They might be giants

Richard Fortey

  • The First Fossil Hunters: Palaeontology in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor
    Princeton, 361 pp, £22.00, May 2000, ISBN 0 691 05863 6

In 1586, William Camden reported in Britannia, his travel guide to British curiosities, that the bones of giants had been discovered in Essex. The evidence took the form of limb bones the size of small tree trunks, and enormous teeth. The local people were familiar with legends of their oversized forebears, and the bones provided visible testimony to the history behind the legends.

As in Essex, so in classical Greece nearly two millennia earlier. Among the olive trees on the Aegean island of Samos, the plough could turn up huge bones; in other sites, limb bones were seen to emerge from eroded valley sides, or from sea cliffs. Surely, here was tangible proof of the Gigantomachy – the battle between the gods and the giants which ended with the defeated giants being buried under volcanoes. Bones of this kind can still be seen in local museums on the Greek islands. They are spectacular finds: femurs nearly the height of a man, skulls with tusks, scapulae which resemble gigantic shields, massive teeth carrying flat grinding surfaces like washboards.

The remains were and are fossils of extinct mammals. The most impressive are of elephants. Ivory tusks can be recovered from ground where no elephants have lived for thousands of years; indeed, some testify to species more massive than any still alive. Even older fossils have been recovered, including bones of exotic relatives of the giraffe which may date from twenty million years ago. Then there are giant hyenas, as well as bears, hippos and rhinoceroses. Greece and its islands in fact lay at a kind of crossroads for mammal evolution over millions of years, the evidence of which is entombed in the rock strata that have been yielding their remarkable remains to the curious and bewildered ever since antiquity. The people who came across them naturally wanted an explanation, and one which could be accommodated within the prevailing myths. In antiquity, their thoughts turned to giants and heroes. They began to seek out such relics, and to revere them, as concrete proof of past events of a strange magnificence.

Adrienne Mayor has trawled through the work of a dozen classical writers for evidence of fossil-hunting in antiquity, not for the most part the great and the famous authors, who seem rather to have despised the stories put about by fishermen of dredging up the limbs of titans. Instead, she has investigated jobbing historians like Pausanias, a gossipy travel writer who was a bit like an antique John Aubrey. She has done an admirable job in tracking down so many obscure references and easily persuades us that these early writers indeed recorded a palaeontological bonanza centuries before the first dinosaur remains were recognised by modern science. Mayor demonstrates that wherever a classical account records the discovery of giants’ bones, so today a palaeontologist can extract fossils from local strata which would be a plausible source for the original accounts. This is a considerable achievement, not least because present-day palaeontologists have often been rather cavalier about their discoveries, some of which remain unpacked in their original gunny sacks in the basements of museums (including the one I work in), having lain unstudied for almost a century. As many research students have discovered, it’s always easier to collect more bones than write up a scientific paper.

Big bones were evidently treated as more than mere curiosities by their classical discoverers. They were placed in temples for common admiration, or even hoarded by emperors. As reported by Phlegon of Tralles, the Emperor Tiberius deliberately sought to find out more about them, and as the Roman Empire expanded territorially, more and more fossil sites came to attention. The commonplace notion was that the bones proved that beings in the past were generally gigantic – Phlegon took this as proof that ‘nature is running down,’ giants having now been downsized to mortal proportions. It would be overdoing things to describe this as a theory of evolution – it is more one of deflation – but it does suggest that at least some classical writers might have had more flexible views concerning the fixity of species than one would suppose.

Nor should we wonder that mere bones were accorded such significance. They still are. To take one example, the descendants of elders of Australian aboriginal tribes are negotiating for the return of the bones of ancestors long since registered into the collections of museums in Australia, Europe and elsewhere. The elders want them returned to their sacred burial sites. It’s perfectly plausible to suppose that the ancient Greek islanders reacted similarly and decided that the best thing to do with these remains of their ancestors was to rebury them with due ceremony.

Curiously, illustrations of the ‘monsters’ are rare. Mayor discusses a black and ochre painted vase in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which shows Herakles and Hesione confronting the Monster of Troy. The hero is shooting off a flight of arrows in the direction of a monster whose toothy visage seems to emerge from a cliff or pillar. It resembles a large fossil skull, and it’s hard to imagine why the artist should have portrayed it in this fashion unless he had a model in front of him that had been eroded from rock. The ‘specimen’ somewhat resembles the Miocene giraffe Samotherium, although any good palaeontologist could point out several differences. But then, even the human figures on the vase are approximate, so deviations from accuracy are to be expected.

