June 2000
Natural Selections
Book Review nature.net Bookshelf

The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times,
by Adrienne Mayor (Princeton University Press, 2000; $35)









A 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.

Myth and Bone
What influence did spectacular fossil finds have on the legends of the early Greeks and Romans?
Book review by Kate A. Robson Brown

Giants, monsters, 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.

Mayor's book 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.

Mayor poses 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 culture.

Not afraid 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.

Other examples 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.

Nonetheless, 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.

Kate A. 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 extinction.

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.

Robert 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.

Travels With 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.

Earth Rising: 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 under them."

The Eighth 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.

The Variety 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 biological thought.

The Apache 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 journey.

The Spark 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.

Wilderness 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.

back to top