[The Montana Professor 16.2, Spring 2006 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times

Adrienne Mayor
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000
361 pp, $19.95 pb

Fossil Legends of the First American

Adrienne Mayor
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005
446 pp., $29.95

Paul Trout

Though I'm no paleontologist, I found these two books by Adrienne Mayor absolutely fascinating. That's because I'm intrigued by the bizarre "monsters" that the human imagination has created and held on to--such as the dragon, the griffin, and the Thunderbird. Why did we dream these up? Why did we imbue them with the specific peculiar features that they have?

Folklorist Adrienne Mayor--now Visiting Fellow of Classics and Human Values at Princeton University--asked the same questions and came up with a surprising answer. The giants and monsters of myth and legend were created by our ancestors to explain the enormous fossilized bones they found throughout the Mediterranean and North America. Encountering these immense bones and menacing skulls and teeth, our ancestors tried to make sense of these strange remains by weaving them into stories about ancient giants and monsters.

Myths that explicitly and directly connect such fantastic creatures with discovered fossils are called "fossil legends." Myths that contain no mention of old bones do not merit the label. Fossil legends relate their strange creatures to all kinds of observed paleontological material--skulls, skeletons, teeth, tusks, shells, burrows, nests, eggs, and even footprints set in stone. Mayor attempts to correlate the mythic creatures of fossil legends with the extinct mammals or reptiles whose discovered remains most likely inspired the mythic depictions.

A good example is her effort to track down the actual prehistoric creature that may have inspired the myth of the Monster of Troy. The oldest illustration of this monster is found on a vase made in the sixth century B.C. This strange image was characterized by one art historian as poor artistry since the creature's head seems "shapeless" and ill positioned in respect to the "cave" from which it is apparently emerging. Another art critic dismisses it as a "hideous white thing" painted by a naive artist with a deficient creative imagination. Mayor, however, recognized that the image is a realisitc depiction of a fossil skull eroding from a cliff, like that of a giant Miocene giraffe (Samotherium).

Another example is her forensic analysis of the legend of the griffin, a lion-clawed predator with a strong, wickedly curved eagle-like beak. According to folklore, these terrifying creatures preyed on gold prospectors in distant Asia. It is Mayor's contention that the source of the griffin legend can be found in the fossil discoveries made by Scythian gold-miners as they passed through this treacherous expanse. It so happens that the Gobi Desert has one of the richest dinosaur fields in the world. The most commonly encountered remains belong to Protoceratops, an herbivore about six or eight feet long, with a beak, an elevated bony frill at the back of the skull, and four prominently clawed feet. In this desert setting, "the exquisitely preserved skeletons are frequently fully articulated, with the beaked skulls still attached" (43). The fossil beds' proximity to gold deposits led to the notion that these menacing and bizarre creatures guarded the approaches to gold in the nearby mountains. "The mystery that had begun for me on the Greek island of Samos was solved: the long-lost griffin was found at last in its original Central Asian homeland" (43). The griffin "is the earliest documented attempt to visualize a prehistoric animal from its fossil remains" (22).

Another "monster" was the giant. The belief in giants likely resulted, according to Mayor, from discoveries of fossilized femur bones from large extinct mammals. A mastodon or mammoth thigh bone is uncannily similar in shape to a human thigh bone despite being two or three times longer (and much heavier). Mayor reproduces a mock-up of an erect/bipedal mammoth skeleton set next to a human skeleton to illustrate their similarity. No wonder people concluded that in the distant past primordial humans towered over any living human. The same logic was applied to the explanation of gigantic bones clearly ancestral to smaller, and still living descendants. Legends of the Nemean lion, the Teumessian fox, the Cretan bull, etc., "might have been influenced by familiar-seeming but unexpectedly large fossil remains of extinct sabre-toothed tigers, giant hyenas and pigs, cave bears and lions" (206). Mayor connects a number of mythic events and creatures with fossil remains proven by modern paleontology to have existed in the locale.

Mayor's tracking down of the fossil discoveries underlying many myths and legends does not rob these stories of their meaning. The emotional, psychological, and social significance of these tales seems to me undiminished by this approach. What Mayor's work does do, and this is her stated goal, is to document and honor the extent to which classical writers--from Homer to the late Roman Empire--were familiar with fossilized remains of extinct animals, and anticipated, through their speculations, the findings of modern paleontology. While these pre-Darwinian fossil interpretations had no pretensions of being formal science, they do at times reveal "proto-scientific insights and inquiry based on long-term observations of evidence and the best logic of the time" (Fossil Legends of the First Americans, 341). Specifically, the Greeks and Romans identified large prehistoric remains as vestiges of gigantic, unfamiliar creatures that had appeared over time, reproduced, and transmuted, and then were destroyed by catastrophe or died out long before human beings appeared on earth (8). Not only did they create an "internally coherent model that accounted for the observed facts of mineralized bones of remarkable dimensions" (203), but they were responsible for many important "firsts" in the history of paleontology:

the earliest recorded measurements of prehistoric fossil skeletons, the first paleological museum, the earliest recognition of Miocene mastodons as elephants, the first reconstruction of a prehistoric creature from its remains, the oldest illustration of a fossil discovery, and the earliest-ever descriptions of fossil deposits in Greece, the Aegean islands, Italy, France, North Africa, Egypt, Turkey, the Black Sea, and India.... The bones of gigantic beings were treasured as relics of the mythic past and displayed as natural wonders in temples and other public places. (9)

