Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Princeton University Press; Reissue edition (March 7, 2011 AD)
“Classicists were unaware that the fossils of dinosaurs,
mastodons, mammoths, and other extinct animals were
conspicuous features of the natural landscape in antiquity.
Scientists, for their part, did not realize that fossils were
part of the Greek and Roman cultural landscape.”
—Adrienne Mayor “The First Fossil Hunters”
First published in 2001 AD and updated in 2011 AD Adrienne Mayor’s The First Fossil Hunters quickly became a modern day classic. It was first subtitled Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times and then Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times.
In a manner of speaking, Adrienne Mayor functions along the lines of a follower of Aristotle known as Palaepharus wrote On Unbelievable Tales wherein he:
“rationalized traditions about heroes and monsters by tracing how actual events blurred over time into myth. Instead of rejecting myths outright, he tried to strip away impossibilities to reveal an underlying historical core.”
Succinctly stated, the book explores and elucidates the manner whereby ancient Greeks and Romans dealt with encountering, often huge, fossils. In particular, we learn how they either incorporated them into their myths or built new myths around them. For example, a classic example is the conceptualization of giant humans with one eye; the cyclops. When we take a tuskless mammoth skeleton and lay it out on a flat surface it is very easy to image a humanoid form with the hole for the trunk appearing to be one single eye socket.
Many such examples are provided and make for fascinating detective-like tales as Adrienne Mayor (or, Adrienne Jones, sans the bullwhip) often tracks down fossil finds and matches them to local lore:
“I drew two maps of the Aegean world on transparent tracing paper. On one map, red X’s marked the spots where people had reported the bones of giants or monsters in antiquity. On the other map I circled the rich deposits of mastodon, mammoth, and other large vertebrate fossils known to modern paleontologists. Fingers crossed, I superimposed the two sketch maps. The X’s and O’s matched!”
Granted, as Mayor notes, “Not all myths of monsters or giants are fossil-related, of course.”
I must say that for me the most captivating and thought provoking aspect of this book is not its successful elucidation of the manner whereby the ancients interpreted fossils. Rather, what it keeps me musing is the manner whereby we moderners interpret them. Truly, there is nothing new under the Sun (no, not even new species) and what the supposedly ignorant and superstitious ancients made of fossils is exactly the very same that we enlightened and scientifically fluent moderners make of them.
I have come to employ the term (which I may have coined) transconstruction to denote artificing interpretations. In our context, a construction is something which naturally is that which it is; for example a living animal. A reconstruction is what a taxidermist does; takes the remains a deceased, known, animal and constructs it anew to the specifications it possessed while alive.
A transconstruction is the attempt to reconstruct an animal that no one has ever seen alive and thus requires interpretation, imagination and is often based on worldview, schools of thought, adherence to preferred theories (or the theories of whoever is funding the work); it is the transformation of an actual organism into one made in our image. Thus, transconstruction refers to a reconstruction with the aim towards not merely putting back together but transforming the original into a something new and unlike the original.
An example of transconstructions is your typical “ape-man.” When you look at its face/head; just what are you looking at? You see lips, nose, eyes, ears, skin and hair/fur. Yet, lips do not fossilize so we do not know what they looked like. Cartilage does not fossilize so we do not know what the nose or ears looked like. Eyes do not fossilize and ape-men generally are depicted with whites in their eyes which apes do not have. Skin does not fossilize so we do not know its tone/color. Hair/fur do not fossilize so we do not know what it looked like, neither its texture, color or style.
So, we do not know what the lips, nose, eyes, ears, skin and hair/fur looked like but this makes up the face/head so, just what are we looking at? Transconstructions.
Along these lines, The First Fossil Hunters notes that “Scientific reconstructions of extinct creatures known only from incomplete fossils are another form of paleontological fiction.”
“Aelian (ca. A. D. 200) referred to ‘artificers who falsify nature,’ artisans who assembled wax figures of mythical creatures to make us believe that nature could have ‘blended dissimilar bodies into one.’ How were these man-made ‘natural’ wonders viewed in antiquity? Reactions ranged from blind faith to irony. Some people were fooled, while others scoffed; some admired the artistic talent that challenged accepted knowledge and belief…According to Lucian, gullible crowds were taken in by the human-headed snake puppet [a false human head was placed over the head of a large live snake].”
This is no different than what occurs today as gullible crowds of museum goers are taken in by transconstructions made by artificers who falsify nature and blend dissimilar bodies into one as in the mythical ape-men (or, is it non-gender-specific personages of apeish descent?). Children who, from their very first books, movie and pseudo-science classes are taught what to think but not how to think; are trotted to museums to view transconstructions in which they believe in blind faith or, actually not blind as they can see the transconstructions so it must be true. Truly, the artist is the paleontologists best friend.
