A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In the ancient imagination, heroes of the remote past would have towered over puny, present-day humans. The second-century A.D. Greek geographer Pausanias described the buzz of excitement that surrounded the supposed discovery of the bones of the great Greek champion Ajax, who fought in the Trojan War. According to the Iliad, Ajax's grave was at Rhoeteum, where the Greek ships had landed to attack Troy. When bones of heroic dimensions suddenly appeared there, people took them to be the remains of Ajax. An eyewitness explained to Pausanias how the sea had washed out the beach, revealing a jumble of big bones. "Ajax's kneecaps were exactly the size of a discus for the boy's pentathlon," wrote Pausanias. A boys discus was about five or six inches across. Kneecaps big enough to be worthy of the hero Ajax would most likely belong to a Miocene era (ca. 8 million years ago) mastodon or rhinoceros; the remains of both animals have been found in the region around Rhoeteum.
Ancient accounts of the bones of heroes like Ajax, as well as giants and monsters from the remote past, can be explained by the presence of the fossil remains of mastodons, mammoths, giant giraffes, rhinoceroses, cave bears and other large animals found in the eastern Mediterranean region. Not suprisingly, modern paleontology demonstrates that
prehistoric fossils exist in the very places where myths about giant beings first arose. As the Greek author Philostratus (ca. A.D. 218) remarked, it was logical to accept that "giants once existed, because their awesome remains could be seen all around the world."
Adrienne Mayor is a classical folklorist specializing in legends about natural history. This article is based on her forthcoming book, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton University Press).