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The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times

The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times [Kindle Edition]

Adrienne Mayor
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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"Adrienne Mayor has . . . done some digging deep into the past and found literary and artistic clues--and not a few huge fossils--that seem to explain the inspiration for many of the giants, monsters, and other strange creatures in the mythology of antiquity."--John Noble Wilford, The New York Times

"[Mayor] has done an admirable job . . . [she] easily persuades us that these early writers indeed recorded a palaeontological bonanza centuries before the first dinosaur remains were recognised by modern science."--Richard Fortey, London Review of Books

"Refreshing. . . . Mayor presents her case with an engaging zeal. . . . By the end of the book, you will find yourself filled with enthusiasm for following Mayor's lead in breaking down interdisciplinary boundaries and thus enriching your understanding of the human experience."--Kate A. Robson Brown, Natural History

"A historical and scientific detective story of first rank. . . . Her results are as striking as they are entertaining. . . . The book will engage specialists with its serious purpose and extensive documentation and will please all readers with its profusion of maps, photographs, and drawings."--Mott T. Greene, Science

"The First Fossil Hunters brings together mythology, art geology and paleontology in a convincing matter. . . . In times long past, others had the same fascination we do today with the sight, feel and sense of something once living and now extinct."--Tim Tokaryk, American Scientist

"Merging the fields of paleontology, archaeology and classical literature, Mayor's research has uncovered striking correlations between modern fossil finds and many of the myths and folklore that sprang up in early Western civilization."--Bryn Nelson, Newsday

"Mayor [combines] the skills of the literary scholar with those of a dinosaur hunter . . . [A]lthough readers will learn a good deal here about the remains of mammoths and protoceratops, they will learn much more about human imagination, that fertile source of science, of legend and of fraud."--Booklist

"A surprising account of material overlooked or misunderstood by both historians of science and interpreters of Greek myth . . . [T]his is clear, readable, and convincing."--Kirkus Reviews

"Mayor presents her case with an engaging zeal, describing her sleuthing efforts at length . . . By the end of the book, you will find yourself filled with enthusiasm for following Mayor's lead in breaking down interdisciplinary boundaries and thus enriching your understanding of the human experience."--Kate A. Robson Brown, Natural History

"The First Fossil Hunters brings together mythology, art, geology, and paleontology in a convincing manner. . . . Mayor's chronicles do more that entertain; as she contends, they also show that people of Greek and Roman times had a broad understanding of fossils as organic remains of extinct organisms . . ."--Tim Tokary, American Scientist

"Mayor tells a fascinating story of ancient encounters with fossils, setting modern palaeontology beside ancient art and literature . . ."--Helen King, Times Literary Supplement

"In many ways, this book resembles a detective story. When the author gets on the track of something, she follows it wherever it leads. . . . The First Fossil Hunters will be a revelation to anyone interested in ancient history. For me, it is one of the best books of recent years."--Walter Friedrich, Times Higher Education Supplement

"While the book is aimed at academics and presumes knowledge of contemporary debates on the power of the presidency, it is not too abstruse for the current-events minded reader. . . . And if you're a journalist or author researching the office of the presidency, it's essential."--Lauren Mandell,

"After reading Mayor's The First Fossil Hunters one thing is certain. You'll never look at classical mythology--or at the history of paleontology--the same way again."--Steve Voynick, Rock and Gem

"In her introduction Adrienne Mayor takes palaeontologists and historians of palaeontology to task. At best there has been accidental ignorance and at worst wilful avoidance and misrepresentation of how much the Greeks and Romans knew about fossils . . . Mayor proceeds to make her case with detailed 'chapter and verse' from the ancients. It is indeed impressive and generally very convincing"--Douglas Palmer, Geological Magazine

"This book is a pleasure to read. . . . The insight into human behavior is enough to attract anthropologists and laypeople to read this fascinating account of paleontology in ancient times."--Deborah Ruscillo, American Journal of Archaeology

"Adrienne Mayor's thought-provoking book will mark a watershed in the approach to griffins and giants. . . For both its innovative method and its results, this well-balanced and vividly written book belongs on the bookshelf of every historian of natural sciences."--Liliane Bodson, Isis

"Marshaling the array of evidence available from scholarly and popular works, and contributing her own research, Mayor shows that far from ignoring fossils, many Native American groups took great notice of them and developed elaborate myths to explain their origin. . . . Though Mayor is careful not to homogenize native myths, she does note that virtually all of them exhibit a sense of "deep time," as geologists call it: an awareness that the world has existed for far longer than humans have walked it."--Eric A. Powell, Archaeology

