The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times.

ISBN 10: 0691058636 / ISBN 13: 9780691058634
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Griffins, Centaurs, Cyclopes, 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. As Peter Dodson writes in his Foreword, "Paleontologists, classicists, and historians as well as natural history buffs will read this book with the greatest of delight--surprises abound."


Review: Since fossils have presumably existed for millions of years, why don't we see much paleontological thought from ancient writers? Classics scholar Adrienne Mayor suggests that we can, in fact, learn much about the Greek and Roman attitudes toward fossils if we turn to a surprising source of data and theory: their myths. In The First Fossil Hunters, she explores likely connections between the rich fossil beds around the Mediterranean and tales of griffins and giants originating in the classical world. Striking similarities exist between the Protoceratops skeletons of the Gobi Desert and the legends of the gold-hoarding griffin told by nomadic people of the region, and the fossilized remains of giant Miocene mammals could be taken for the heroes and monsters of earlier times. Mayor makes her case well, but, as with all interpretive science, the arguments are inconclusive. Still, her novel reading of ancient myth--and her critique of the modern scientific mythology that seeks to explain the lack of classical paleontological thinking--is compelling and thought-provoking.

The final chapter of The First Fossil Hunters is an engrossing and occasionally quite funny look at "Paleontological Fictions" dating back several thousand years; the false tritons and centaurs give P.T. Barnum and his successors a much longer genealogy than previously thought. Whether or not you accept Mayor's analysis of Greek and Roman thinking, The First Fossil Hunters should open your eyes to new possibilities about our distant past. --Rob Lightner

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