The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times,
by Adrienne Mayor (Princeton University Press, 2000;
painting on the ancient Corinthian "Hesione" vase (ca. 550 B.C.)
depicts Heracles rescuing Hesione from the monster of Troy. Adrienne
Mayor, author of The First Fossil Hunters, believes that
the painting may be the earliest artistic record of a fossil find
and that the "monster" may be the fossil skull of an extinct giraffe.
What influence did spectacular fossil finds have
on the legends of the early Greeks and Romans?
review by Kate A. Robson Brown
gods, goddesses, and heroes populate the literature and visual
imagery of the ancient world, and classical folklorist Adrienne
Mayor, in The First Fossil Hunters, believes they represent
Greco-Roman interpretations of the giant bones that have long
abounded in the Mediterranean region. Huge, strange mammals of
the Miocene and Pliocene epochs had migrated through the terrestrial
corridor created there about 15 million years ago as the vast
Sea of Tethys receded, and rich deposits of their remains were
exposed through the ages as a result of colliding continental
plates and violent seismic and volcanic activity.
presents and examines classical interpretations of these fossils.
Among the ancients whose imaginations were fired by perplexing
bones of great size was Plutarch, who relates that the remarkable
finds from the Greek island of Samos were displayed as the remains
of the war elephants that Dionysus employed in his mythological
battle with the Amazons. Aristeas, a seventh-century B.C. traveler
to central Asia, spoke of gold-seeking nomads who fought creatures
resembling "lions but with the beak and wings of an eagle." Apollonius
of Tyana roamed the southern foothills of the Himalaya in the
first century A.D., bringing back fantastic tales of gem-encrusted
dragons dug out of the earth; Saint Augustine cited Virgil and
Pliny in his defense of the reality of gigantic creatures from
the remote past.
It is refreshing,
in a book that relies heavily on literature, to see art and archaeology
also being given a central role. We learn about an assemblage
of massive bones and teeth on Capri that may explain why the emperor
Augustus established the world's first paleontological museum
there. We also learn about a sixth-century B.C. vase decorated
with a painted monster, quite clearly depicted as a massive white
animal skull protruding from a rocky outcrop. Equally intriguing
is the case of the Egyptian sites of Qau and Matmar, where, between
1300 and 1200 B.C., worshipers collected nearly three tons of
black, river-polished fossil bones. In 1923 Sir Flinders Petrie
found another cache of fossils at Qua, wrapped in linen and carefully
stored in rock tombs. From the time Petrie shipped them back to
England until last year, when archaeologist David Reese tracked
these fossils down, they had languished in the textile division
of Lancashire's Bolton Museum still wrapped in linen and
bearing Petrie's original labels.
the question whether the ancients developed a science of paleontology.
She challenges the widely accepted assertion, made by historian
of science Martin J.S. Rudwick in The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes
in the History of Paleontology (1992), that natural historians
in classical times did not have the knowledge to interpret fossils
as organic remains of the past. She also takes issue with historian
Colin Ronan's view that the ancients were hampered by a "static
belief in fixity of species and the mistaken notion that they
were all created at once." Crediting French naturalist Georges
Cuvier with a more realistic appraisal of classical explanations
for the existence of these fossils, Mayor argues that the early
Greeks and Romans were attuned to the unique paleogeology of their
lands. Not only did they recognize the organic nature of large
fossil bones, they also tried to visualize the appearance and
behavior of the original living creatures. Moreover, they collected,
measured, compared, and displayed the giant bones and even
attempted to reconstruct whole skeletons from the remains.
In a brief
final section, the author discusses "paleontological fictions"
such as tritons, centaurs, and satyrs. She compares these ancient
attempts to understand the fossil record with our own continuing
quest for knowledge of the natural world, and she touches particularly
on the social role of fabricated fossil evidence and on the vague
boundary between "science" and "fiction" within modern popular
to court controversy, Mayor presents her case with an engaging
zeal, describing her sleuthing efforts at length. The best of
her examples are supported by evidence from a wide range of sources
literary, archaeological, and paleontological. In a chapter
about the origins of the griffin in classical thought, she describes
a large collection of bronze griffin statuettes excavated from
a sanctuary on Samos. These muscled and beaked creatures, with
their "empty eye sockets, leathery necks, and bumpy skulls," appeared
so prehistoric that at first she leaped at the idea that they
were fantastic versions of the mammalian fossils known from the
island. But this route soon proved to be a blind alley. The fossils
turn out to be large, giraffelike grazers very unlike the griffin;
unexpectedly, the reader is directed far afield, to the deserts
of central Asia, for their possible origin.
Using a combination
of writings by nineteenth-century classicists and information
from twentieth-century paleontological excavations, Mayor makes
a convincing case that ancient Greco-Roman writers had picked
up on the tales of Saka-Scythian nomads from the gold-rich deserts
of the western Gobi. The nomads' myths of gold-guarding griffins,
it turns out, were based on Protoceratops skeletons exposed by
shifting desert sands.
presented by Mayor are less convincing, however. Myths about giants
and oversize human ancestors need not be linked to the finding
of Pleistocene mammoth bones. Many cultures around the globe have
colorful giant lore Norse fables and Australian creation
stories come to mind without the benefit of rich fossil
deposits. Similarly, the tale of Geryon, a monster-giant renowned
for his herd of massive oxen and killed by Heracles in his tenth
Labor, is explained with reference to the discovery in classical
times of massive bovine fossils near what is now Uak,
Turkey. But the bones could also be those of the huge wild ox
Bos primigenius. Although extinct today, it survived in
central Europe well into the second millennium a.d. and would
certainly have been known to some classical writers.
