The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times

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9780691150130: The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times

Griffins, Cyclopes, Monsters, 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.

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From the Back Cover:

"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."--Jack 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

"A brilliant book, full of new insights into the myths and past of the ancient Greeks. Earthshakingly important."--Robin Lane Fox, author of Alexander the Great

"An enthralling book. . . . A fascinating account of ancient Greek responses to fossils of extinct mammal species."--David Sedley, author of Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity

"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

About the Author:

Adrienne Mayor is the author of Fossil Legends of the First Americans; Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs; and The Poison King, which was a finalist for a National Book Award in 2009. She is a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University.

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