Since fossils have presumably existed for millions of years, why don't we see much paleontological thought from ancient writers? Classics scholar Adrienne Mayor suggests that we can, in fact, learn much about the Greek and Roman attitudes toward fossils if we turn to a surprising source of data and theory: their myths.
In The First Fossil Hunters, she explores likely connections between the rich fossil beds around the Mediterranean and tales of griffins and giants originating in the classical world.
Striking similarities exist between the Protoceratops skeletons of the Gobi Desert and the legends of the gold-hoarding griffin told by nomadic people of the region, and the fossilized remains of giant Miocene mammals could be taken for the heroes and monsters of earlier times.
Mayor makes her case well, but, as with all interpretive science, the arguments are inconclusive.
Still, her novel reading of ancient myth--and her critique of the modern scientific mythology that seeks to explain the lack of classical paleontological thinking--is compelling and thought-provoking.
The final chapter of The First Fossil Hunters is an engrossing and occasionally quite funny look at "Paleontological Fictions" dating back several thousand years; the false tritons and centaurs give P.T.
Barnum and his successors a much longer genealogy than previously thought.
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