"Classical Corner fans will love the extensive 'Ancient Testimonia' appendix, with quotations on obvious fossil finds from numerous Greek and Roman sources--some so undeservedly obscure that these are their first English translations."--Matt Salusbury, Fortean Times

Product Description

Griffins, Cyclopes, Monsters, and Giants--these fabulous creatures of classical mythology continue to live in the modern imagination through the vivid accounts that have come down to us from the ancient Greeks and Romans. But what if these beings were more than merely fictions? What if monstrous creatures once roamed the earth in the very places where their legends first arose? This is the arresting and original thesis that Adrienne Mayor explores in The First Fossil Hunters. Through careful research and meticulous documentation, she convincingly shows that many of the giants and monsters of myth did have a basis in fact--in the enormous bones of long-extinct species that were once abundant in the lands of the Greeks and Romans.

As Mayor shows, the Greeks and Romans were well aware that a different breed of creatures once inhabited their lands. They frequently encountered the fossilized bones of these primeval beings, and they developed sophisticated concepts to explain the fossil evidence, concepts that were expressed in mythological stories. The legend of the gold-guarding griffin, for example, sprang from tales first told by Scythian gold-miners, who, passing through the Gobi Desert at the foot of the Altai Mountains, encountered the skeletons of Protoceratops and other dinosaurs that littered the ground.

Like their modern counterparts, the ancient fossil hunters collected and measured impressive petrified remains and displayed them in temples and museums; they attempted to reconstruct the appearance of these prehistoric creatures and to explain their extinction. Long thought to be fantasy, the remarkably detailed and perceptive Greek and Roman accounts of giant bone finds were actually based on solid paleontological facts. By reading these neglected narratives for the first time in the light of modern scientific discoveries, Adrienne Mayor illuminates a lost world of ancient paleontology.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 5218 KB
  • Print Length: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Reissue edition (7 Mar 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #221,868 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very enlightening 11 Aug 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Mayor takes into account the vast amount of prehistoric animal remains and links them to mythology very convincingly. I thoroughly enjoyed it and now I look at myths, legends and fabulous creatures in a very different light. Fasicnating.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars SLM 16 Jan 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Reading this at the moment, having read Fossil legends of the First Americans already. It would seem the dark and middle ages set us back a long way in research and understanding of Earths past. What I've read so far is very intriguing.
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Palaeontology seems like such a modern academic discipline, one that relies very much on advances in modern scientific knowledge. We know now how and why fossils are created, what they are and where they came from - but I suspect many people, like myself, have rarely stopped to think about how our ancestors may have viewed these massive bones and relics. In the modern era we go looking for such things, but hundreds and thousands of years ago people often just stumbled across them, via agriculture, erosion, climatic upheaval. What did they think they were?

Mayor argues that we can in fact determine how the ancient Greeks and Romans incorporated these fossils into their worldview, via their art, literature and mythology. The mythical griffin, for example, she argues, was based on the skeletal remains of protoceratops preserved in the sands of the Gobi Desert. Or the legend of the Cyclops was based on the discovery of prehistoric elephant and mammoth skulls, the large hole in the skull for the trunk mistaken for a single eye socket.

Greek literature and historical records are full of reports of the findings of giants' and heroes' remains, all given the stamp of authenticity through Greek mythology, and often given ceremonial burials. Ajax, Achilles, Theseus, the list goes on. Scholars have traditionally dismissed these reports as the credulity of simpler minds in ages past, but these ancient peoples really did find giant bones. There is ample testimony of fossils found in temples and in sacred sites through Greece, Italy, Persia, Egypt, North Africa. Not having the benefit of our knowledge, they simply developed elaborate myth systems to explain their existence.