As can be seen in the attached slideshow The Centaur Excavation is the creation of zoology professor and artist William Willers who combined the upper half of a deteriorating human skeleton and a pony. It was thought experiment which, both, hearkens back to the ancient days and modern days of transconstructions:
“Willers’ intention was to present the mythical creature ‘at a level of realism that would allow a viewer to ‘believe,’ at least momentarily, in Centaurs.’ The physical evidence of a skeleton ‘elevates a mythical creature to an unprecedented level of reality in the mind of the viewer.’ ‘Whenever a person sees a skeleton,’ Willers notes, ‘a fleshing-out process occurs.’ ‘Fleeting images of the creature in the living condition pass before our eyes.’ Our imagination superimposes muscles, skin, and a face, and visualizes the creature in motion for an instant.”
Very well put indeed and now you know why museums spend so much money transconstructing visible images of that for which the evolutionary theories call.
As indicative of how we mirror the ancients; Mayor notes:
“the Roman emperor Hadrian came to pay homage to Ajax’s relics…Hadrian ‘embraces and kissed the bones and laid them out,’ apparently in the configuration of a man of about 15 feet tall.”
Oh my, that is so very quaint as it dates from way back when Hadrian was emperor which was 117-138 AD.
Well, the Taung fossil was found in 1924 AD:
“‘When [Robert] Broom came into the room he walked straight past me, straight past some of my staff who were with me and immediately dropped to his knees in front of the Taung fossil,’ recalls [Raymond] Dart. ‘Broom said it was ‘in adoration of our ancestors.’ It was a remarkable occasion. I was very surprised.’”
The First Fossil Hunters also references:
“The group of eminent paleontologists who planned a memorial service to mourn the extinction of the mammoth, at the Hot Springs Mammoth Site in South Dakota (June 1999), strove to ‘evoke the Pleistocene'’ and its vanished behemoths.”
She also gets into just how certain dots were not connected such as that “errors about ancient experiences with fossils recur in paleontological histories” with, as one example, the Empedocles myth about which Mayor notes, “So how did this fake fact arise? With the help of other historians who had also been duped by the myth.”
Mayor also notes that circa 1 AD, Ovid noted that a model of giant was constructed from a (one, single) tooth. Fast forwards some 1,921 years and we find that as commissioned by anatomist Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, the Illustrated London Times of 1922 AD transconstructed Nebraska Man / Hesperopithecus Haroldcookii (and Nebraska woman along with a landscape upon which they traipsed) from a (one, single) tooth from what turned out to be an extinct pig.
Well, not only are there errors and duped historians but also hoaxes:
“paleontological hoaxes originated in the Roman era as a response to the tension between popular and scientific beliefs. Today the gulf between popular superstition and scientific knowledge seems unbridgeable, and scientists often bemoan their failure to communicate their own excitement in the enterprise of separating truth from specious fiction…when we compare ancient paleontological ‘fictions’ to some startlingly similar modern examples, it becomes clear that creative scientific curiosity and the exercise of the mythic imagination are more closely related than one might suppose…The tasks of paleontologists and classical historians and archaeologists are remarkably similar-to excavate, decipher, and bring to life the tantalizing remnants of a time we will never see.”
This is very telling on various levels; yet, the fact remains that being, as they are, influenced by schools of thought, favored theories and worldviews, today scientists are fully engaged in correlating truth and specious fiction. This is how we end up with transconstructions and crypto-zoological mythological creatures such as the common ancestor which is believe upon by faith in a theory. Our mythic imagination is more active than ever as we have more fossils than ever and fight battles of worldviews.
This is that to which The First Fossil Hunters refers as what “Some innovative scientists dare to” do which is to “approach the vanishing point between myth and science, with results that verge on the mythical hybrid monsters of the ancients.”
“The most notorious modern paleontological hoax, Piltdown Man, was perpetrated by persons unknown in 1912 and not exposed until 1953. To fool British paleontologists eager to find a ‘missing link’ in England, the conspirators created a cunning composite of human and ape skulls, stained it dark brown to resemble a fossil ape-man, and planted it in a bone bed. Pseudoscientific exhibits of human-animal wonders much like the ancient Triton of Tanagra have long been staples of sideshow attractions.”
