Wednesday, March 27, 2013

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

"The giant ogre Skiron used to throw victims off a rocky cliff near Megara until the hero Theseus threw Skiron over the precipice. After a very long period of time 'his bones were tossed between sea and earth and finally hardened into rock'." - Ovid, Metamorphoses.

"It is a matter of observation that the stature of the entire human race is becoming smaller... When a mountain in Crete was cleft by an Earthquake, a skeleton 46 cubits long was found, which some people thought must be that of Orion and others of [giant] Otus... Augustus preserved the bodies of two giants (Secundilla and Pusio) over 10 feet tall at Sallust's Gardens in Rome." - Pliny the Elder, Natural History.

I have to admit that when I first received Adrienne Mayor's book I assumed it was a work of pseudo-science, exploring perhaps some invented history of Greeks and Romans living simultaneously with extinct ancient creatures. However, despite the somewhat unusual presentation (I thought the book looked like a cheap self-published work, and several of the drawings are very amateurish and add little to the text) this turns out to be an exceedingly interesting book that rapidly convinced me of the authors' central thesis.

Mayor begins with a simple argument. In many of the areas of the ancient world around the Mediterranean fossils are easily found. In the wider areas that were influenced by the Greeks and Romans or known to them through travelers and traders, even more extensive remains are common. How did the ancient people understand these?

The two quotes above demonstrate that to a certain extent, many of the ancients had a surprisingly good grasp of how such remains might be formed. Lacking an understanding of the age of the world, they could not comprehend the timescales necessary to create fossils, but they could understand them as the remains of long dead creatures or races. Frequently the remains themselves were interpreted as human, though they were usually from mammoths or similar animals. In a lovely demonstration, Mayor rearranges the bones of a model mammoth to show how they could be altered to look like a large tall humanoid. An ogre, or an ancient hero.

In the Gobi desert remains of dinosaurs like Protoceratops are frequently found, often with eggs in their nests. Mayor shows how the shape of these dinosaurs with their curved beaks, long tales and crested skull could easily be morphed or interpreted as the classic ancient image of a griffin, with a bird like head and wings and lion's body. She then offers us evidence from ancient texts and archaeological remains to show how the ancients clearly thought that griffins did live in parts of the desert. With only a small amount of speculation Mayor adds that the legends that griffins guarded piles of gold could be understood by the flecks of the metal often found with the remains.

Some of the evidence that Mayor has produced is fairly convincing. A pottery vessel with depicting a hero fighting a monster easily resolves itself into an image of a dinosaur skull protruding from the earth. Another image of a human fighting a griffin seems unremarkable until you notice that the griffin, unlike the man, appears to be growing from the ground. A suggestion that the artist understood about bones found under the earth?

Mayor seems to know her classical sources well, and frequently lists sites were bones would have been found eroding from the ground, particularly on the Mediterranean coasts. It has to be said she builds an impressive argument.

But what did the ancients actually understand about these bones? Mayor demonstrates that many of them, including some of the most well known philosophers thought they were the remains of ancient beasts and the ogres who populated the earth before they died out at the hands of heroes like Hercules. While explaining this though, we learn that many of the ancients had a rudimentary understanding that species could evolve, change and go extinct. However while there were those in ancient times who understood these bones as remains of ancient humans or mythical creatures there were also those who saw them as being other animals. Mayor quotes a statement by Plutarch where he identifies some bones as those of a species of elephant (1,700 years before a modern scientist would make the same links). Notably though, prior to the discovery of contemporary elephants by the Greeks, these same remains were interpreted as a vanished monster known as Neades.

It is interesting to speculate whether the myths of giant humans or creatures like centaurs or griffins came first, or were they the result of people seeing fossil remains and creating myths. What it undoubtedly true though, is that in ancient times these remains were often venerated and debated as much as we would today. In fact, Mayor describes a period which is almost a "bone craze" as ancient cities and temples located remains and identified them as famous local heroes putting them on display.

What becomes clear from Mayor's fascinating book, is not simply the way that ancient people tried to understand the world around them, but also how their ideas developed and changed. Sadly we have lost much of the evidence that would enable us to understand how the bones were displayed, though tantalising comments in ancient books clearly indicate that they were gawped at by tourists much as museum visitors might today. Mayor's book seems to have spurred other writers and scientists to look at old materials and books with different eyes, for the non-expert reader however it is a stimulating and informative look, not simply at how our ancestors understood fossils but how their ideas shaped the view of their own history and myth.

Related Reviews

Ward - The Call of Distant Mammoths
Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters

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