Mayor has succeeded in opening a new window on the worldview of
classical writers. "Just as a fossil is 'petrified time,'" she
writes, "so is an ancient artifact or text. The tasks of paleontologists
and classical historians and archaeologists are remarkably similar
to excavate, decipher, and bring to life the tantalizing
remnants of a time we will never see." 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.
Robson Brown is a professor of biological anthropology at the
University of Bristol in England and a researcher in the development
of hominid locomotion.
By Robert Anderson
The Sixth Extinction
Recently I was talking to an acquaintance who brought up the
subject of the "supposed" mass extinction now unfolding. I was
disturbed when he brushed off the problem by saying that in any
event, new plants and animals would evolve to replace the ones
we might eliminate. Thinking about his response, I realized that
I, too, had developed a somewhat fatalistic attitude toward the
loss of species.
On the Internet, I found a site that has plenty of information
on the extent of the crisis (www.well.com/user/davidu/extinction.html).
David Ulansey, a professor at the California Institute of Integral
Studies in San Francisco, has gathered together a number of reports,
articles, and Web sites dealing with what many now call the sixth
Clicking on "Humans' Closest Relative in Danger of Extinction,"
I discovered that even the bonobo chimpanzee
the animal most like ourselves
is in greater peril than I had imagined. Browsing through
this site is not a pleasant experience, but avoiding the issues
raised by its contents is a worse choice. According to a Harris
poll commissioned by the American Museum of Natural History in
1998, that is exactly what most people are doing. In another selected
article ("Why Are We Not Astonished?"), Ed Ayres, of the Worldwatch
Institute, gives a number of reasons for our inability to confront
the mounting losses. The foremost, he says, is the landslide of
information (some prepackaged for public relations and some generated
for its entertainment value) that buries real news.
Anderson is a freelance science writer based in Los Angeles.
Bookshelf: Other Books of Interest
A Gathering of Wonders: Behind the Scenes at the American Museum
of Natural History, by Joseph Wallace (St. Martin's Press/The
American Museum of Natural History, 2000; $23.95)
As the author remembers it, the Museum was "my oxygen, a doorway
to green worlds that I otherwise could not have imagined." Wallace
presents a "nearly endless procession of brilliant, witty, often
eccentric, and always interesting scientists and collectors,"
including current curators and their research.
the Fossil Hunters, edited by Peter Whybrow (Cambridge
University Press, 2000; $39.95)
Firsthand accounts by eleven paleontologists of expeditions
as far afield as the Sahara and Antarctica describe not only their
fossil-finding triumphs but the dangers and disasters that go
hand in hand with the bone chase.
American Environmentalism in the 21st Century, by Philip
Shabecoff (Island Press, 2000; $24.95)
Journalist Shabecoff advocates bold new environmental initiatives
to repair biosphere damage, and he concludes by quoting Henry
David Thoreau: "If you have built castles in the air, your work
need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations
Continent: Life, Death, and Discovery in the Lost World of Madagascar,
by Peter Tyson (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000; $27.50)
Science writer Tyson gives us a feel for the breadth and complexity
of the world's fourth-largest island and tells us just why it
is worth saving. Accompanying scientists in the field, he tracks
lizards and lemurs, collects artifacts and fossils, and seeks
clues to the origins of the Malagasy people.
of Life: The Meaning of Biodiversity, by Colin Tudge (Oxford
University Press, 2000; $45)
In this illustrated inventory of creatures from protists to
pangolins, zoologist Tudge provides an enjoyable swing through
the thickets of systematic classification and its application
to evolutionary theory, molecular genetics, and the history of
Diaries: A Father-Son Journey, by Grenville Goodwin and
Neil Goodwin (University of Nebraska Press, 2000; $29.95)
In this double diary, Neil Goodwin alternates excerpts from
his father's 1927-31 journal, kept while Grenville was conducting
ethnographic studies on a relict band of "wild" Apaches, with
his own intensely personal account as he retraces his father's
of Life: Darwin and the Primeval Soup, by Christopher Wills
and Jeffrey Bada (Perseus Publishing, 2000; $27)
How did life arise on Earth? The authors look at various hotly
debated ideas from Martian meteors to hydrothermal vents
and conclude that the first genetic material was spawned
on the surface of a sea, perhaps in the form of a protovirus.
A Fly for
the Prosecution: How Insect Evidence Helps Solve Crimes, by
M. Lee Goff (Harvard University Press, 2000; $22.95)
A forensic entomologist casts his dispassionate, analytic
eye on scenes from which most people would recoilÑhuman corpses
in various stages of decay.
and Razor Wire: A Naturalist's Observations From Prison, by
Ken Lamberton (Mercury House, 2000; $14.95)
Lamberton observes nature from within the "wilderness" of
an Arizona prison. This, his first book, has been described by
one reviewer as both "moving and troubling."
The books mentioned
in "Natural Selections" are usually available from the
Museum Shop of the American Museum of Natural History, (212) 769-5150.