This may, arguably, be the most notorious but, of course, these sorts of hoaxes (by any other name) are ongoing. Often the manner whereby they are perpetrated is not by the concoction of an actual hoax but by the finding of a skeleton (or a few bones), the interpretation of the find as being the missing link, common ancestor, etc., this is followed by much media and popular science fanfare (news reports, documentaries, etc.) and finally, some months later; much more quiet and less voluminous news reports affirms that the latest bit of evidence of evolution from ape to human was just an extinct ape. The fanfare promulgates the modern myth and the follow up remains virtually unknown. The average person will watch the fanfare news but will not follow up on the report.
Adrienne Mayor wrote:
“monsters as the remains of Ice Age rhinoceroses and mammoths…Consider our name for Dinosauria (‘terrible lizards’). Even though we now know that the name conjures up an outdated vision of all dinosaurs as ‘coldblooded, sluggish, [and] dim-witted,’ we go on calling them dinosaurs…paleontologist Jack Horner points out that…That name shaped the ‘search image’ of paleontologists, leading them to ‘overlook, misinterpret, or dismiss’ any evidence that contradicted their image of dinosaurs as cold-blooded lizards…the ‘search image’ [is] the conscious or unconscious scanning of evidence to concentrate on specific patterns or constellations of features…Narrow search images can help refine scientific research, but they can also lead investigators to ignore potentially significant information.”
Search images change but the employment of search images does not. Thus, we do the very same thing when, for example, we find a three foot tall extinct ape and transconstruct it to appear like an upright walking ape-man.
The First Fossil Hunters notes that Jack Horner references the “‘earliest encounter on record’ between humans and dinosaur remains,” notes that the Griffin represented “fanciful hybrid of avian and mammalian features” and that the nomads “could only guess at the origin of the unfamiliar animal, its relationship to other creatures, its current whereabouts.” Yet, “their imagination and careful observations resulted in a model that ‘more closely resembles’ the actual ‘proroceraropsian skeletons of the Gobi’ than do many nineteenth- and twentieth –century attempts to reconstruct dinosaurs.”
As to why this is, Horner concludes that the nomadic “‘conceptual toolbox’ was unencumbered by a rigid Linnaean-style system [which dates to the 1750s AD] of categories of genus, species, and so on’”:
“For powerful psychological and evolutionary reasons, we scan the world for ‘what matters most,’ namely, ‘humanlike models’…the ancients would have been predisposed to perceive oversize mammal bones as belonging to highly organized creatures like themselves….our anthropomorphizing drive creates illusions even as it ensures our survival…this ‘driving passion to unearth our own evolutionary roots’ hominid fever.”
“Jack Horner, ‘and we'll always want to fill in the missing pieces. Because we can’t help it.’ In order to create a dramatic vision of the lives of long-extinct creatures, we ‘develop fictional accounts of those lives.’ And in the process, the ‘interplay between fact and imagination never cease[s]’…The ancient fascination with relics is mirrored in modern paleontology. Each and every bone that extinct creatures left behind…is lovingly treasured, measured, enshrined in museums. The ancient nostalgia tor the lost world of mythical creatures finds an echo in paleontologists.”
A good example of this is Gigantoraptor illustrations of which show a feathered dinosaur, however:
“Gigantoraptor had long arms, bird-like legs, a toothless jaw, and probably a beak. There are no clear signs as to whether it was feathered. However, judging from its close affinity to other dinosaurs known to have been feathered, Xing Xu of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing speculates that it was.” (emphasis added) 
Consider that there were ancient, styled, museums:
“As emperor, Augustus (63 B.C.-A.D. 14) established the world’s first paleontological museum at his villa on the island of Capri. According to his biographer Suetonius, it housed ‘a collection of the huge limb bones of immense monsters of land and sea popularly known as giants' bones, along with the weapons of ancient heroes.’
This offhand statement is an important milestone in paleontology, because it shows that Suetonius, writing in the early second century A.D., was aware of the animal origin of the prodigious remains conventionally ascribed to humanoid giants.”
We also learn:
“The early Christian father Clement of Alexandria, in his Exhortation to the Greeks (ca. A.D. 190), railed against the pagan worship of Pelops’s shoulder blade, even as he recounted its fantastic history.”
There are two specific points whereby Mayor interacts with the Bible; creation of fully formed organisms and the Great Worldwide Flood, the Deluge. She writes that in the “eighteenth-century scientists perceived an undeniable crisis of anomalies, as riddling skeletons emerged around the world in such sheer numbers and varieties as to overwhelm the biblical Genesis and Flood paradigms.” But why should anomalous riddling skeletons overwhelm the biblical Genesis and Flood paradigms?
