So one of our readers asked us this question the other day: Is there any evidence of cultures finding dinosaur fossils before the 17th century? If so, what were their reactions or beliefs surrounding the fossils?
The executive summary is that there’s a certain amount of evidence of ancient Greco-Roman fossil finds; oodles of data on what they thought about mythical monsters; and very very nearly nothing to connect the two.
(1) Ancient observations of fossils. Here is a couple of ancient Greco-Roman texts that refer to fossils, beyond any doubt:
- In the 6th century BCE Xenophanes referred to fish fossils found in quarries near Syracuse (fr. A 33), and he took them as evidence that the whole substance of the world, earth, sea, and rock, had once been mingled. (This misinterpretation came from a popular philosophical idea at the time that the entire cosmos was derived from a single element, either air or fire or water.)
- In the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder (Natural History 37.42) shows an awareness that amber came from fossilized pine trees (“it is formed by the sap flowing from pine trees, like cherry gum, and the pine resin bursts out because of its excessive moisture; then it is dried and solidified, either by time, or by the sea…”)
(2) Adrienne Mayor’s 2000 book The First Fossil Hunters. Mayor’s book is a collection of theories that ancient stories of monsters and giants are based on skeletons of extinct species and fossil finds. Unfortunately for her, they’re “theories” in the bad sense: the “Look at this nifty idea that popped into my head!” sense, and not the “Here’s a model that compares favorably to competing models” sense. She presents
- evidence of ancient fossil finds;
- artistic representations and myths which happen to be convenient for her ideas, but which are totally unconnected to anything in 1.;
- (magic happens)
- Hey presto! the fossils in 1. must be the motivation for the legendary stuff in 2.!
The only connection between mythical creatures and fossil finds that has enough going for it to be even worth talking about is a 6th-century-BCE vase depicting Herakles fighting a sea monster at Troy. The interpretation isn’t certain, but it does look like it may be a drawing of a skull embedded in a cliff-side (and Mayor’s book duly covers this; she interprets it as a Samotherium, a giraffe that is known to have lived in the Aegean area up until about 5 million years ago). However, it does not follow that this is “evidence that fossil remains of prehistoric animals influenced ancient ideas about primeval monsters!” (Mayor, p. 163; Mayor’s punctuation). Rather, the reverse: other depictions of the same monster (here, and the lower figure on this page) show the monster as a serpent or dragon, and clearly not a Samotherium; and other depictions of other kētea are consistent with this. So the “fossil(?)” approach is unique to the Boston vase: the legend came first, then the vase-painter had the idea of depicting it using the fossil(?) as a model. (If it’s actually a Samotherium — which some people doubt, though I’m not averse to the idea myself.)
Other than that the closest Mayor gets to actually trying to connect direct evidence for fossil finds with legendary stuff is (p. 193) when she cites a story from Plato, which I quote in her words:
“The story goes,” says Plato, that a violent storm and an earthquake broke open the ground, revealing a hollow bronze horse containing a gigantic skeleton and a magic ring.
That’s as close as she gets to trying to connect any kind of account of an archaeological find to her theory. And it’s not even historical, it’s purely legendary.
The rest is circumstantial at its very best. It’s all built out of hypotheticals. My favorite bit is a diagram on p. 200 showing “an average Greek male” standing next to a mammoth bone. Wow! That would be terrific evidence! But wait… “drawing by author”. That’s Mayor’s methodology in a nutshell. There’s no way her book deserves even a shred of credence or respect.
(3) Reports of giant bones.
- Herodotos 1.67-8 reports how the Archaic Spartans, when they were at war with Tegea, were told by an oracle that they should retrieve the bones of the hero Orestes, which lay near Tegea at the time and re-bury them in Sparta. They duly brought the bones back. The body turned out to be “seven cubits” long – about 3 meters (10 feet).
- In a similar vein Plutarch, Life of Theseus 36, reports on a story that in 476/5 BCE the Athenians received an oracle that they should retrieve Theseus’ bones from Skyros for re-burial in Athens. Kimon subsequently captured the island and found the body, which was “of extraordinary size” (similarly Life of Kimon 8, Diodoros 4.62.4, and Pausanias 1.17.6, but without the mention of its size).
- The fragmentary author Phlegon of Tralles (FGrHist 257 F 36, §11-19) reports on several incidents where enormous ancient skeletons were found (but not named heroes). They’re definitely not dinosaur remains. He’s quite clear that he’s talking about humans, not monsters or dragons or whatnot; and they’re too big. By his time the upscaling of ancient people reached preposterous proportions: the measurements he gives are absurd. He mentions one complete skeleton the same length as an argentinosaurus, i.e. the second longest dinosaur now known; another has ribs two or three times the size of any species ever to have existed on earth.
What’s going on here? It’s not that reports of enormous ancient skeletons reflect findings of large extinct species. All three of these writers are talking about giant human bones. As we know, giant human bones don’t actually exist. And that means none of these sources can be taken at face value.
It’s a standard trope in ancient Greek texts, especially mythological ones, that the physical stature and overall magnificence of the human race is on a downward spiral; that legendary heroes were much bigger and stronger than contemporary humans. The trope of “ancient people were bigger and stronger” appears all over mythical texts: the Hesiodic Myth of the Races, Homeric heroes being able to lift tremendous weights, and so on. And that’s what’s going in these passages. They’re great evidence on mythical thought penetrating the way people thought about real phenomena; they’re no evidence at all about any events that ever actually happened.