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The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times

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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."

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Editorial Reviews

Steve Voynick
After reading Mayor's The First Fossil Hunters, one thing is certain. You'll never look at classical mythology - or at the history of paleontology - the same way again.
Rock & Gem
Bryn Nelson
Merging the fields of paleontology, archaeology and classical literature, Mayor's research has uncovered striking correlations between modern fossil finds and many of the myths and folklore that sprang up in early Western civilization. Bolstered by evidence linking contemporary dig sites to the origins of monsters and heroes in ancient texts, Mayor theorizes that these myths contain at their core a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to explain the sudden appearance of bones of immense proportions.
Kirkus Reviews
Scientific paleontology began in the 19th century, but the ever-curious Greeks were well aware of fossils. Here's a clear account of what they knew about them—and what they made of the strange bones they found. Mayor, an unaffiliated folklorist, begins with an examination of the griffin—a creature half-lion and half-bird, to which no particular mythological tales attach. Mayor argues that the creature is based on travelers' tales of the fossils of Protoceratops—a small, beaked dinosaur abundant in the Gobi Desert, exactly the region in which the ancients reported griffins to be found. More common in the Mediterranean region are the fossils of prehistoric mammals—in particular, mammoths, mastodons, and large rhinoceros-like creatures. These the Greeks interpreted as the bones of the Titans and Giants whom their gods and legendary heroes defeated in combat. Mayor explains the giant bones of ancient heroes displayed in Greek temples as those of prehistoric mammals. The prevalent ancient belief in the degeneration of the human race since heroic times was reinforced by the size of the bones unearthed. The Romans were also collectors of ancient bones, although they tended to look at them as curiosities rather than objects of veneration: Augustus and other emperors had bone collections. While such philosophers as Aristotle and Pliny ignored what we would consider irrefutable evidence of large ancient animals as anomalies inconsistent with their notion of unchanging nature, Herodotus, Pausanias, and others did describe them. Mayor connects these ancient accounts with areas in which fossils have been discovered in more recent times. While Mayor sometimes belabors herpoints,on the whole this is clear, readable, and convincing. A surprising account of material overlooked or misunderstood by both historians of science and interpreters of Greek myth. (83 b&w illustrations)
American Journal of Archaeology
This book is a pleasure to read. . . . The insight into human behavior is enough to attract anthropologists and laypeople to read this fascinating account of paleontology in ancient times.
— Deborah Ruscillo
American Scientist
The First Fossil Hunters brings together mythology, art geology and paleontology in a convincing matter. . . . 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
Marshaling the array of evidence available from scholarly and popular works, and contributing her own research, Mayor shows that far from ignoring fossils, many Native American groups took great notice of them and developed elaborate myths to explain their origin. . . . Though Mayor is careful not to homogenize native myths, she does note that virtually all of them exhibit a sense of "deep time," as geologists call it: an awareness that the world has existed for far longer than humans have walked it.
— Eric A. Powell
Mayor [combines] the skills of the literary scholar with those of a dinosaur hunter . . . [A]lthough readers will learn a good deal here about the remains of mammoths and protoceratops, they will learn much more about human imagination, that fertile source of science, of legend and of fraud.
Geological Magazine
In her introduction Adrienne Mayor takes palaeontologists and historians of palaeontology to task. At best there has been accidental ignorance and at worst wilful avoidance and misrepresentation of how much the Greeks and Romans knew about fossils . . . Mayor proceeds to make her case with detailed 'chapter and verse' from the ancients. It is indeed impressive and generally very convincing
— Douglas Palmer
Adrienne Mayor's thought-provoking book will mark a watershed in the approach to griffins and giants. . . For both its innovative method and its results, this well-balanced and vividly written book belongs on the bookshelf of every historian of natural sciences.
— Liliane Bodson
London Review of Books
Mayor has done an admirable job of tracking down . . . a paleontological bonanza centuries before the first dinosaur remains were recognised by modern science.
— Richard Fortey
While the book is aimed at academics and presumes knowledge of contemporary debates on the power of the presidency, it is not too abstruse for the current-events minded reader. . . . And if you're a journalist or author researching the office of the presidency, it's essential.
— Lauren Mandell
Natural History
Refreshing. . . . Mayor presents her case with an engaging zeal. . . . By the end of the book, you will find yourself filled with enthusiasm for following Mayor's lead in breaking down interdisciplinary boundaries and thus enriching your understanding of the human experience.
— Kate A. Robson Brown
Mayor the storyteller relishes the opportunity to provide fascinating insights, but she shines most in her ability to stitch together a rich and varied body of oral history grounded in natural history. . . . Mayor clearly thrives at the intersection of science and folklore.
— Bryn Nelson
Rock and Gem
After reading Mayor's The First Fossil Hunters one thing is certain. You'll never look at classical mythology—or at the history of paleontology—the same way again.
— Steve Voynick
A historical and scientific detective story of first rank. . . . Her results are as striking as they are entertaining. . . . The book will engage specialists with its serious purpose and extensive documentation and will please all readers with its profusion of maps, photographs, and drawings.
— Mott T. Greene
The New York Times
Adrienne Mayor has . . . done some digging deep into the past and found literary and artistic clues—and not a few huge fossils—that seem to explain the inspiration for many of the giants, monsters, and other strange creatures in the mythology of antiquity.
— John Noble Wilford
Times Higher Education Supplement
In many ways, this book resembles a detective story. When the author gets on the track of something, she follows it wherever it leads. . . . The First Fossil Hunters will be a revelation to anyone interested in ancient history. For me, it is one of the best books of recent years.
— Walter Friedrich
Times Literary Supplement
Mayor tells a fascinating story of ancient encounters with fossils, setting modern palaeontology beside ancient art and literature . . .
— Helen King
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691058634
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 4/4/2000
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.43 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix Foreword: Stones, Bones, and Exotic Creatures of the Past by Peter Dodson xiii Acknowledgments xix Geological Time Scale 2
Introduction 3
Historical Time Line 11
CHAPTER 1. The Gold-Guarding Griffin: A Paleontological Legend 15
CHAPTER 2. Earthquakes and Elephants: Prehistoric Remains in Mediterranean Lands 54
CHAPTER 3. Ancient Discoveries of Giant Bones 104
CHAPTER 4. Artistic and Archaeological Evidence for Fossil Discoveries 157
CHAPTER 5. Mythology, Natural Philosophy, and Fossils 192
CHAPTER 6. Centaur Bones: Paleontological Fictions 228
APPENDIX 1. Large Vertebrate Fossil Species in the Ancient World 255
APPENDIX 2. Ancient Testimonia 260
Notes 283
Works Cited 333
Index 351

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2008

    A reviewer

    This is one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read. It suggests that many imaginative monsters had a real-life origin - fossils of dinosaurs that were discovered by ancient peoples. A wonderful read. I could not put it down. An amazing subject and a superb author.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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