Sunday, 10 March 2013

The First Fossil Hunters - book review

The First Fossil Hunters - Dinosaurs, Mammoths and Myth in Greek and Roman Times, Adrienne Mayor, Princeton University Press 2011, 349 pages, paperback $18.95

This review first appeared in Fortean Times FT298, March 2013

The Greek island of Samos was once believed to bear traces of Neades, enormous primeval beasts whose piercing cries tore chasms into the ground. After Greeks encountered elephants in Alexander the Great's wars, the explanation for Samos's giant bones was revised. These were no longer the monstrous Neades but the remains of the god Dionysus's war elephants, brought to Samos to do battle with the Amazons.

Ancient Greeks had spotted the similarity between living elephants and the fossil mammoths abundant beneath the soil of Samos. And the Greek biographer Plutarch observed "ancient Egypt was once a sea," accounting for the "abundance of mollusc shells in its mines and on its mountains." Herodotus claimed to have seen Egypt's fossil shellfish for himself.

But apart from that great pioneer of zoology Baron Georges Cuvier, whose works noted that the Greeks had collected fossil mammal bones, the extensive palaeontology of the Classical world somehow slipped out of the history of science and into the dustbin of "damned" data. In this first paperback edition of The First Fossil Hunters, Classicist and science historian Adrianna Major digs up this fascinating lost world.

The Greeks believed the long-dead protagonists of their epics were literally larger than life, that the humans of their own era had become pale shadows of the mighty ten-foot-tall heroes and demi-gods of old. Contemporary philosophy was able to explain how a "degenerate" nature could by then only produce puny, five feet tall humans.

Jumbled elephant or mammoth bones separated from their tusks could easily be mistaken for those of an upright giant hero. A veritable bone fever gripped Greek cities, they collected the treasured relics of these prodigious heroes, even to the point of looting expeditions and wars with rival cities.

Fossil exposures caused by collapsing "mounds" became ancient Greek tourist attractions. The historian Philostratus, writing in the second century AD, recalled joining a seaborne rush to visit a 30-foot long "human" skeleton temporarily visible after a sea cliff at Sigeum collapsed.

The original gold-guarding griffons –identified as indigenous to what's now Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Eastern China – were described as "quadrapedal birds" without wings - their curiously vestigial wings came later. The usually meticulous poet Aeschylus describes Prometheus bound, pecked and tormented by "wingless gryphons". Gyphons were, suggests Mayor, the often perfectly preserved skeletons of the beaked dinosaurs Protoceratops and its smaller relative Psittacosaurus, found in dunes in those regions, often among gold-bearing deposits, buried by Cretaceous sand storms.

There's a wealth of examples from ancient Greece and Rome, and mentions too of ancient Egypt – where devotees brought blackened fossil teeth and bone shards of fossil mammals by the tonne to the shrine of Set (aka Sutekh), prince of darkness at Matmur and Qua. The "dragon bones" mined in China until the 1920s and ground up for traditional medicines were so called as a term of convenience, the Chinese knew they were in fact unearthing the bones and teeth of prehistoric giraffe relatives and deer, which is why Chinese dragons are often depicted with antlers.

Fans of Fortean Times's own "Classical Corner" fans will love the extensive "Ancient Testimonia" appendix, with quotations on obvious fossil finds from numerous Greek and Roman sources – some so undeservedly obscure these are their first English translations.



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