Scientific paleontology began in the 19th century, but the ever-curious Greeks were well aware of fossils. Here's a clear account of what they knew about them—and what they made of the strange bones they found.
Mayor, an unaffiliated folklorist, begins with an examination of the griffin—a creature half-lion and half-bird, to which no particular mythological tales attach. Mayor argues that the creature is based on travelers' tales of the fossils of Protoceratops—a small, beaked dinosaur abundant in the Gobi Desert, exactly the region in which the ancients reported griffins to be found. More common in the Mediterranean region are the fossils of prehistoric mammals—in particular, mammoths, mastodons, and large rhinoceros-like creatures. These the Greeks interpreted as the bones of the Titans and Giants whom their gods and legendary heroes defeated in combat. Mayor explains the giant bones of ancient heroes displayed in Greek temples as those of prehistoric mammals. The prevalent ancient belief in the degeneration of the human race since heroic times was reinforced by the size of the bones unearthed. The Romans were also collectors of ancient bones, although they tended to look at them as curiosities rather than objects of veneration: Augustus and other emperors had bone collections. While such philosophers as Aristotle and Pliny ignored what we would consider irrefutable evidence of large ancient animals as anomalies inconsistent with their notion of unchanging nature, Herodotus, Pausanias, and others did describe them. Mayor connects these ancient accounts with areas in which fossils have been discovered in more recent times. While Mayor sometimes belabors her points, on the whole this is clear, readable, and convincing.
A surprising account of material overlooked or misunderstood by both historians of science and interpreters of Greek myth. (83 b&w illustrations)