Paleontology in the classical world, reviewed

6 minute read

Afarensis reviews the book The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, by Adrienne Mayor:

In Chapter Three, Mayor discusses discovery of bones in the Greek Pre-classic and Classic. Classical scholars should be familiar with these in a different context. For example, the Spartan discovery of the bones of Orestes or the shoulder of Pelops kept at the sanctuary of Olympia. The bones of Theseus were discovered by the Athenians (who also swiped the bones of Oedipus from Thebes). As Mayor points out there was a veritable bone rush at that time with skeletons of heroes popping up all over the place. One of the traits that united these finds was the large size of the bones. The ancient Greeks felt that their heroes were larger in stature than they were. An idea that traces back to Hesiod's Works and Days (where he discusses the five ages of Man) and probably earlier. Over time, according to the ancient Greeks, humans have grown shorter. So when giant bones were discovered - especially those that looked vaguely human - they were interpreted as the bones of Greek heroes. The Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius also collected bones. What unites a lot of these discoveries is that they come from areas with a lot of fossils - mainly from the Miocene to the present and composed of large megafauna such as mammoths, mastodon, giraffe and rhinoceros to name a few.

According to the review, the book includes a number of archaeological instances where fossils were found in classical or preclassical contexts. I like Afarensis' point that despite the possibility that such finds guided mythological formulations of ancient giants and the like, classical philosophers "made little mention of such discoveries."

It makes you wonder what might have been done with the same evidence and the right person. As I was reading the review, I was reminded of Thomas Jefferson and the mastodon, and I went looking up some details:

In 1784, Jefferson had bravely argued against Buffon's statement that the "mammoth" bones of North America represented the same species as those of the modern elephant. Lacking professional confidence, Jefferson successfully enlisted the support of Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College, but Buffon never wavered in his identification. Ultimately, Jefferson's position was sustained by Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), the brilliant French anatomist, who recognized the bones as those of the mastodon (Coonen and Porter 1976:747).

In the eighteenth century, those knowledgeable about fossils and anatomy to a sufficient degree to argue such facts were rare. In classical times, such people simply did not exist. Considering the spacing of natural historians in the late eighteenth century (a handful per nation-state), it is probable that no conversation could have been sustained among them without technologies, particularly printing. This is particularly true because the comparative study of such remains requires visual representations -- diagrams at a minimum; ideally casts or original specimens -- which could hardly have been distributed to a critical number of people very much earlier in time.

It's no surprise that there was some change in mindset between classical times and the Enlightenment. Still, one wonders which innovations were essential to the growth of science. As indicated by the review, classical peoples were evidently interested in ancient remains and even collected them. This acquisitiveness had increased by the eighteenth century -- with a substantial number of avocational antiquarians -- but was hardly different in character.

The interpretation that ancient mastodons and other such fossils were the remains of an ancient race of "giants" was perfectly straightforward. Although clear evidence is rare, it seems probable that every culture with exposure to such ancient bones arrived at similar mythology-inspired conclusions. In Europe and America, such explanations persisted in Jefferson's day. Even post-Renaissance antiquarians arrived at semi-mythological explanations for ancient artifacts -- for instance, ancient stone tools as "thunderstones." Most straddled the boundary between mythology and naturalism.

The Enlightenment was the first point at which the tide of science was capable of formulating and testing a coherent alternative. The fossil record provided clear evidence directly on the origins of the earth and its history, and the logical options were clear enough once some connection between rock layers and time was made. As an example, Jefferson already knew enough to predict overkill as a cause for the disappearance of ancient megafauna:

Jefferson argued that an animal as large as the "great-claw" [the giant sloth] must always have been rare because, he reasoned, the "ordinary economy of nature" would provide "sufficient barriers" to large populations:
If lions and tygers multiplied as rabbits do, or eagles as pigeons, all other animal nature would have been long ago destroyed, and themselves would have ultimately extinguished after eating out their pasture (Jefferson 1799, p. 256)
Referring to Africa, Jefferson also claimed that a "new population" -- namely, man -- tended to drive off large animals to the continental interior. He suggested that in North America the pressure of Indian hunters had accomplished the same shift. This analogy was the rationale behind his seemingly whimsical instruction that Lewis and Clark look for signs of the living mammoth west of the Mississippi. Furthermore, Jefferson hinted that, by preferential hunting of these giant animals for an obviously great store of meat and hides, the Indians had probably exterminated them (Coonen and Porter 1976:747).

Two assumptions had crystallized by the eighteenth century: exponential (or "Malthusian") growth of populations, and the progressive decay of ancient things. Both assumptions are products of everyday observations that may have gotten more ordinary over time.

Old cities decay and are replaced; old things are buried and unburied. Sometimes the cities themselves get higher as a result -- a fact increasingly known as excavations into the subterranean layers of cities (for foundations and sewers) increased. The classics surely knew these things, but the recognition of old things must have grown as human history piled itself up into deeper and deeper layers.

The fleeting nature of life and youth was a standard of classical authors, but the disappearance and decay of entire civilizations was particularly part of the Enlightenment zeitgeist. Perhaps it was no accident that the beginnings of paleontology coincided with Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Lost signs of ancient things became a staple of early Romanticism, and several scenes in Wordsworth's work wear on the implications of hidden histories. Better-known is Shelley's "Ozymandias," written in 1817:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

A paleontologist reading the poem may find that it evokes a great fossil eroding from a desert badlands; replace "Ozymandias" with "Tyrannosaurus", and the verse sums up the present-day attitude toward the dinosaurs, far more than that toward ancient Egypt.

Imperial Rome, at over a million souls, was the apotheosis of classical population growth, but a clear reflection on the implications of such growth may have needed post-medieval mathematical insights or monetary and economic insights. London reached its first million shortly before 1800 -- the first city to do so since classical Rome. By that time, economics and mathematics were ready to infer the consequences of rapid population growth.

We now know that both insights were necessary for evolutionary theory to emerge, and the strands of evolutionary thought emerged before Darwin in the Enlightenment. This short-term history of thinking in the eighteenth and nineteenth century certainly benefits from considering just how much had changed in human existence since classical Greece and Rome.


Coonen LP, Porter CM. 1976. Thomas Jefferson and American biology. BioScience 26:745-750.