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

By Adrienne Mayor | Go to book overview

NOTES

INTRODUCTION

1. See Greene 1992, xvii–xviii, on classicists’ traditional blind spot for natural knowledge embedded in ancient texts. For an emerging scientific appreciation of accurate natural knowledge in prescientific, preliterate cultures, see “Digging into Natural World Insights” 1996. A handful of classicists have noted a relationship between large fossil bones and mythical giants and monsters, e.g., Frazer 1898, commentary at Pausanias 1.35.7; Pfister 1909–12; H. Rackham (Loeb), n. b at Pliny Natural History 7.73; Levi 1979, n. 241 at Pausanias 8.32.5; Huxley 1979; and Hansen 1996, 137–38. One reason the large, extinct mammal fossils of the Mediterranean are so little known is that since the mid-twentieth century, paleontologists have concentrated on studying the fossil remains of the tiniest mammal species. The fossils of small species reveal more clues to evolution than do large species (Bernor, Fahlbusch, and Mittman 1996, 135). Similarly, Buffetaut, Cuny, and Le Loeff (1995) found that the rich dinosaur remains of France are poorly known because modern evolutionists focus on small mammal fossils.

2. William A. S. Sarjeant in Currie and Padian 1997, 340. “The bones which we would now find most impressive—the great vertebrae, the ribs, and the limb bones—were essentially too big to be noticed—or if noticed, to be taken seriously as bones of animals”: Sarjeant in Farlow and Brett-Surman 1997, 4. In A Short History of Vertebrate Paleontology (1987, 3–5), Eric Buffetaut acknowledges that big fossil bones attracted attention in antiquity and cites examples from ancient sources. Authorities on science in Greco-Roman antiquity generally assume that large fossil bones were ignored, and that only small marine fossils attracted notice: see, e.g., Sarton 1964, 180, 560; Kirk, Raven, and Schofield 1983, 16879.

3. The first section of Cuvier’s three-part monograph of 1806 is a history of vertebrate paleontology from the fourth century B.C. to 1802, with a discussion of the ancient knowledge of living elephants. On 4–5, 14, and 54, Cuvier cites discoveries recorded by Theophrastus, Pliny, Herodotus, Suetonius, Strabo, the Suda, and Saint Augustine, noting that fossil elephant bones were often mistaken for remains of giants in antiquity. Henry Fairfield Osborn (1936–42, 2:1147)

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