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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Griffins, Cyclopes, Monsters, and Giants--these fabulous creatures of classical mythology continue to live in the modern imagination through the vivid accounts that have come down to us from the ancient Greeks and Romans. But what if these beings were more than merely fictions? What if monstrous creatures once roamed the earth in the very places where their legends first arose? This is the arresting and original thesis that Adrienne Mayor explores in The First Fossil Hunters. Through careful research and meticulous documentation, she convincingly shows that many of the giants and monsters of myth did have a basis in fact--in the enormous bones of long-extinct species that were once abundant in the lands of the Greeks and Romans.


As Mayor shows, the Greeks and Romans were well aware that a different breed of creatures once inhabited their lands. They frequently encountered the fossilized bones of these primeval beings, and they developed sophisticated concepts to explain the fossil evidence, concepts that were expressed in mythological stories. The legend of the gold-guarding griffin, for example, sprang from tales first told by Scythian gold-miners, who, passing through the Gobi Desert at the foot of the Altai Mountains, encountered the skeletons of Protoceratops and other dinosaurs that littered the ground.


Like their modern counterparts, the ancient fossil hunters collected and measured impressive petrified remains and displayed them in temples and museums; they attempted to reconstruct the appearance of these prehistoric creatures and to explain their extinction. Long thought to be fantasy, the remarkably detailed and perceptive Greek and Roman accounts of giant bone finds were actually based on solid paleontological facts. By reading these neglected narratives for the first time in the light of modern scientific discoveries, Adrienne Mayor illuminates a lost world of ancient paleontology.

Excerpt

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 . . .

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