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The First Fossil Hunters

  1. Apr 5, 2005 #1


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    I happened to catch part of a show on the History Channel proposing that some Ancient Greek myths were actually inspired by paleontologic finds. For instance, the griffin, a mythological beast with the body of a lion and head, beak, talons, and wings of an eagle, may have been inspired by fossils of Protoceratops. Unfortunately, I wasn't paying much attention until it was too late, but I think I've found the accompanying book: "The First Fossil Hunters" by Adrienne Mayor. You can read more about her theory on the site. Has anyone heard of this, read the book, have something to add, know where I can find more information, critiques, etc.?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 5, 2005 #2
    Interesting topic. I did not see the program. From the History Channel website the program looks to be Hardcore History: Ancient Monster Hunters.

    Mayor's theory seems plausible, even obvious. I'm not sure why some scientists are miffed by it. Maybe it's a case of why-didn't-I-think-of-that causing professional jealousy, or perhaps it's that Mayor is not a "professional" scientist. I googled her and the only reference to her training I could find said that she's a folklorist with a BA in Folklore and Classical Studies from the Univ. of Minnesota, 1976.

    I was curious as to what Aristotle thought about fossils. Googling again (ain't the internet great), Aristotle believed that the earth and all its lifeforms were eternal and unchanging, therefore fossils could not be the remains of ancient, extinct species. His theory was that fossils were formed in situ by a mysterious inorganic process. From what I gather, he thought they were geological formations that never were living beings.

    So the ancients did know of and give serious thought to the existence of fossils. As they attempted to integrate fossils into their limited understanding of the natural world, they came to some, ummm, interesting conclusions. And then, as Pausanias noted (from your griffin link), "Those who like to listen to the miraculous are themselves apt to add to the marvel, and so they ruin truth by mixing it with falsehood." Thus we have the myths of griffins, giant humans, etc. Seems entirely plausible.

    For anyone interested, here are some photos from Mayor's book.
  4. Apr 5, 2005 #3
    Here are a couple reviews of Mayor's book, if you haven't already seen them.

    Dino Land Book Reviews

    2think.org review
  5. Apr 5, 2005 #4
    Good stuff indeed.

    If I might add another factor. There seems to be a great urge to mystify unknown artifacs. Dragons and devils, a good addition to a certain armchair analysis
  6. Apr 5, 2005 #5


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    It is surprising I hadn't heard or thought of this before. Apparently, others have had the same suspicions but were lacking sufficient evidence. I'm not sure Mayor actually has sufficient evidence; I guess I should get the book. :smile:
    It would also be interesting to find out, if possible, which, if any, myths began as attempts to explain evidence, or if evidence was made to fit into existing myths.
  7. Apr 6, 2005 #6
    That would be interesting.

    Complicating the matter is the fact that many myths were created to explain the human condition. There's generally some moral to the story. So which came first: the morality tale which later incorporated the unexplained evidence; or the evidence which then inspired an explanation for the human condition (death, suffering, injustice, etc.)?

    Joseph Campbell in his amazing book The Hero With A Thousand Faces demonstrates the pervasiveness of certain myths throughout the world. For example, nearly every culture has a story similar to St. George slaying the dragon, usually with a similar moral to the story. It has been impossible to say when or where the myth began.

    Perhaps it would be possible to use paleontological evidence to determine the origin of some myths, or at least narrow down the possible time and location. Again using dragon slaying as an example, which regions of the world have the kind of fossils that would inspire the notion of dragons, and among those places, which was the earliest to be inhabited by an established culture, and when.

    Such an analysis would be inconclusive, but it might provide one more piece of the puzzle.

    Good topic Honestrosewater!
  8. Apr 7, 2005 #7


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    Type 7,
    If you like that kind of thing, you may be interested in narratology, especially the work of Propp, Lévi-Strauss, Greimas, and Barthes. For instance, Propp wrote a book called "Morphology of the Folktale" where he analyzed Russian fairy tales, identifying 7 personas and 31 functions (actions, parts of the plot) that were common to them all, to varying extents. It's quite interesting stuff. Lévi-Strauss was an anthropologist and focused more on how a culture's myths relate to nature, so you may be more interested in his work. I haven't found a really good all-in-one site; You'll have to search around a bit. There's a very nice book online about semiotics whose chapter on syntagmatic analysis is a decent introduction, but you'll probably want to skip to the part where he starts talking about narratology (you can just use your browser's Find tool).
  9. Apr 7, 2005 #8
    Wow! That's some great stuff! Thanks! :smile:
  10. Apr 7, 2005 #9
    Yes, it was good, though likewise I missed parts of it.
    I believe she was the first to look at more obscure Greek writings, which made reference to the finds, and the theory went from there.
    My thoughts were that early man spent the winters confined indoors, and aside from information be passed verbally from generation to the next, the art of story telling (which included embellishment) was a valued skill.
  11. May 22, 2005 #10
    The greeks weren't ignorant enough to let a fossil determine the context of a myth. A myth is usually generated by some great trauma that was visited upon a civilization.

