Tuesday, October 20, 2009


"Now the place where the griffins live and the gold is found is a grim and terrible desert. Waiting for a moonless night, the treasure-seekers come with shovels and sacks and dig. If they manage to elude the griffins, the men reap a double reward, for they escape with their lives and bring home a cargo of gold—rich profit for the dangers they face."

—Greek author Aelian, c. AD 200, courtesy AMNH
Paleontology is a young science. It required quite a bit of set-up; the long history of the Earth and the workings of its rock strata had to be established by geologists. But the subjects of its study, the fossilized bones of ancient animals, have been around millions of years, exposed by the implacable processes of erosion. So before the first paleontologists took to the field, what did we humans make of these odd, bone-like rocks sticking out of the ground, gazing down at us from cliffs?

In historian and classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor's The First Fossil Hunters, she posits that fossils could be the source of some of the great mythological beasts we've conjured. One of the classic examples, which Mayor describes in this Humanist Network News interview, is the origin of the Cyclops myth may have originated when Greek sailors discovered mastodon skulls. As Mayor says,
[The mastodon nasal cavity] looks like a gigantic eye socket. And so, you find the skull inside of a cave when you're shipwrecked. Sailors probably told these tales, and they said, "We found not only the skull of the giant ogre, but there were all sorts of bones throughout the cave! It obviously preys on shipwrecked sailors like us. We were lucky to escape."
She also notes that until Alexander the Great's conquests, the Greeks would not have been familiar with elephants at all. Nor would the ancient Scythians have known what a dinosaur was. But, as Mayor explains, they certainly used fossilized dinosaur skeletons to their advantage:
It turns out that just by following that story from the Scythians who lived in Central Asia back to its source, I did discover that that area where they were mining gold was also perhaps a nesting ground of protoceratops dinosaurs. When I look at the skeleton of a protoceratops dinosaur, it's about the size of a wolf or a lion; it's got four legs. But its head has a beak. There is a frill on the back of the neck that could be taken for wings in and profile. These fossils are found just before you reach the gold which is eroding down from mountains. That could be said to be guarding the gold.
Pretty cool stuff. But you know, for as much mythology has contributed to our culture, and though mythological stories can be deeply resonant... I'll take a scientific understanding of dinosaurs any day.

Image from Dinosaur.org

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