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

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By Adrienne Mayor

Griffins, Centaurs, Cyclopes, and Giants--these very good creatures of classical mythology proceed to reside within the sleek mind's eye during the bright bills that experience come right down to us from the traditional Greeks and Romans. yet what if those beings have been greater than purely fictions? What if mammoth creatures as soon as roamed the earth within the very locations the place their legends first arose? this is often the arresting and unique thesis that Adrienne Mayor explores in The First Fossil Hunters. via cautious study and meticulous documentation, she convincingly exhibits that a few of the giants and monsters of delusion did have a foundation in fact--in the big bones of long-extinct species that have been as soon as ample within the lands of the Greeks and Romans.

As Mayor exhibits, the Greeks and Romans have been good acutely aware diverse breed of creatures as soon as inhabited their lands. they often encountered the fossilized bones of those primeval beings, and so they constructed refined ideas to give an explanation for the fossil facts, recommendations that have been expressed in mythological tales. The legend of the gold-guarding griffin, for instance, sprang from stories first informed via Scythian gold-miners, who, passing throughout the Gobi desolate tract on the foot of the Altai Mountains, encountered the skeletons of Protoceratops and different dinosaurs that littered the ground.

Like their glossy opposite numbers, the traditional fossil hunters accrued and measured outstanding petrified continues to be and displayed them in temples and museums; they tried to reconstruct the looks of those prehistoric creatures and to provide an explanation for their extinction. lengthy considered fable, the remarkably exact and perceptive Greek and Roman debts of huge bone unearths have been truly in keeping with reliable paleontological proof. via studying those ignored narratives for the 1st time within the mild of contemporary clinical discoveries, Adrienne Mayor illuminates a misplaced global of historical paleontology. As Peter Dodson writes in his Foreword, "Paleontologists, classicists, and historians in addition to traditional heritage buffs will learn this publication with the best of delight--surprises abound."

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I returned to Athens to undertake more research. There under the slow fans of the Library of the American School of Classical Studies, the sound of doves and cicadas monotonous in the fig trees outside, I delved deeper into ancient griffin lore. 2. Samotherium skull, about 2 feet long, excavated in Samos, Greece, 1 9 2 3 - 2 4 . Photo courtesy of Nikos Solounias. One paleontological legend collected in Siberia in 1 8 2 7 by a German geologist seemed at first glance to reveal the identity of the ancient griffin.

A nugget of gold is shown just above the griffin, which almost seems to be part of the ground, an oudine emerging from the rock (fig. 1 . 6 ) . " A few decades after Herodotus, in about 4 0 0 B . C . , another Greek from Caria, a physician named Ctesias, settled in the Persian city of Susa (in modern Iran). His writings about the exotic lands east of Persia, based on his own experiences and on reports from Persian sources, now exist only in fragments. They have been considered fantastic and untrustworthy by modern scholars, but his comments about griffins seem quite down-to-earth.

During the Roman Empire, it was rumored that an entire legion of soldiers marching in these deserts had vanished forever in a cloud of swirling sand. 16 Such hallucinatory, and perilous, landscapes make powerful impressions on travelers, judging by the diaries of pioneers in American badlands and modern travelers in African and Asian wastelands. As they left the main routes, then, ancient prospectors, reminded of their own vulnerability by the parched, vulturepecked corpses and scattered bones of earlier seekers and their beasts of burden, would remain sharply vigilant against every possible danger in the desert—especially if they had heard tales of fierce griffins "guarding" the approaches to the gold.

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