The First Fossil Hunters ranges over an immense expanse of intellectual turf, gracefully blending archaeology, paleontology, geography, art history, semiotics, and the history of Western science. To this list should be added "forensic science," given that Mayor works from dead bones to an explanation of how they got there and what they mean. More than once I was reminded of Sherlock Holmes by her canny sensitivity to subtle clues, her knowledge of arcane information, and her sheer love of solving puzzles. I am not the first reviewer to applaud this book as an engaging exercise in scientific detection and interdisciplinary research.

In Fossil Legends of the First Americans, Mayor uses the same approach to explain the often bizarre images and themes of Native American myths and legends. And as in the first book, she wants to document and honor the contributions indigenous people made to the development of modern paleontology. The book is organized geographically, moving clockwise from Indian cultures in the Northeast down the Atlantic coast to Mexico and part of South America, and then north again to the Southwestern United State and the Great Basin, up through the Midwestern prairies, and then to the High Plains. This route roughly follows the chronological advance of European Contact, a contact that initially contributed to the preservation of "very rich lodes of oral fossil lore" but later led to the marginalization of Indian fossil knowledge (xxxviii). While this organization results in repetition of information, it enables Mayor to recognize as many native cultures as possible for their contributions to paleontology. Once again, a lot of intellectual and geographical ground is covered in this very informative treatise.

As in classical mythology, Native American mythology has many stories of ancient monsters preying upon primordial humans. A Delaware legend recalls the time "when...there lived in this country many huge Monsters, some who dwelt in the sea, some who roved over the land, and some who lived on land and in the water. The grandfather of these Monsters was greater than them all.... He preyed upon every living creature, and was a terror to all living things" (50).

One of the most widely encountered of these monsters is the Giant Raptor, often called the Thunderbird (seen as a benefactor in some cultures). According to Absarokee, Crow, Sioux, and Pawnee legends, this Giant Raptor would swoop down and devour hunters. Yaqui legend tells of an enormous bird that preyed on humans "in the olden days." As one Indian storyteller explains, "The early people feared predators of the air, immense raptors with terrible talons, whose death ushered in a new era characterized by dangerous land predators" (103). Mayor argues, of course, that myths of giant raptors were likely inspired by discoveries of certain fossil remains and, perhaps, by actual encounters with giant California condors, who may have survived until quite recent times, and who were known to attack large deer. "Strikingly, the nests of very large Ice Age condors preserved in dry caves contain the bones of very large, extinct mammoths and bison," a fact that may have contributed to legends about gigantic birds that carried off humans. As if this were not warrant enough, Native Americans also came across the fossil remains of such Ice Age raptors as Teratornis merriami (with a wingspan of twelve feet) and Teratornis incredibilis (with a wingspan of seventeen feet). The remains of Teratornis are frequently found in "human occupation sites" (103-04). Teratorns weighed fifty pounds or more, and resembled eagles but had very long, strong hooked beaks for grabbing up prey that could include small humans. In the Dakotas and Nebraska, the Sioux may have encountered the remains of the large Pteranodon, the giant Hesperornis, or the immense Diatryma, a monstrous predatory land bird of the Eocene that weighed over 350 pounds and stood six feet tall, with strong legs, vestigial wings, and a massive beaked skull. A complete skeleton of Diatryma was discovered in Wyoming in 1916. No wonder myths about giant raptors were so credible and vivid.

Another predator that turns up in a number of Native American myths is the double-toothed monster. It was like a bull or buffalo with a blunt snout and small, sharp, polished horns like those of a mountain goat, with a set of large upper and lower incisors. Mayor suggests that the depiction of this creature may have been influenced by Shoshone ancestral memories of the giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus), a frightening predator of the Pleistocene-Holocene with blunt snout and huge upper and lower canines (212-13). The species may have persisted in the Big Horn or Rocky Mountains into the present era. But the depiction also may have been influenced by discoveries of the queer-looking skulls of the horned and fanged ruminant Proceras (a type of ancestral deer), Oreodons (a sheeplike animal with large upper and lower incisors), Creodonts (early carnivores), or, more likely (according to Mayor), the entelodont Dinohys, a giant piglike carnivore nearly six feet tall at the shoulder, with a powerful skull almost three feet long, with bone-crushing jaws sporting upper and lower incisors as thick as a man's wrist. Paleontologists have nicknamed entelodonts "Terminator Pigs" (213).