Consider that as she mentions:
“The classical myth of Deucalion's Flood describes extinction by catastrophe. Unlike the biblical Flood myth in which a breeding pair of every species created by God was saved from extinction in Noah's Ark, the Greco-Roman tradition described a deluge that wiped out all animals and ushered in an epoch of new fauna. In the classical myth, earth’s life-forms passed through several ages.”
The answer as to how, as posed above, is that she seems to be exclusively functioning off of a mid 17th century AD understanding of Genesis and Flood paradigms. It is simply not a fact that “in the Bible a breeding pair of every species” were “saved from extinction in Noah's Ark.” Firstly, there a dozens of definitions of what is a specie. The Bible employs the term kind which basically are animals that can reproduce with each other. Another way to look at it is that Coyotes and Chihuahuas may be difference species but they are the same, canine, kinds. Thus, species were not brought into the Ark, kinds were and so every single species of dog did not have to be brought into the ark as only one pair of the kind was needed.
Moreover, a “pair of every” what-have-you was not brought on the Ark rather, “You shall take with you of every clean animal by sevens, a male and his female; and of the animals that are not clean two, a male and his female” (Genesis 57:2).
As per the biblical Flood “myth” the reason that there are old world and new world epochs of fauna is that, for example, large dinosaurs were not brought into the Ark but their kind was represented by the average sized dinosaur which were the size of sheep or Noah could have brought babies on board (in either case, they eventually died off probably due to the change in the environment and atmosphere).
To the specific point about the creation of animals, Adrienne Mayor writes:
“from the Middle Ages until Darwin, science was dominated by the biblical doctrine of creationism, which holds that the world's species were created all at once by God and have never changed or gone extinct. It still finds adherents. Modem ‘creation scientists’ hold that only an ‘intelligent design’ can plausibly explain the complexity of earth's origin and biology, and that evolution itself is a new ‘creation myth’ devised by the ‘scientific elite.’”
Again, the Bible does not deal in species (whatever that is) but in kinds. While the world’s kinds were created all at once by God it is false that they “never changed or gone extinct.” The problem here is that one must keep in mind that she is referring to a version of the mid 17th century AD view. Since she does not elucidate the actual biblical view one may erroneously conclude that the mid 17th century is where it all ended and no more work has been done. The biblical view is verified by the fact that while we have evidence of micro-“evolution,” that a kind can experience a certain amount of change over time, we have no evidence of macro-“evolution,” that one animal kind can change into a different kind.
Moreover, the Bible does not hold that kinds never go extinct. In fact, Job is the oldest book in the Bible (dated to circa 4,000 BC) and was written before the Flood which took place circa 2269 BC. Job references Leviathan in 3:7-9 and 41:1-3 as a real, living, animal complete with descriptions of its skin, teeth, etc. However, in texts written after the Flood references to Leviathan are clearly symbolic (see Psalm 74:13-15, 104:25-27 and Isaiah 27:1-3). In other words; pre-Flood there is a living animal which no longer lives post-Flood and thus, has gone extinct.
The only attempt that Mayor seems to make to interact with creation science from any time after the mid 17th century AD is as follows:
“It still finds adherents. Modem ‘creation scientists’ hold that only an ‘intelligent design’ can plausibly explain the complexity of earth's origin and biology, and that evolution itself is a new ‘creation myth’ devised by the ‘scientific elite.’”
“It” still finds adherents? But what is “It”? She is implying that “Modem ‘creation scientists’” still believe that “species…have never changed or gone extinct” but this is simply not true. As for evolution being “a new ‘creation myth’ devised by the ‘scientific elite’”; it was the (very anti-creation science) agnostic Stephen Jay Gould (the late teacher of biology, geology and history of science at Harvard University) who wrote:
“The myth of a separate mode based on rigorous objectivity and arcane, largely mathematical knowledge, vouchsafed only to the initiated, may provide some immediate benefits in bamboozling a public to regard us as a new priesthood, but must ultimately prove harmful in erecting barriers to truly friendly understanding and in falsely persuading so many students that science lies beyond their capabilities...the myth of an arcane and enlightened priesthood of scientists.”
Indeed, biology is a science but evolution is a philosophy, is thus based on a “faith” based worldview and therefore is a creation myth. In fact, The First Fossil Hunters also notes the following of “courage, illogical beliefs and deliberate hoaxes”:
“The increasing frequency of relict monster hoaxes and sightings in the later Roman Empire may reflect rising tensions between philosophical skeptics and popular assumptions regarding the existence and extinction of mythical creatures…for whatever reason, the philosophers opted out of the ‘unknowable’ problem of giant bones. But inquiry proceeded without them, resulting in natural knowledge based in experience and expressed in geomyths. The myths were not a formal theory in the modern sense, of course, but as paleontologist Niles Eldredge observes, neither is the modern theory of evolution a ‘fact.’ Like the mythical paradigm, our own modern paradigm is ‘an idea-a picture’ that allows us to explain observed facts.” (emphasis added)
Mayor also notes:
“Aristotle’s ‘theistic’ view does seem to preclude mutability of species. But the idea of divinely created, unchanging species became dogma only after Christian theologians took it up in the Middle Ages.”
