greek and Roman tradition maintains a flood myth just as do many other religions. Their version however, is one of multiple floods, each wiping out all life on earth, with a repopulation of all new creatures each time. This myth helped them explain the fossilized creatures that they had observed on mountains. These ancients were at the very least good observers of the natural world around them.
In her summation of this chapter Mayor lists the concepts derived by the Greeks and Romans based upon their view of the natural world and their mythical traditions. These concepts include: recognized that fossil remains represented once living creatures, recognized that the fossil bones were very old (ancient earth), recognized that the fossil bones belonged to creatures that no longer inhabited the earth (extinction), and others. All of these concepts were lost for about the next 1,000 years following the fall of the Roman Empire until science again brought back reason to the western world.
The First Fossil Hunters ends with a chapter on fictions and hoaxes through history. This is an amusing chapter illustrating the gullibility of people who will believe anything they see as long as it fits into their belief system. In the old world there were sightings of centaurs and satyrs - today we have bigfoot and aliens. The remains of mer-people such as Tritons and Nereids (mermaids) were exhibited in large cities but these were probably the remains of beached whales, dolphins, or giant squids. Some of these were found to be the work of ancient taxidermists that manufactured the "remains" to fit the myth. Mayor delves into the reasons for such hoaxes and the reaction of the viewers.
I found The First Fossil Hunters to be a very interesting book with very plausible conclusions for the paleontological explanation of ancient myths. This was a readable book despite all those Greek and Roman names. The history and philosophies of these ancient peoples is enough in itself to maintain your interest.