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Explaining Giant Bones

Tim Tokaryk

The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Adrienne Mayor. xx + 361 pp. Princeton University Press, 2000. $35.00.

Most paleontologists vividly recall their reaction to their first fossil discovery: the feel, the texture of the bone or shell, the color, the weight—all wrapped in the realization that this may be the first time this object has been recognized for what it is, the remains of something long extinct. For curious minds today, the answers to questions about a fossil's age or its appearance in life are only a teacher or computer link away. But how did people address these questions thousands of years ago? People who unearthed odd bones and stones often relied on religious and cultural stories to explain what they had uncovered. How much did they understand about what are now called fossils? This is the question that Adrienne Mayor seeks to answer in The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times.

Mayor examines surviving stories and myths of the early Mediterranean cultures and the work of contemporaneous historians for clues. For example, Pausanias, a 2nd-century historian, documented the discovery of a large skeleton 11 cubits (about 5 meters) in length that was found in a dry Syrian riverbed. The oracle of Apollo at Claros confirmed the bones to be those of Orontes, a mythical Indian giant-hero. Some people disagreed, proposing that the skeleton belonged to Aryades, a giant from Africa. Recent paleontological research suggests that bones of this size are likely to have been those of Mammuthus trogontherii, an early mammoth.

Some groups—such as worshipers of Set, the god of darkness, in the 13th century B.C.—actively collected fossils and buried them in honor of deities. In the early 1920s archaeologists discovered nearly three tons of dark, polished bones at two Egyptian shrines that honored Set. These were the remains of extinct and extant species of large animals and of human beings, partially mineralized. Because the bones were black, the Egyptians may have believed they were the remains of Set. Much of the material is still crated and unexamined, which Mayor found to be the norm.

Mythical interpretations of fossil discoveries also can be found in the art of the period. Mayor proudly recounts her discovery of an explanation for an artist's unusual depiction of the "Monster of Troy" on a late Corinthian vase from around 550 B.C. This has been criticized in the modern period as a clumsy, inartistic, unimaginative representation of a sea monster. However, paleontologists consulted by Mayor observed that the skull-like monster figure closely resembles fossil skulls of giant Miocene giraffes (Samotherium and Helladotherium) that were found in the region around the time the vase was made. These may have been interpreted as remains of the Monster of Troy and used as the model for the monster on the vase.

Mayor's chronicles do more than entertain; as she contends, they also show that people of Greek and Roman times had a broad understanding of fossils as organic remains of extinct organisms, and that in some cases they made an early attempt at taphonomy (the study of what happens to organic remains from the time of death until they are recovered from the earth). However, these studies did not bring them any closer to the idea of evolution. The giant bones and their stories generally did not receive serious attention from learned philosophers such as Socrates. Mayor notes that, according to Plato, Socrates, when asked whether legends are true, said, "I have no time for such things. I accept what is generally believed and pursue more serious matters."

The lack of serious investigation by natural philosophers is puzzling. When fossil invertebrates were discovered in arid regions or on mountaintops, philosophers concluded that there once must have been large bodies of water covering land that was now dry. The shells of invertebrates change slowly over the course of evolution, so the fossils resembled living species; no theory of extinction was required to account for them. Giant bones were another matter. The philosophers had no naturalistic theories that could explain them, and Mayor observes that they preferred "to focus on the normal and the normative rather than the exceptional and anomalous." Thus in antiquity the search for an explanation for this sort of fossil discovery was left to writers who "consistently referred to mythical paradigms to explain extraordinary remains."

The First Fossil Hunters brings together mythology, art, geology and paleontology in a convincing manner. Because of its vast scope and the author's cross-disciplinary approach, the book may encounter resistance from some readers, but archaeologists and paleontologists with open minds will find their vision of the past broadened. As Mayor states early on, the fundamental importance of this work is not just that people a few thousand years ago collected, displayed and interpreted fossils, but that "Pre-Darwinian interpretations are worthy of our attention because they tell us something about the human imagination and about ourselves." In times long past, others had the same fascination we do today with the sight, feel and sense of something once living and now extinct.—Tim Tokaryk, Eastend, Saskatchewan, Canada

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