By Adrienne Mayor
Anancus, a prehistoric elephant whose fossils were encountered by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

In May of 2000 Adrienne Mayor's master thesis on paleontology in Greek and Roman times was published by Princeton University Press. Since its publication date, her book, The First Fossil Hunters, has been acclaimed by paleontology buffs around the globe. This impressive book, reviewed right here on the Dino Land Website, traces Greek and Roman involvements in paleontology. In her introduction Mayor lays out the groundwork for her book, by stating two major points: that many Greek and Roman myths were based in fact, and that the basis for many of these facts were fossils. Throughout her 360 page book Mayor continually proves these points, showing that the Greeks and Romans frequently encountered fossilized remains, measured, reconstructed, and even displayed them, and created elaborate stories to explain their being.

Below are several excerpts from The First Fossil Hunters, reprinted by permission of Adrienne Mayor. For a full review of her book, follow this link.

By Adrienne Mayor
Excerpted with permission from her book, "The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times" (Princeton University Press, 2000)

Sertorius and the Giant Skeleton of Morocco

When the Roman commander Quintus Sertorius arrived in Tingis (Tangier, Morocco) in about 81 BC, the people of Tingis showed him a great mound that they said contained the remains of the giant Antaeus. Antaeus was a legendary ogre of North Africa who was feared for his lethal wrestling contests until the Greek hero Heracles slew him. Skeptical, Sertorius ordered his soldiers to dig up the mound. According to the ancient historian Plutarch, Sertorius was so dumbfounded by the skeleton inside--supposedly 60 cubits long (85 feet; 26 m)--that the Roman general personally reburied the legendary giant with great honors.

A Latin historian recently asserted that Plutarch's narrative simply shows how Sertorius cleverly manipulated native beliefs. But the incident is an important event in paleontological history: this was the earliest recorded investigation of the significant Neogene fossils of Morocco. The local story of the giant Antaeus was consistent with the traditional geographical distribution of the extinct race of giants explained in Greek myths, and the bones' location corresponds to known fossil deposits.

What kind of skeleton was identified as the giant Antaeus? As the renowned French naturalist Georges Cuvier remarked in his discussion of this event in 1806, the ancients "often exaggerated giant skeletons by eight or ten times the size of the largest fossil elephant." Applying Cuvier's formula, the skeleton dug up by Sertorius would have been 9 feet long. Rich bone beds around ancient Tingis contain the remains of Neogene elephants (Tetralophodon longirostris, Anancus), the early mammoth M. africanavus, and giant giraffids, as well as Eocene whales, which could measure up to 70 feet long. Any of those skeletons would stagger the ancient imagination. (There are truly stupendous dinosaur remains in the Atlas Mountains, about 150 miles [250 km] southeast of Tingis, but it seems unlikely that specimens would have been transported to the coast in antiquity).

Anancus, an elephant on display in the Florence Museum of Natural History.

The Giants of Crete

Around the time that Sertorius was in Morocco, two Roman generals in Crete encountered another impressive skeleton. During the Roman war against the Cretan pirates (ca. 106-66 BC), a tremendous thunderstorm caused rivers to flood. After the high water receded, says the ancient historian Solinus, the river banks collapsed, laying bare a skeleton said to measure 33 cubits (47 feet; 14 m). Word reached the Roman commanders Metellus Creticus and Lucius Flaccus, who took a break from pirate bashing to investigate this marvel for themselves. We can imagine them elbowing through throngs of villagers gaping at the giant bones; perhaps the generals ordered a ceremonious reburial of the relics, as did Sertorius in Morocco. Modern scholars dismiss Solinus's report, saying he was just copying Pliny the Elder, yet only Solinus described this particular paleontological event. Pliny told of different, larger Cretan giant (69 feet long) revealed by an earthquake, and another historian named Philodemos of Gadara (ca. 110-40 BC) reported yet another skeleton of 48 cubits in Crete (a cubit was about 17 inches).

