Adrienne Mayor
The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times

"History matters. What is almost as important as what we learn is how we have come to know."
--Peter Dodson (on page xiii)
Interested in the myth-making process? Then this book will be a gold mine for you. Mayor seeks to establish that either a) myths were formed as ancients attempted to explain natural discoveries (fossils, etc.) and/or b) fossil finds added evidence for the legends already circulating.

A mythical griffin and a Protoceratops.
Mayor's illustrations make them
look much more similar.
The first chapter deals mostly with Mayor's original hypothesis that griffin lore was a creation based on finds of Protoceratops skeletons thousands of years ago. The book is loaded with illustrations and photographs to help prove her points. However, I think she goes too far in some of her conclusions and too far in making the pieces fit rather than letting them fall where they may. It's the old method problem where one forms the answer/conclusion first and then works backwards to find the "proof". We will never know with certainty whether finding Protoceratops sticking out of the ground created the myth of the griffin or not, but Mayor makes it sound as if the case is closed. It is certainly possible that she is correct. A little scientific uncertainty on her part may have left a more objective impression on the reader though.

I believe she is on more solid ground in Chapter 2, "Earthquakes and Elephants", when she deals with the abundance of ancient elephant/mastodon/mammoth fossils that were unearthed thousands of years ago in Greece, Italy, and the surrounding areas. Almost without a doubt, I believe, it can be said that some of those living in the area two to three thousand years ago interpreted them to be the bones of giant humans/mythological heroes. Perhaps the stories were created after the finds to theorize about their origins rather than to merely add "proof" to pre-existing stories.

The discussion on China and the invention of dragons based on specimens such as Sivatherium, Giraffokeryx, and others certainly seems reasonable after just a brief look at the pictures. These ideas aren't entirely new. But it is likely that Mayor has assembled the most complete picture of this topic to date. And to her credit, she has done so in an informative and interesting package that should appeal to readers of popular science.

In Chapter 4, Mayor returns to a new idea of her own. And with it comes more of the dogmatic conclusions that we saw in Chapter 1 when one of her unique hypotheses were brought forward. The picture on the cover of the book is that of a vase created in about 550 B.C. depicting, in part, the story of the monster of Troy. Mayor believes that the monster, in this case, is a fossil skull poking out of a cliffside similar to how a person of the time might just discover such a (Samotherium) specimen after a heavy rain or earthquake. While this interpretation is certainly possible, and maybe even probable, it certainly isn't conclusive. Mayor, however, is completely convinced and omits any "mays" or "possibles" in her analysis. She goes even further than this conclusion when, on page 164, she states that

the depiction is [not only certainly of a skull but also] evidence that some ancients were conscious of the myth-making processes that informed the imagery of monsters in the other two vases [which don't depict monsters as necessarily skull-like].
I found this conclusion to be a major stretch, and far too dogmatic, given the evidence. The picture may or may not be that of a skull, and even if it were, it would not positively certify that the artist was conscious of the myth-making process.

These critiques aside, I still wish to reiterate that the book is very worthwhile. Even though Mayor appears to want to close the door behind her for those who might wish to question or ask for more evidence to her unique hypotheses, she points out and encourages further research in other important, and so far overlooked, areas (like the fossil relics from Qau on page 178 for example).

The First Fossil Hunters is a good read for those interested in the Greek and Roman world or the early history of paleontology. The book will appeal to the same kinds of people that it is about--the curious and those wishing for explanations of the past.

"Not all fabulous creatures of myth were inspired by fossils, of course; some were imaginary. And it's impossible to know which came first, the idea that the youthful earth was populated by giants the likes of which were no longer seen on the aging earth, or early peoples' speculations about prodigious bones weathering out of the ground where they had obviously lain for ages. But it seems safe to say that abundant prehistoric skeletons of uncommon stature and form influenced the earliest Greek myths that gigantic beings once existed and suffered mass destruction. In turn, those traditions were used to explain each new discovery of big bones throughout Greco-Roman antiquity." (p. 199)

from the publisher:
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."

Adrienne Mayor, a classical folklorist, investigates the historical and scientific realities embedded in Greek and Roman myths. Her articles on ancient natural history have appeared in many scholarly and popular journals. She divides her time between Princeton, New Jersey, and Bozeman, Montana.


"In this wonderful book, Adrienne Mayor successfully convinces us that some of our most treasured mythical creatures really were based on the skeletons of extinct animals. It is the best account ever concerning the real meaning of mythical creatures. And Mayor has succeeded in setting the history of paleontology on its ear: the art of skeletal restoration was not invented in the western world."--John Horner, Museum of the Rockies, author of Dinosaur Lives

"Adrienne Mayor's sometimes provocative and always fascinating blend of history, mythology, and science offers a uniquely enriched dimension to the quest for fossils."--Michael Novacek, American Museum of Natural History

"The Greeks were not the only peoples of antiquity to exploit the past in the interests of devising myth and history, but they were among the most ingenious about it, and recorded their views. Adrienne Mayor has uncovered a barely noticed source for many of the myths of the Old World, and for the first time has assembled in an orderly way the evidence for early man's discovery of and explanations for fossil remains. This is a skillful blend of science, history and imagination which adds a chapter to the history of man's ingenuity, from Central Asia to Greece, to Egypt. Many texts, sites, and pictures will never seem quite the same again, after this very thorough and very lively scholarly excursion into a disregarded source of myth-making."--John Boardman, Oxford University

"Mayor catches one's attention with her first sentence and doesn't let go until the end.... In addition to being lively and intelligent, the writing is honest and persuasive. Bringing together classics, archaeology, and paleontology in an original synthesis, Mayor exemplifies in her own research her plea that these fields should profitably confer with one another much more than they do."--William Hansen, Indiana University, Bloomington

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Foreword: Stones, Bones, and Exotic Creatures of the Past by Peter Dodson xiii
Acknowledgments xix
Geological Time Scale 2
Introduction 3
Historical Time Line 11
CHAPTER 1. The Gold-Guarding Griffin: A Paleontological Legend 15
CHAPTER 2. Earthquakes and Elephants: Prehistoric Remains in Mediterranean Lands 54
CHAPTER 3. Ancient Discoveries of Giant Bones 104
CHAPTER 4. Artistic and Archaeological Evidence for Fossil Discoveries 157
CHAPTER 5. Mythology, Natural Philosophy, and Fossils 192
CHAPTER 6. Centaur Bones: Paleontological Fictions 228
APPENDIX 1. Large Vertebrate Fossil Species in the Ancient World 255
APPENDIX 2. Ancient Testimonia 260
Notes 283
Works Cited 333
Index 351