The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times

By Adrienne Mayor | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION TO THE 2011 EDITION

Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in the Greek
and Roman World: Tracing the History of
Human Curiosity about Fossils

THIS BOOK was researched and written in the late twentieth century, based on a radical idea: that the prehistoric fossil record and Greek and Roman mythology were somehow related. When The First Fossil Hunters was first published, in 2000, geomythology—the science of recovering ancient folk traditions about complex natural processes or extraordinary events— was an emerging discipline. That ancient people observed, collected, measured, and displayed the fossils of immense, extinct species, and that they had, moreover, recognized them as the traces of remarkable creatures that had flourished and then perished in a distant era, were alien concepts. Scholars had generally regarded ancient Greek and Latin descriptions of the bones of giants and monsters as nothing more than tall tales or superstition. Classicists were unaware that the fossils of dinosaurs, mastodons, mammoths, and other extinct animals were conspicuous features of the natural landscape in antiquity. Scientists, for their part, did not realize that fossils were part of the Greek and Roman cultural landscape.

As the first comprehensive study of ancient observations and interpretations of fossils, from huge dinosaurs to tiny shells, this book documents a vast and long-neglected body of literary and archaeological evidence, from Homer to Saint Augustine, to show how fossils captured the attention of Greeks, Romans, and their neighbors. Myths, legends, and historical accounts reveal how ordinary folks struggled to understand puzzling petrified remains of unfamiliar creatures buried in their own backyards. Prescientific fossil

-xiii-

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