Fossils have also been linked with the legend of the Cyclops. Some of the extinct pachyderm species on Mediterranean islands tended to be rather small – dwarf elephants, perhaps six feet high – as is the way with species isolated for long periods in remote places. But like all elephants they had a single, large, central nasal cavity. It’s easy to see how this hole could have been thought of as the skeletal evidence of a single enormous eye set in the middle of a human forehead. A connnection between these fossils and the Cyclops was pointed out back in 1914 by the Austrian palaeontologist Othenio Abel, so Mayor is here following in a tradition, if a neglected one. Abel, however, had attributed the original observations of ‘Cyclopes’ to Empedocles, an attribution of which Mayor makes short work, since elephants were unknown to Empedocles, who wrote in the fifth century BC. Living animals of the elephant kind were only ‘discovered’ in Africa by the Greeks a century later. Many centuries later still, Boccaccio witnessed the unearthing of a comparable skeleton in a cave in Sicily; when it was touched, it crumbled dramatically into dust, leaving behind only its massive and indestructible teeth. Similar fossils are still being dredged up by fisherman in the shallow seas around Lowestoft, and these might have inspired legends of giants around our own shores.

Adrienne Mayor has to account for the fact that there are few if any references to the giant bones in the writings of such as Aristotle. Her idea is that he and others like him would have regarded them as anomalies, monstrous manifestations that did not fit into their systems of classification. The fossils may even have been tainted by their association with the easily amazed common herd, and with minor historians like Pausanias who recorded their disinterment with relish: it’s a plausible explanation, if not entirely convincing. Less equivocal is her description of the original attempts to gauge the size of the beings represented by the fossils. The proportions suggested by the remains of a femur, for example, were scaled up in human terms, just as the capacity of a skull might be assessed in familiar measures of wineskins or amphorae. The original discoverers made plausible guesses about dimensions – one might say scientific guesses, in a modern context. There is a lost natural history here, though a distorted one.

Among the list of mythical animals dating from antiquity one stands out as having been subject to more precise and consistent description, a more ‘natural’ natural history. This is the griffin. It is portrayed as a large predator with a wickedly curved beak, like that of an eagle; its wings flare back over a distinctively mammalian tail. It is a panther-bird or eagle-lynx. In one Greek bronze it is accompanied by a baby of its own kind. Portrayals of the griffin have even been found tattooed on the skin of a mummified nomad, dating from the fifth century BC, on the slopes of the Altai mountains on the edge of present-day Mongolia. Clearly, these griffins were distributed more widely in the East than their monstrous Mediterranean counterparts. They lived in ancient Scythia, that inhospitable stretch of barren, mountainous country extending through Tien Shan to the Gobi Desert.

Herodotus, writing in about 430 BC, gives details of the lives and legends of the nomads who populated these remote steppes, and some of his observations have been borne out by recent archaeology – the ‘father of lies’, as he was once known, is proving to be the father of half-truths. Herodotus remarks on the mountains surrounding the deserts as a source of gold, and it’s a fact that metalliferous veins following ancient geological seams sewn deep into the earth are known from many sites in Central Asia. An observer writing seventy years after Herodotus, as Mayor has discovered, recorded that gold originated from ‘high mountains in an area inhabited by griffins, a race of four-footed birds, almost as large as wolves and with legs and claws like lions’.

Legends, or embroidered facts? Mayor makes the intriguing, and plausible, suggestion that the griffin is a dinosaur called Protoceratops. This animal was small for a dinosaur, being only a couple of metres long. It was remarkable for its great beak, a massive hooked apparatus that dominates the head; it is more than passingly eagle-like. The head extended backwards into a bony frill, and this might have been the source of the griffin’s ‘wings’ – for the rest of the animal is a normal quadruped with a long, fleshy tail. Viewed in silhouette, the griffin and the dinosaur are strikingly alike. Fossil remains of this particular dinosaur are extraordinarily abundant. One expedition to the Altai mountains in the 1920s found over a hundred individuals: they weather out of the ground under the relentless ablation of the desert wind. There seems to be no reason to suppose that these fossils were unknown to the ancients, on whom they must have made a strong impression. They are found in various sizes, which may account for the peculiar feature of the ‘baby’ griffin accompanying its grown-up parent (there may have been parental care among these ancient reptiles). Their eggs and nests are now almost routine discoveries. Even more remarkable is the fact that they are found in the same areas as gold-bearing deposits: they were indeed the guardians of untold wealth. Whether the Issedonian tribesmen deliberately encouraged the legend of the griffin to protect their sites is much more speculative. But the theory of griffin-as-dinosaur holds up well because it explains several disparate observations at a stroke. Interestingly, re-evaluation of their common anatomy has led to dinosaurs and birds being classified together, so that myth and fact are finally starting to converge.

Palaeontology went nowhere for virtually two millennia after the first fossil hunters came on the scene, because the systematic study that would make enduring sense of the bones followed on the classification of rocks, and the idea of geological succession. The geology of the Mediterranean islands is complex and difficult to ‘read’. Had it been simpler, geological science might have got off to a much earlier start.