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

By Adrienne Mayor | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 5
Mythology,
Natural Philosophy,
and Fossils

TENSION BETWEEN POPULAR TRADITIONS
AND NATURAL PHILOSOPHY

WHEN the ancient Greeks and Romans encountered perplexing fossils around the Mediterranean, what concepts did they draw on to explain them? As we’ve seen, myths and folklore about giants and monsters offered a strong interpretive model for huge, weird bones buried in the earth. But because modern classical scholars tend to read myth as fictional literature, not as natural history, the significant contributions of popular traditions to ancient paleontological thought have not been appreciated.

Moreover, scholars both ancient and modern consigned descriptions of giants and monsters to the realm of fantasy and superstition. Since discussions of remarkable remains are missing in the “objective” writings of the best-known classical historians, like Thucydides, and natural philosophers such as Aristotle, most modern historians and scientists have simply assumed that large prehistoric remains went unnoticed in antiquity. But, as we have seen, the empirical experiences narrated by travelers, mythographers, ethnographers, geographers, natural historians, compilers of natu

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