In Crete, deep layers of Pleistocene and Holocene mammal fossils lie in coastal caves and other sites. Early European travelers described candlelight tours of these mysterious bone grottoes. Monks went "to and fro with their tapers" illuminating what they said were giants "from ages ago." The monks identified the femurs and shoulderblades by touching the corresponding bones on their own bodies. Inspired by these early accounts, paleontologist Dorothea M. A. Bate of the British Museum (Natural History) decided to explore Crete in 1903, disguised as a man. Villagers guided her to rewarding discoveries along the rugged coast: she identified seven extinct mammal species including both large and small Pleistocene elephants.

A Pleistocene mammoth, possibly one like "the giants of Crete."

Bate's finds of large elephant bones are controversial. Some paleontologists doubt the presence of large proboscidean remains in Crete and acknowledge only dwarf species. But the reports of huge skeletons in Crete by Solinus, Philodemos, and Pliny--even if exaggerated--seem to confirm Bate's finds and indicate that larger-than-expected prehistoric remains may well exist in Crete Thomas Strasser, a zooarchaeologist who works in Crete, comments that large elephantid remains "would be surprising because the large terrestrial fauna on Crete nannized [became dwarfed]." The remains described by Pliny, Philodemos, and Solinus "could be specimens of elephants that date to their earliest arrival on the island, before they nannized. That would be very interesting."

A Sea Monster Display in Ancient Rome

The Romans loved sensational displays of natural curiosities. But the skeleton of the monster of Joppa surpassed all expectations for Marcus Aemilius Scaurus's extravagant victory celebrations in 58 BC. According to Greek myth, the hero Perseus had rescued the maiden Andromeda, who was chained to a rock and exposed to the monster at Joppa (Jaffa-Tel Aviv). The rescue was a favorite scene in Roman art. People said that the sea around Joppa was still stained red with gore from the monster (Perseus petrified it with the Gorgon's head and smashed it with rocks). Traces of Andromeda's chains were pointed out to travelers on the promontory at Joppa, according to the Jewish historian Josephus (you can still see the spot today from the seaport of Old Jaffa).

And now Scaurus had obtained the monster's skeleton. His men loaded the thing onto a huge grain transport ship sailing from Alexandria by way of Joppa to Rome. After a two-month voyage, the bone assemblage was unloaded at Rome's harbor at Ostia, hauled to Rome, and reassembled as the centerpiece of Scaurus's "marvels from Judaea." The ancient historian Pliny the Elder tells us that the backbone was 40 feet long (12 m) and 1.5 feet thick, with ribs taller than an Indian elephant.

What kind of skeleton was billed as Andromeda's dragon? Most scholars believe that Scaurus must have shipped the bleached bones of a whale from Palestine. The huge proportions seem to suggest a cetacean. Jewish lore located Jonah's whale at Joppa, and sperm whales (up to 60 feet long) are known to beach on those shores. The immense "dragon" at near Beirut reported by the Roman historian Posidonius a few years earlier also sounds like a whale carcass. Nearly a plethrum long (100 feet), that carcass was so thick men on horseback couldn't see over it, and the jaws were wide enough to swallow a man on a horse. Other Roman writers described whale strandings in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Arabian Sea. In about 54 BC, the Romans staged a spectacular naval battle with a live whale that was trapped in Ostia harbor. And the emperor Septimius Severus (AD 193-211) once constructed a lifelike restoration of a whale skeleton in the Circus in Rome (fifty live bears were led inside the belly!).

A Tertiary whale, possibly similar to the ancient sea monster on display in Rome.

But the magical petrifaction of Andromeda's monster in the Greek myth raises the possibility that petrified skeletons of large extinct mammals might have influenced the Joppa lore, so it's worth mentioning that the impressive remains of proboscideans do exist in Israel. The historian Josephus alluded to ancient Hebrew traditions about enormous bones dug up around Hebron, Israel. In Jewish Antiquities (written for a Roman audience in the first century AD) he stated that the early Israelites had wiped out "a race of giants, who had bodies so large and countenances so entirely different from humans, that they were amazing to the sight and terrible to the hearing. These bones are still shown to this very day."