This is not surprising because Aristotle highly influenced Augustine who subsequently highly influenced the Catholicism which subsequently highly influenced the Christianity of the Middle Ages. Yet, the point remains; if Mayor wants to mentions these issues at all, she needs to do a lot more work and provide accurate representations.
She also asks, and answers, a very interesting question:
“Why, armed with this popular knowledge and experience of fossils, and building on the frameworks provided by Anaximander, Xenophanes, Empedocles, and even Plato, did no ancient philosopher ask the right questions about Aristotle’s ascending scale of zoology, to develop a ‘truly dynamic’ idea of evolution some two millennia before Darwin?
[Colin] Ronan [historian of scientific ideas] blames the ‘static belief in fixity of species and the mistaken notion that they were all created at once’ for stifling ancient paleontological thought. But as this chapter shows, fixity of species and onetime creation were not monolithic notions in either Greco-Roman myth or philosophy. Even Plato, for example, suggested that environmental forces caused life-forms to change over time. Humankind ‘existed for an incalculably long time from its origin,’ wrote Plato, ‘and various changes in climate have probably stimulated a vast number of natural changes in living beings.’”
“It was a commonplace in the classical era that all living things were progressively diminishing over generations….Since the era of giant beings, Phlegon explains, all life-forms have waned over successive generations. The dimensions of the bones at Nitria are ‘sure proof that nature is running down.’ The notion that animals and humans became progressively smaller over the ages was a commonplace in antiquity.”
I like to term this the Theory of Devolution and this is the biblical theory as well; fully formed created kinds which reproduce with variation after their own kinds and suffer entropy along the way.
The “geologic column” (which some say is only found within illustrated textbooks) is supposed to be a layer by layer natural history of organism’s evolving, changing from species to species and getting better and better. However, this is the result of hydro-sorting (water’s natural ability to sort things of similar weight, size, etc.) and when we consider that, for example, trilobites had compound eyes we can see that there was nothing primitive, early or simple about their eyes.
While we are on hydro-sorting, we might as well touch upon the very process of fossilization:
“The metamorphosis of bones into solid stone was a process of interest to the natural philosophers of Aristotle's school. They correctly suspected that infiltration of water and dissolved minerals played some role. By the fourth century B.C. it was common knowledge that mineral-laden hot springs coated things, including bones, with a hard film and then petrified them.”
This is an interesting point as the fact is that fossilization is not about time (millions and millions of years) but about circumstance; being rapidly covered, as in a flood, and having the organism worked upon by minerals, etc.
In actuality, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution really consists of very ancient concepts tied together view a worldview-philosophy, as Mayor notes:
“Anaximander of Miletus (circa 611-547 BC) asserted that ‘the sun’s heat interacted with the primal ooze to generate sea creatures. Some of these progressed to a sort of ‘chrysalis’ stage from which the first primitive humans emerged onto dry land…Should Anaximander be called the first evolutionist? Scholars disagree, but his ambiguous scenario does suggest that humans originated from or within a biologically different species that no longer exists, and that humans survived by adapting to a new environment….
Lucretius, an Epicurean philosopher writing in Rome in the first century B.C., refined Empedocles' theory of extinct monsters. In On the Nature of Things, Lucretius provided the clearest expression of extinction and ‘survival of the fittest’ in ancient literature.”
Well, Darwin virtually plagiarized Anaximander when he wrote:
“It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are present, which could ever have been present. But if (and Oh! what a big if!) we could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc., present, that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.”
On various levels this book is a fascinating and informative read and for that reason it has appealed to many fields of research from history to literature, from paleontology to biology and many more.
 Roger Lewin, Bones of Contention (New York, NY: A Touchstone Book published by Simon & Schuster Inc., 1987), p. 78
 David Cyranoski, “Giant bird-like dinosaur found - Chinese researchers unearth a surprising find,” Nature News, June 13, 2007 AD; republished by BioEd Online - Biology Teacher Resources from Baylor College of Medicine
 Stephen Jay Gould, “In the Mind of the Beholder,” Natural History, 103(2): 14, Feb. 1994, pp. 14-16
 Darwin’s 1871 AD letter to Joseph Hooker