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Review: The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor

the first fossil hunters

Every once in a while I encounter a book that opens up a whole new world.  The First Fossil Hunters:  Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor is one of these.  As someone interested in the history of science, I know that ancient Greek philosphers had noticed fossilized seashells on the mountains and concluded that the are must have been under water before.

I was completely unaware, however, that the area around the Mediterranean and into Asia is replete with beds of the most enormous mammalian fossils. Did you know that the ancients not only knew about fossils, but also collected them, studied them, wrote about them, put them in their artwork, made myths about them, and devoted them to their gods?  Did you know that there was an ancient ivory trade (perhaps such as Solomon engaged in) based on the tusks from fossil beds?   Would you have imagined that the dark Egyptian god Set had two temples full of small black fossils?

Why are these things not common knowledge?  Perhaps because the philosophers of classical times, the ones people study, preferred to focus on classifying what was normal and normative.  Perhaps it is because those who are interested in the more obscure documents of those days are not usually interested in or knowledgeable about paleontology.  Certainly it is partly because of the modern illusion that we are more intelligent than the ancients and that true scholarship began with us.  Whatever the cause is, Adrienne Mayor has presented and interpreted a wealth of data that will enlighten our view of ancient paleontology.

The First Fossil Hunters begins with a discussion of griffins, mythical creatures that guard gold.  Mayor shows how similar they are to protoceratops which lived in the area of gold-mines and whose fossilized bones are everywhere in that desolate area.  Now, it turns out that traders travelled to this area in the era when griffins became popular in Greece.  Thus the author suggests that the concept of griffins was based on ancient bones.  Without Mayor’s precondition that such animals were extinct long before humans existed, and based on how realistically griffins were portrayed in Greek art and writing as well as in other Asian archeological finds, one might even speculate that some of the stories were based on eye-witness accounts of these fearsome creatures.

The rest of the book discusses finds of enormous fossils, like the 10 foot coffin and skeleton that a smith, digging a well, discovered and quickly reburied and that was eventually stolen and taken to Troy as Orestes’ skeleton.  There are mammoths with 15 foot tusks.  There were femurs and scapulae (leg bones and shoulder blades) that were interpreted by the ancients as remains of human giants but that Mayor suggests were parts of mammoth or whale skeletons because humans just don’t get that large, and because people of the past might easily have confused them.  However, about the 15 foot human skeletons, the ancients said that of course people used to be that large.  How else could they have built the giant stone fortifications evident in various places?

These fossil finds were revered in ancient times.  The ones interpreted as giants and other creatures from mythology were sometimes kept in temples or were among the prize possessions of emperors and other wealthy ancients.  Smaller fossils were jewellery and curios and offerings.  They were buried with their owners, and most archeologists, not realizing their significance and completely unaware that these people could have owned fossils, may have ignored them as uninteresting extra bones.  In those days, fossils recently exposed by earthquakes, landslides, or erosion quickly became tourist destinations.  In fact, the monster’s face on the vase on the cover of the book, at the right—that monster looks like the realistic portrayal of a fossil according to paleontologists.

Mayor not only presents a detailed and utterly fascinating history of classical paleontology, but she also discusses the relationship of fossils to myth.  In fact, mythological locations of great battles between gods and giants coincide remarkably with fossil fields.  She also catalogues references to fossils in ancient literature, lists current paleontological finds for locales where the ancients observed giant remains, and explores possible reasons for the great philosophers’ silence about fossils.  She also discusses paleontological hoaxes and fraud, both intentional and due to ignorance, from the Roman era to the present and is convinced that many of the human giants are misinterpreted mammoths or were mammoths reburied with ancient weapons after having been disinterred earlier.

In this breakthrough book Mayor discusses so much, but always from the viewpoint that she is studying the reactions of humans thousands of years ago to creatures that had died millions of years ago.  I wonder how someone who is not constrained by those time scales would interpret her data.  To me, that question is endlessly fascinating.

This would be a great book for high school students interested in paleontology, mythical creatures, classical literature, or classical history, and could be combined with materials from creationist researchers (available at AIG and CMI) to open up a whole new world for your teens.

This is the kind of book I would recommend for your teen’s science and math reading

This is yet another book in the in the 2015 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge and is also linked to Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, Literacy Musings Monday, The Book Nook, Finishing Strong , Trivium Tuesdays.  

Disclosure: I borrowed this book from our library and am not compensated for this review.


  1. Adrienne Mayor says:

    Thank you for this positive and thoughtful review!
    Please note name spelling: Mayor not Mayer

    1. Annie Kate says:

      Oh dear, I am so terribly sorry about the misspelling!! It’s the kind of thing that I’m always afraid will happen and now it has, and I’m sorry it was you it happened to.

      But I am glad you enjoyed this review. I really, really enjoyed reading the book and my kids had to hear about it over and over for the weeks I was reading it.

  2. This sounds fascinating. Do you think it would be appropriate to read with an 8 year old? Based on your explanation, I think my son might be interested to learn about this. I know I am certainly intrigued. So neat to learn about how myth & fact overlap.

    1. Annie Kate says:

      I think it may be too detailed and research-oriented for an 8 year old. But there’s a related book for children also by Adrienne Mayor entitled The Griffin and the Dinosaur. I have not yet read it, but it looks good.

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