The Emperor Augustus's Fossil Collections

In 31 BC, the future emperor Augustus plundered the great tusks of the mythical Calydonian Boar from a temple in Tegea, Greece, and installed them in Rome. These were most likely prehistoric elephant tusks dug up in Pleistocene fossil beds near Tegea. The poet Ovid viewed the ivory trophies: he compared them to those of an Indian elephant (which was thought to be larger than the African species in antiquity). Some 200 years later, the "keepers of the wonders" in the Emperor's Gardens in Rome informed the travel writer Pausanias that one Calydonian tusk had crumbled away, but he admired the surviving one--it measured about 3 feet long.

Some 400 years after Pausanias, the historian Procopius viewed another great pair of tusks labeled "from the Calydonian Boar" at Beneventum, Italy. He described them as "well worth seeing, measuring three hand-spans around and curved in a crescent shape." A circumference of three hand-spans, about 27 inches, and the distinctive curvature or "crescent" shape suggest that the "Calydonian tusks" shown at Beneventum were really a pair of woolly mammoth tusks, common fossil remains in Italy.

Prehistoric elephant tusks, like those of the "Calydonian Boar."

When he became Emperor of Rome, Augustus (63 BC-AD 14) established the world's first paleontological museum at his villa on the island of Capri. It housed "a collection of the huge limb bones of immense monsters of land and sea popularly known as giants' bones, along with the weapons of ancient heroes."

In 1905, workmen digging the foundations for a fancy hotel on Capri came upon many massive fossil bones and teeth. Mixed in with the remains were flint arrowheads made by Ice Age hunters. Italian paleontologists identified the bones and teeth as those of extinct Pleistocene mammals, including mammoths (P. or E. primigenius, M. chosaricus), huge rhinoceroses, and giant cave bears, Ursus spelaeus. (One can see these finds in the museum in Capri).

Ursus spelaeus, an animal represented in Augustus' Capri museum.

I think that the discovery by the workmen in 1905 recapitulates a similar discovery on Capri in Augustus's time, perhaps by workers building his villa. The coincidence of strange, enormous bones together with antiquated stone weapons would strike the ancient Romans as evidence of mythical heroes slaying giants and monsters. We can now visualize the prehistoric specimens displayed in Augustus's museum: tremendous woolly mammoths, rhinoceroses, and cave bears.

Other enormous remains turned up in Italian soil in antiguity. The Roman poet Virgil observed that farmers often plowed up vast bones in their fields, where paleontologists now find mammoth remains. Large Pleistocene fossils also occur in the vicinity of ancient Rome itself, so people digging wells or building foundations in the city could have come across the giant bones of several Ice Age species. Emperor Augustus also exhibited the bodies of a giant and giantess in a vault at Sallust's Gardens in Rome. According to Pliny, the giants, named Pusio and Secundilla, were each 10 feet, 3 inches (over 3 m) tall. It's not clear whether these were mummies or skeletons, but they may have been composites of human skulls and oversized limb bones of extinct mammals. At least two writers of Augustus's reign, Manilius and Diodorus of Sicily, mentioned sensational displays that combined animal and human limbs.

Tiberius's Paleontological Investigations

Augustus's successor, Tiberius, retired to Capri, the site of the first paleontological museum. As emperor, Tiberius received reports of strange remains observed in Gaul (France). One report, from an unnamed island off northwestern France, said about 300 monstrous remains of various sizes and shapes were exposed by the sea after a storm. The recognizable remains included elephants, rams, and Nereids (mermaids). It is not clear what the rams and Nereids really were, but "remains of elephants" strongly suggests an exposure of jumbled bones in which the distinctive parts of proboscideans stood out.