If nothing else, this book is a warning against the increasing silo-ization of academic scholarship.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars fascinating area of history 11 Feb 2014
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Just what did ancient people think when they discovered the bones of a dinosaur, or the skull of a mammoth? Mayor sets out to answer that question, and discovers myths of dragons, griffins, and ancient heroes five metres tall. But also signs that ancient people tried to explain these extinct megafauna using natural explanations, like floods and earthquakes.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.9 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant piece of scholarly detective work, beautifully written. 11 Oct 2011
By Susan E. Wood - Published on
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Whether your passion is classical archaeology, paleontology, folklore, ancient literature, ancient history or the history of science, or if you just enjoy seeing a brilliant piece of interdisciplinary scholarship convincingly argued, this book is a MUST. Mayor has connected the dots between disciplines that do not communicate with each other nearly enough, to find the origins of mythical griffins, giants and monsters in the fossil records of Asia, Greece, and Egypt. Our early ancestors were far more observant and curious than we sometimes give them credit for being; they could see the same fossils that modern paleontologists have seen of Protoceratops Andrewsii in the Gobi desert. And they could create imaginative reconstructions of the living animals, just as we do in natural history museums today. Nomadic gold prospectors of central Asia intuited the connection between dinosaurs and birds long before modern paleontology did, and for all we know, Protoceratops may well have had feathers rather than scales. In Greece and Egypt, dinosaur fossils are unknown but finds of prehistoric mammal bones are fairly common -- in fact, one extinct mammal, the Samothere, bears the name of the Greek island where its bones were first identified. Ancient historians frequently mention remarkable discoveries of enormous bones, usually identified by the finders as the relics of giants or ancient heroes. These discoveries correspond closely with the locations of fossil deposits.

Mayor has done profound, exhaustive research in a variety of fields, and presents meticulously documented evidence for her theories, but the book reads as entertainingly as a good detective novel, and is just as accessible to the layman as to her fellow scholars. At the same time, Mayor never talks down to the reader or oversimplifies a complex subject. This is an exemplary work of interdisciplinary scholarship, written the way most scholars only wish we could write.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding 24 Feb 2012
By Karl - Published on
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If ever I read a book that was more meticulously researched than this one, I don't recall it. Adrienne Mayor does an incredible job of piecing together a paleontological puzzle long hidden in mythical obscurity. The First Fossil Hunters is an academic marvel that connects ambiguous dots to draw a picture of fossil discoveries that underwent anthropomorphic and monstrous conversions to accommodate mythical belief and hero worship.

Mayor speaks to the average reader without dumbing down the narrative, or leaving the reader in esoteric limbo. One never wonders what she's trying to say, and all speculation is clearly defined without being weighed down by insistent presumption. The book is a joy to read, logical and well reasoned throughout. However, those who prefer to be entertained by childish monster stories, or prefer to look for the reality in myths, or cling to the foolish idea that there are living dinosaurs may find Mayor's book tediously disagreeable.

Much of the book covers ancient interest in fossils with the overlying message shining a bright light on a complete misunderstanding by the early finders of what those fossils truly represented. Prehistoric dinosaur bones became griffins, and mammoths became giants and heroes. Other bones were deceitfully arranged to create tritons, nereirdes, and centaurs to dupe the willing believers. A few modern day hoaxes are mentioned for comparison, as well as to support Mayor's findings.

Mayor's book subliminally touches on common sense and gullibility as it speculates and expounds on the whos, whats, whys, and wherefores of paleomythology. One can compare much of what she presents in her findings to modern day attitudes and interpretations.

Though Mayer states that her findings and sources are far from exhaustive, the reader would swear that she left no stone unturned. I felt she covered the subject with impressive thoroughness. I highly recommend this book, and look forward to reading Mayor's companion book about early fossil hunters in the Americas.

In short, this book was fantastic.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and Captivating 25 Oct 2012
By BookCity2012 - Published on
This was an awesome and very scholarly book written by a very competent author. It was fascinating to read about ancient greeks and romans discovering and worshiping ancient bones from extinct lifeforms. The book is very well put together and flows from chapter to chapter seemlessly. This is simply a must have for archaeologists and palentologists alike. But the airmchair folks shouldnt be discouraged because its very easy to comprehend as long as you have some background in the areas discussed. Overall its a must have and dont pass this one up!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I was looking for this. 18 April 2014
By Jajadeh - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I am currently writing, for my own amusement, a non-fiction "History of Geology" I needed an expert on BCE lore and this was perfect for the job. Well researched and well written. I recommend it to anyone. You do not need to be a scientist to enjoy Adrienne's writing.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Adrienne Mayor Proves That Mythology Is Not Mythological 3 Dec 2013
By Jose Vidal - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The brilliant Adrienne Mayor has singlehandedly created a new and fascinating field that will appeal to academics, archaeologists, historians and anyone interested in our intellectual and/or religious past.
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