Fossil Legends of the First Americans contains many more instances of mythic creatures and events being linked to fossil remains discovered by Native Americans. Indeed, the purpose of the work is to document the enormous contributions that indigenous peoples have made to the collection, preservation, and understanding of extinct creatures long before contact with Europeans (as Mayor makes clear, Native American cultural connection to fossil material and lore continues today):

Their explanations, expressed in mythic language, were based on repeated, careful observations of geological evidence over generations. Search parties traveled long distances to verify reports of fossil beds, and some remains were deliberately excavated to confirm old traditions and to obtain fossils for special uses. (296)

Many of their insights anticipate modern scientific theories, and often evince stirrings of scientific inquiry. Like contemporary paleontologists, Native fossil finders envisioned how extinct creatures appeared and behaved, and speculated about how they may have died off through processes of gradual and catastrophic extinction. They recognized that some large, extinct fossil species were the ancestors "to smaller, familiar creatures of the present day" (254).

Displaying as much resourcefulness as she did in the earlier book, Mayor weaves together biographies, mythic stories, historical narratives, interviews with Native American storytellers, hypothetical scenarios, and autobiographical tidbits to create an informative and readable interdisciplinary work. Local readers will enjoy the frequent references to Jack Horner and to Montana fossil remains. Even Lewis and Clark get a mention.

In my discipline, "doing research" usually means reading a lot of books in a comfortable milieu. Adrienne Mayor has certainly put in time with books, apparently having read every classical text, traveler's account, and diary and journal that have any bearing on her subject. But she has also trekked deserts, visited remote islands, hiked mountains, spelunked caves, and tramped through marshes and swamps in her own disciplined "hunt" for bone lore. As she examines vases, wanders through remote museums, sleuths through archives, peers into dusty bone collections, listens to stories, visits parks and road-side "dinosaur" attractions, takes pictures of footprints and skulls, converses with paleontologists, and interviews seemingly every person who has ever found a dinosaur bone, Mayor is alert to even the smallest detail that might render the encounter meaningful and illuminating. She is someone upon whom nothing is lost.

I cannot assess the scientific claims of Mayor's books, but I can report that reviews in scientific journals have picked no bones with them. My own critiques are few and minor.

To name her approach, Mayor borrowed the word "geomythology," but "paleomythology" strikes me as a more appropriate term, especially in view of her own characterization of it: "one must become a kind of paleontologist of folklore, sifting through sediments of historical writings and living oral lore for meaningful bits of fossil knowledge" (FLFA xxxii). In a strict sense, the title of First Fossil Hunters is historically inaccurate since the Greeks and Romans were not the first to collect, venerate, and use fossil bones. As Mayor herself acknowledges, Paleolithic people collected, decorated, and employed in various ways the fossilized remains of dinosaurs, mammoths, and other large creatures (166-167). Indeed, Richard Rudgley used the same phrase, "First Fossil Hunters," for Chapter 16 of his book The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age (1999), which was published, I suspect, roughly around the time that Mayor's book was going to press. Acknowledging the fact of Paleolithic fossil hunting may have bearing on a tension that exists in both of Mayor's books.

In both books, the relationship between the provenance of myths and the discovery of fossils is given two somewhat conflicting interpretations. At times, the discoveries are said to "provoke" or "prompt" a myth. In the "Foreword" to First Fossil Hunters, paleontologist Peter Dodson endorses this view, describing Mayor's "truly arresting thesis" to be that the discovery of fossil bones was the "source of the griffin legend" (xvi-xvii). The chicken-egg problem is, however, given another interpretation: fossil discoveries were absorbed into existing myths, turning them into "fossil legends." Of course both views could be true, depending upon the myth. But Mayor seem to sanction the second view: "given our fragmentary knowledge of oral traditions, there is no way to know whether ancient legends...actually originated as attempts to understand large, puzzling skeletons of Pleistocene mammals that no longer lived" (FLFA 38). If fossil discoveries were merely woven into already existing myths and did not engender them, then what human experience did engender them?

I suspect that they originated in the very deep past, when ancient humans encountered, just as the Greeks and Romans did, hideous skulls with wrist-thick incisors and bizarre horns, fully articulated dinosaur skeletons, and the remains of predatory raptors with wingspans of twenty feet. Moreover, they encountered not only monstrous dead bones but truly monstrous living creatures--huge sabre-toothed tigers, gigantic leopards, lions, and cave bears, mammoths and mastodons, and other terrifying creatures extinct by the time of the Greeks. It seems reasonable to assume that these people also felt compelled to make up stories to account for the "monsters" and "giants" that they encountered both through dead bones and in living flesh. These stories would have been passed on through oral tradition until they were written down. Perhaps, then, the discovery of fossils did generate the myths and legends that later fossil discoveries merely "reinforced" or "confirmed."

It is to Mayor's credit, of course, that she did not speculate about an issue outside the historical record. But it is also to her credit that her cautious work excites such speculations.

Editor's Note: Adrienne Mayor is one of three referees for a grant proposal of Professor Trout's.

[The Montana Professor 16.2, Spring 2006 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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