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.
"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
"[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
"Refreshing. . . . Mayor presents her case with an engaging zeal. . . . 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
"A historical and scientific detective story of first rank. . . . Her results are as striking as they are entertaining. . . . The book will engage specialists with its serious purpose and extensive documentation and will please all readers with its profusion of maps, photographs, and drawings."--Mott T. Greene, Science
"The First Fossil Hunters brings together mythology, art geology and paleontology in a convincing matter. . . . In times long past, others had the same fascination we do today with the sight, feel and sense of something once living and now extinct."--Tim Tokaryk, American Scientist
"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
Other Princeton books authored or coauthored by Adrienne Mayor: