The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times

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9780691058634: The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times
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Griffins, Centaurs, Cyclopes, and Giants--these fabulous creatures of classical mythology continue to live in the modern imagination through the vivid accounts that have come down to us from the ancient Greeks and Romans. But what if these beings were more than merely fictions? What if monstrous creatures once roamed the earth in the very places where their legends first arose? This is the arresting and original thesis that Adrienne Mayor explores in The First Fossil Hunters. Through careful research and meticulous documentation, she convincingly shows that many of the giants and monsters of myth did have a basis in fact--in the enormous bones of long-extinct species that were once abundant in the lands of the Greeks and Romans.


As Mayor shows, the Greeks and Romans were well aware that a different breed of creatures once inhabited their lands. They frequently encountered the fossilized bones of these primeval beings, and they developed sophisticated concepts to explain the fossil evidence, concepts that were expressed in mythological stories. The legend of the gold-guarding griffin, for example, sprang from tales first told by Scythian gold-miners, who, passing through the Gobi Desert at the foot of the Altai Mountains, encountered the skeletons of Protoceratops and other dinosaurs that littered the ground.


Like their modern counterparts, the ancient fossil hunters collected and measured impressive petrified remains and displayed them in temples and museums; they attempted to reconstruct the appearance of these prehistoric creatures and to explain their extinction. Long thought to be fantasy, the remarkably detailed and perceptive Greek and Roman accounts of giant bone finds were actually based on solid paleontological facts. By reading these neglected narratives for the first time in the light of modern scientific discoveries, Adrienne Mayor illuminates a lost world of ancient paleontology. As Peter Dodson writes in his Foreword, "Paleontologists, classicists, and historians as well as natural history buffs will read this book with the greatest of delight--surprises abound."


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Review:

Since fossils have presumably existed for millions of years, why don't we see much palaeontological thought from ancient writers? Classics scholar Adrienne Mayor suggests that we can in fact learn much about the Greek and Roman attitudes toward fossils if we turn to a surprising source of data and theory: their myths. In The First Fossil Hunters, she explores likely connections between the rich fossil beds around the Mediterranean and tales of griffins and giants originating in the classical world. Striking similarities exist between the Protoceratops skeletons of the Gobi Desert and the legends of the gold-hoarding griffin told by nomadic people of the region, and the fossilised remains of giant Miocene mammals could be taken for the heroes and monsters of earlier times. Mayor makes her case well, but, as with all interpretive science, the arguments are inconclusive. Still, her novel reading of ancient myth--and her critique of the modern scientific mythology that seeks to explain the lack of classical palaeontological thinking--is compelling and thought-provoking. The final chapter of The First Fossil Hunters is an engrossing and occasionally quite funny look at "Paleontological Fictions" dating back several thousand years; the false tritons and centaurs give PT Barnum and his successors a much longer genealogy than previously thought. Whether or not you accept Mayor's analysis of Greek and Roman thinking, The First Fossil Hunters should open your eyes to new possibilities about our distant past. --Rob Lightner

Review:

"Mayor [combines] the skills of the literary scholar with those of a dinosaur hunter . . . [A]lthough readers will learn a good deal here about the remains of mammoths and protoceratops, they will learn much more about human imagination, that fertile source of science, of legend and of fraud."--Booklist

"A surprising account of material overlooked or misunderstood by both historians of science and interpreters of Greek myth . . . [T]his is clear, readable, and convincing."--Kirkus Reviews

"Mayor presents her case with an engaging zeal, describing her sleuthing efforts at length . . . 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, Natural History

"Adrienne Mayor has . . . done some digging deep into the past and found literary and artistic clues--and not a few huge fossils--that seem to explain the inspiration for many of the giants, monsters, and other strange creatures in the mythology of antiquity."--John Noble Wilford, The New York Times

"Merging the fields of paleontology, archaeology and classical literature, Mayor's research has uncovered striking correlations between modern fossil finds and many of the myths and folklore that sprang up in early Western civilization."--Bryn Nelson, Newsday

"The First Fossil Hunters brings together mythology, art, geology, and paleontology in a convincing manner. . . . Mayor's chronicles do more that entertain; as she contends, they also show that people of Greek and Roman times had a broad understanding of fossils as organic remains of extinct organisms."--Tim Tokary, American Scientist

"Mayor tells a fascinating story of ancient encounters with fossils, setting modern palaeontology beside ancient art and literature."--Helen King, Times Literary Supplement

"In many ways, this book resembles a detective story. When the author gets on the track of something, she follows it wherever it leads. . . . The First Fossil Hunters will be a revelation to anyone interested in ancient history. For me, it is one of the best books of recent years."--Walter Friedrich, Times Higher Education Supplement

"[Mayor] has done an admirable job . . . [she] easily persuades us that these early writers indeed recorded a palaeontological bonanza centuries before the first dinosaur remains were recognised by modern science."--Richard Fortey, London Review of Books

"Mayor has done an admirable job of tracking down . . . a paleontological bonanza centuries before the first dinosaur remains were recognised by modern science."--Richard Fortey, London Review of Books

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