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

4.08 of 5 stars 4.08  ·  rating details  ·  157 ratings  ·  28 reviews
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 a ...more
ebook, 400 pages
Published March 7th 2011 by Walter de Gruyter (first published 2000)
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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 agricultur ...more
Cheryl Brandt
I have finished the book itself and am working my way through the Appendices and footnotes. This book is very dense - it has only 5 chapters, and the rest of the book is taken up by appendices and footnotes - but it has been not only enjoyable but enlightening. I'm finding the footnotes almost as interesting as the text itself was.

I first read something about the linkage between fossils and folklore/mythology many years ago, and never saw anything further about it - but it always made sense to m
James F
As recently as thirty years ago, it was generally accepted that, while the ancients knew of small marine fossils (shells, etc.) and reasoned from them that land areas had once been undersea, they essentially ignored large vertebrate fossils. This seems unreasonable, and work by the author and others has shown that in fact they were familiar with such fossils, collected and exhibited them, and incorporated them into their mythical history as giants and other monsters.

The first chapter traces the
Aug 24, 2008 Jennn rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people interested in: Greek myth, history, paleontology, ancient paleontology
Shelves: non-fic, favs
I love this book. I do, absolutely.

She breaks down Greek myths into scientific explanations involved in paleontology (e.g. the griffin as Gobi desert fossils of the protoceratops). Very well researched and incredibly fascinating.

Also, she replied to my feedback email, granting me some further incite in her studies and her personality.
Beth Bruner
Sometimes repetative, but fascinating and well-documented. A good merging of scientific and historical disciplines into a very interesting set of theories.
The basic premise of this book is fascinating.
Katie L
I'm going to be real, I didn't read every single word in this book, but I read most of the chapters from start to finish (honestly there's a lot of repetition in this book, which I understand from a scholarly standpoint, but isn't necessarily such a great read) and loved it! As someone who loves history, mythology and unexplained ancient mysteries this book was a real eye opener.
The gryphon was an ancient Greek mythological creature associated with the Scythians, a beaked birdlike animal that guarded gold. Suppose, says Mayor, that they really were fossil dinosaurs of the Gobi desert, which were noticed by Scythian gold miners? I think these speculations, and other speculations like this in the book, are untrue; the gryphons depicted in Greek art or in Scythian tattoos do not look at all like dinosaurs. I was always sure that Hephaestus bound Prometheus to a rock in the ...more
Douglas Summers-Stay
This is about what the ancient Greeks did when they discovered dinosaur and mammoth skeletons. Apparently, they interpreted them as belonging to ancient monsters and heroes, enshrining them in their temples. There's a little too much speculation for the amount of evidence in the book, but some of the finds are really spectacular, such as the image on the cover of a vase painted with a dinosaur skull coming out of a cliff face and being shot at by heroes. Other ideas she brings up are mammoth ske ...more
Robin Rivers
Brilliant and provocative look at the historical details surrounding classical literature, paleontology and archeology to dissect the myth of the griffin.

I enjoyed this more as a research book than anything, discovering new paths for researching my own work and learning about the life of the intrepid Adrienne Mayor.

Well-written, assertions well-backed by documentation which in the end led to a rare, fascinating combination of ancient stories and science.

Shel Schipper
This book was researched and written in the late 20th century and based on a radical idea; that the pre-historic fossil record and ancient greek and roman mythology were somehow related. When it was first published in 2000, geo-mythology, the science of recovering ancient folk traditions about complex natural processes and/or extraordinary events was an emerging discipline. Ancient legends about cyclops, griffins, and other monsters were ways the ancients explained prehistoric fossil and bone fi ...more
Did the griffins, cyclopes, giants and titans of Greek and Roman mythology actually exist? Perhaps, but not as we think. Adrienne Mayor takes us on a fascinating exploration of ancient treasures and sometimes obscure writings to argue that these and other creatures were in fact based on fossil sighting. The First Fossil Hunters is an extremely well-researched book that challenges many ideas we hold today. Mayor's work combines centuries of literature, drawings, maps, photos, and current research ...more
Thomas Harlan
Good overview of what the ancients discovered and related about fossil remains in Greek, Roman and Egyptian times. There are some good insights - particularly where mythological "monsters" can be traced back to actual fossil remains.

The other key takeaway is the analysis of what the ancient philosophers were able to figure out or NOT figure out based on the fossil evidence and having, or not having, some key piece of data like - how old IS the world? How old are these bones?

Without knowing that
I would love to see this book assigned for an introduction to physical anthropology class! What a fun way to learn about how paleontological remains tie in to our --here and now-- world of storytelling. Readers may walk away with a belief that myth and reality are not separable. Understanding how the two are woven together--which this book clearly demonstrates--only shows that throughout time humans have innovated ways to make sense of their world in the 'best' way that they can, given what know ...more
The Tick
I wound up liking the idea of this book a lot more than the book itself. The author assumes a lot of knowledge about both history and paleontology, and while I didn't have problems with the history part (which was why I read it in the first place, so it may have been my mistake) I did get frustrated with some of the more detailed science-y bits and I wish she'd included a little bit more explanation in places rather than assuming everyone who read it was intimately familiar with the world of pal ...more
This book had a great premise: How ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the fossils they found. And there is some really fascinating stuff in the book. If the author could have stopped mentioning every page how she thought of all this, and everyone thought she was an idiot, but look she was actually right, nanner-nanner-nanner it would have been great. As it was, you had to stomach the authorial gloating to get to the good stuff, and sometimes that was asking too much.
Interesting theory. Would like to see a similar work about the Medieval period. (Author had a clear bias against the Medieval period. Given the subject of the work, and the fact that I've read similar account in Medieval sources, I find this bias surprising).

While I find investigation intriguing, I also noticed that there was a part of me that was just wanted her to leave my griffins, giants and tritons alone.
I think the concept and the ideas are good, but it felt a little repetitive (especially the figures). It also felt like it was lacking slightly (but only slightly!) in both the quality of writing and the various examples. Idk, maybe I'll look at it again later and change my mind.
Dave Stark
One of the most interesting books I've ever read in my research. Mayor argues that the discovery ofdinosaur and other fossilized bones may explain the ancients' beliefs in mythical creatures such as gryphons and even in their belief that giants had once roamed the earth.
A well researched and surprisingly entertaining book. It explores how science and myth met and clashed in the ancient past. It examines how dinosaurs became griffins, how mammoths became heroes, and how the bones of old can become something new.
Olivia Waite
Great theory, strong evidence, but the prose was mind-bendingly dull. Skipping the notes helped some, but it was still a harder push to get through this than it was to get through Moby-Dick. Use for reference, not for reading pleasure.
Interesting research - at least the part linking griffin legends to a central Asian dinosaur. Too bad the author can't write. Or sketch. Or type a sentence without an exclamation mark at the end!
Jacquie Knight
It was a bit hard for me to get through and took me a loooong time. (I'm a little slow like that) but it was so clear and obvious.
Glen Cram
Fascinating study of how early discoveries of fossilized skeletons affected mythology in the ancient world.
Mary Kyle
Great research! Good book. Highly recommended, Wish it was on Audible for my daughter and husband.
Very interesting, especially in regards to interpreting some of the Greco-Roman mythology.
Mark Flowers
Not always clearly written, but it gets 5 stars for the amazing research.
Thomas Salerno
Thomas Salerno marked it as to-read
Mar 24, 2015
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