The islands off northern France are granite or metamorphic, barren of fossils, except for one. The Channel Island of Jersey has rich Pleistocene deposits containing the well-preserved tusks, skulls, and limb bones of woolly mammoths. The Romans would recognize the mammoth tusks, molars, and skulls as elephantine. This report to Tiberius is the earliest documented sighting of the Jersey mammoth fossils!

Another report to Tiberius described an equally large array of sea monster remains on the French coast north of the Gironde River. This may have been a mass stranding of contemporary cetaceans, but if fossil remains were involved, then the skeletons of Jurassic or Cretaceous reptiles which occur along the coast of Saintes might have inspired the report. Or perhaps an exposure of Halitherium skeletons, a large Miocene ancestor of the dugong (a marine mammal related to manatees), was seen in the area south of the Gironde estuary. Sirenian bones are conspicuous fossils, especially the pachyostotic ribs and bizarre skulls-they might well have been interpreted as remains of sea monsters, since they are found in sands that contain fossil seashells.

A German ichthyosaur. Perhaps a creature like this may have inspired an early report to Tiberius.

During Tiberius's reign (AD 14-37), devastating earthquakes destroyed several cities on the Black Sea coast (now Turkey). In cracks of the earth, vast skeletons appeared. The earthquake survivors were nervous about disturbing the giant bones, but as a sample they sent a tooth from one of the skeletons to Rome. Ambassadors carried the molar, which was just over a foot long, to Tiberius. The emperor hired a mathematician named Pulcher to make a model of the giant based on the tooth. Pulcher sculpted a head proportionate to the molar's size and weight, and estimated how large the entire body would have been. Pulcher's replica, presumably a grotesque humanoid bust of clay, pleased Tiberius, who sent the hero's tooth back to its home soil for reburial.

The facts in this interesting story are historically and scientifically sound: The Black Sea region is prone to severe earthquakes which do expose gigantic mastodon, steppe mammoth, and Elasmotherium skeletons. Interestingly, the size of the giant tooth (about 12 inches) sent to Tiberius corresponds to the length of the molar of a woolly or steppe mammoth. The idea of extrapolating the stature from a single tooth is not far-fetched, since a lower first molar does give a good indication of a mammal's total body size and weight. This episode from the reign of Tiberius is the first written record of a scientific reconstruction of a life-sized model from prehistoric animal remains!

Mammoth teeth, on display in Florence, Italy.

Saint Augustine and the Giant Tooth

Saint Augustine (AD 354-430) lived in Carthage, North Africa. In The City of God, Augustine discussed the reality of huge creatures living in the remote past. "Some people refuse to believe that bodies were so much larger than they are now," wrote Augustine, "but skeptics are generally persuaded by the evidence in the ground."

On the shore of Utica (Gulf of Tunis), declared Augustine, "I myself--not alone but with several others--found a human molar so immense that we estimated that if it were divided up into the dimensions of one of our teeth it would have made 100 of them. I believe that molar belonged to some giant." Bones and teeth are "very long-lasting," he noted, allowing rational people of "much later ages" the opportunity to visualize the magnitude of beings from eons ago. A few years after his fossil find, Augustine died, just as the invading barbarians, the Vandals, were sweeping through the crumbling Roman Empire. Saint Augustine's own bones were taken to Italy and eventually enshrined as sacred relics of the Christian church.

**Adrienne Mayor is a classical folklorist from Princeton, New Jersey. She has made a career of investigating historical and scientific realities embedded in Greek and Roman myths. Her articles and papers have appeared in a wide variety of technical and popular journals, including Archaeology Magazine.

Mayor's book, The First Fossil Hunters.

Dino Land Book Reviews: The First Fossil Hunters
Dino Land Travels Database: Florence Museum of Natural History (fossils common in Greek and Roman myths)
Dino Land Travels in Paleontology: Long Live the Dinosaur in Italy
Dino Land Dinos International!: Italiano


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