    There are no fossils that can be used to explain Hercules' 12 labours and the 9 headed Hydra or the three headed dog.

    Medusla's ugly head of snakes and the horse Pegasus's ability to fly because of wings are not the product of accidental finds of Spinosaurus or Elasmosaurus or any other fossilized behemoths.

    These myths were probably started by the introduction of genetically modified animals that were the laboratory stars of a civilization that used these creatures to win the affections and obediance of other, less scientifically advanced groups.

    There is a story from the "firsttime" in Egypt, before the pyramids and around the time the Sphynx was conceptualized. The story discribed a time when a group of people came to Egypt and paraded a strange creature down their main prominade. The creature was a man who had snakes for arms and lions legs yet the head of a man. This is probably when the original inhabitants of the banks of the nile were upsurped by a more advanced civilization.

    Not that I was there or anything.
  12. May 22, 2005 #11


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    I don't think trying to explain evidence is a sign of ignorance- just the opposite. The theory doesn't claim to explain every myth. And how do you know the theory is wrong?
    You're suggesting the Ancient Greeks had the technology to genetically modify living things? Do you think a man with snake arms and lion legs actually existed?
  13. May 23, 2005 #12
    How do we know the theory is right?

    Of course there would be speculation that these fossils the Greeks supposedly found were creatures worthy of stories about an ancient world. Over time the stories could conceivably become myths.

    Myths are a clouded and broken reflection of stories and occurances that actually happened. Just like the old party trick of passing information from one end of the table to the other. At the begining the information is that "Sarah likes Bob". At the other end the information is that the "Sahara fights gob". In the instance of myths, however, the information is passed over many thousands of years by oral tradition or by written and re-written word.

    Do I think a man with snake arms and lion legs actually existed? Yes. As do 2 headed turtles exist today. As did exist the clone of a sheep until it died prematurely. As do genetically modified strains of Canola that can withstand full doses of highly toxic Roots Roundup bathing their roots.

    The idea that this is the only time in pre-history or history that genetic codes have been decifered is a self-centred and dangerous mistake. If we were able to free ourselves of this misconception and learn from the antics and idiocy of those civilizations who used the genome as a weapon and convenience, much to their demise, we could forgo some ugly consequences that seem to be looming on our horizons.

    The myths of the Greeks that site such GMO'd creatures were stories they have related from a time long before their own. Like around 12,000 years ago. They have provided shocking and awe inspiring lessons for future generations of humans that were probably, at one time, clearer in their delivery but have been slightly skewed over time. Mind you, they seem to have escaped the malicious and scathing editing that the scriptures were subjected to over a relatively short 2000 years.
  14. May 24, 2005 #13


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    I don't know whether it's right or wrong. You seemed to claim it was wrong, so how do you know?
    Well, that's very interesting. How much do you know about this animal? For example, do you know if it walked upright? How were all of the organ systems connected, if at all- i.e., which brain controlled what, could the snakes regulate their body temperature, did both the man and the snakes eat? Did the snakes not wound each other or the man? Was it born this way or surgically altered? How long did it live?
    Well, I'm open to the possibility that ancient civilizations had such technology, but is there any evidence to support it?
  15. May 26, 2005 #14
    The evidence is in the mythology. Generally super humans like Hercules and "Gods" like Hermes or Zeus or any of those are reflections of people who stood out in the crowd. Super animals or hybrid human and animal creatures stood out in the crowd as well. The 9 headed hydra being one of them. These creatures have such specific features and descriptions that its hard to imagine them coming from anything but a) a freak of nature or b) genetic engineering.

    I am sorry if I reacted somewhat negatively to the notion that ancient, Grecian palentologists came up with myths to account for fossils they'd found. I reacted to the possibility that this type of explaination would cloud what I think is the true purpose of the Greek and other culture's myths.

    If what I am telling you is true and there was a genetcially modified animal stem cells grafted to human stem cells - nurtured and grown, then used to impress and oppress the 12000 year old Egyptians by an advanced human civilization, then I'm sure all proceedures were proper and well ahead of what we can do today. Mind you - the gap is closing with the human genome project well under way, etc. Thank you for a great topic!
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