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Ancient Interpretations

Greece and Rome | China | Americas

Greece and Rome
Depending on the source, the level of understanding of these powerful ancient societies of what fossils actually were varies. Early speculation by Greek philosophers suggested fossils may have grown spontaneously in rocks, like crystals. Some modern authors suggest that the ancient giants and heroes that occur throughout mythology, as well as many mythical creatures, were actually based on fossils remains.

Adrienne Mayor, for example, in her book The First Fossil Hunters; Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, goes as far to lay out the entire myth of the griffin, a legendary creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, suggesting that the folklore originated as a result of the discovery of Protoceratops' fossils. She even documents a 5th-century B.C. "bone-rush" to collect and display these remains, not dissimilar to the "bone-rush" of the 1830s, when European palaeontologists swarmed over the same Greek sites to collect the same megafaunal remains.

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China
China has a rich fossil heritage,and it was still the assumption until relatively recently, that these remains were the bones of dragons, a powerful symbol in Chinese culture. The bones had a high economic value, and were much sought after by apothecaries, that ground the fossils into powders for use in traditional medicines and potions, believed to bring good luck.

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Americas
North America is famous for its fossils today, and there can be no surprise that there were numerous ancient interpretations made by the native people. The author Adrienne Mayor, documents some of the fossil folklore from that part of the world. Quotes below from Adrienne Mayor's book Fossil Legends of the First Americans:
  • In 1762, John Wright of Kentucky talked with several Shawnee about big skeletons found along the Ohio River. The Shawnee said the bones belonged to an immense animal, the " grandfather of all buffalo," and that they had been hunted by "great men" of the distant past. But after all those supermen died out, the Great Spirit destroyed the enormous animals with lightning so that they wouldn't harm smaller men of the present day.

  • The Delaware elders told Thomas Jefferson a similar story, only they claimed that the gigantic animals were driving away smaller game, like deer and bear. This angered their god, who blasted the massive animals with lightning bolts. Only their petrified remains could be seen today, although it was possible that some had escaped to the far north.

  • When Hernando Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Yucatan, Mexico, in 1519, chiefs of Tlascala in the Aztec Kingdom showed them gigantic bones. One of Cortes' men, Bernal Diaz, recorded the words of the elders. "They said that their ancestors had told them that the bones belonged to giant men and women who had once dwelled in Yucatan. These giants were evil with wicked habits and the ancestors had to fight and overcome them before settling in Tlascala. Any of the giants that remained all died out." Bernal Diaz measured himself next to one of the giant femurs: "To show us how big these giants had been the chiefs brought out a leg-bone, which was very thick. I stood next to it and it was as tall as I am and I am of reasonable height. They showed us other big bones, mostly rotten and eaten away by the soil." Diaz writes "We were all astonished by the sight of these bones and were certain that there must have once been giants in this land."

  • "At one time in history, the Great Water Spirits, the Unktehi, were trying to defeat the Lightning and Thunder Spirits. The Thunder Beings decided to combine their powers to defeat the Unktehi, their enemies. The fiery bolts consumed the forest and the plains. The waters where the Unktehi lived boiled and then dried up. All the Unktehi, big and small, burned and died, leaving only their dried bones in the Badlands, where the bones turned to rocks." -traditional Lakota Sioux interpretation of fossils, Journey Museum, Rapid City, South Dakota, written by Birgil Kills Straight (Pine Ridge Reservation) and Ronnie Theisz (Black Hills State University, Spearfish).

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