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Book Review: The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, And Myth In Greek And Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor

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Sometimes a book can have a good germ of an idea, and be bloated WAY beyond all reasonable measure, based upon a) the good intent of the author, b) the ego of the author, or c) both a and b. Such is the case with Adrienne Mayor’s 2011 reisssue of her 2000 book The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, And Myth In Greek And Roman Times, which is a 253-page book of text, supplemented with 108 pages of appendices and notes which has to be some kind of a record ratio for supplements to actual material in a book that, technically, is neither a history nor science book.

In fact, given the many illustrations in the book, it’s likely that for every two pages of text there is a page of textual annotation. That is simply crazy, and bespeaks an author with too big an ego conjoined with too little output. But, the notes at the book’s end are easily ignored; something which cannot be done with the bulk of the book’s rather one-dimensional and stretched-to-absurdity claims, bolstered by a self-congratulatory tone that begins in the book’s new Introduction for the reissue, wherein Mayor basically lauds herself for “reinventing” a whole new discipline, geomythology.

Need I say this is patent nonsense? Don’t get me wrong, I have no quarrel with the recognition of accomplishment in one’s field; but that has to be earned. Neither the ideas Mayor proposes, nor their subsequent impact in her field, bear this backpatting out.

And, as for the content of the book itself, aside from making obvious points, Mayor is a rather bland prose stylist. Her ideas, while often inspiring a ‘Duh!’ reaction, for stating the obvious, also manage to make one roll one’s eyes when she draws wild conclusions from the barest of facts.

In over four decades of reading books that at least pose as scientific tracts, I can honestly say the last time I reacted to a work with the same amount of incredulity at the author’s willful density over their subject matter was as a child, when I first perused Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots Of The Gods. Now, don’t get me wrong, Mayor’s book is, indeed, grounded in some reality, unlike Von Daniken’s, but it so stretches its basic claims into grotesque knots that one wonders if anyone with any real background in history and mythology actually looked at this work before it was published.

Of course there are some points that hit their targets, but for every bull’s-eye there are five or six misses. In her attempts to be thorough, Mayor accidentally gets repetitive (repeating pointless anecdotes more than once), and the lesser examples she uses undermine her overall thesis that the myths of the past are all based upon some type of reality. People from Von Daniken to Biblical scholars to astrological quacks and valid historians have all fallen under the spell of basically dismissing human imagination and invention, which often falls along similar lines, worldwide because… well, people are people the same all over.

We all love, care for children, want our progeny to do better than we did, feel that there must be some higher ideal or purpose, etc. These very natural human reactions to the real world are what propel myths, not a literal grounding in material fact. Again, this does not dismiss Mayor’s thesis outright, but it shows up the weakness of her overplayed hand, as well as the lack of a good editor who should have trimmed the text and pretensions.

Mayor’s initial thrust is on the mythological griffin, which she contends was based upon misinterpretations of ceratopsian dinosaur bones: Protoceratops, to be specific. She claims that griffins are not like other mythic beasties that were combinations of known animals: sphinxes, minotaurs, centaurs, etc. Yet, she does this even as she acknowledges mythic accounts describing the beast as a half-eagle/half-lion hybrid, in most accounts.

Like many true believers, and even though these descriptions of the beast are the clear majority, Mayor opts for the few legends that claim it was not a hybrid, but a real Asiatic beast. The Protoceratops fossils seem to fit her thesis because the animals were lion-sized (albeit small in the dinosaur world), and they had beaks. Of course, when information runs counter to her claims, like any good dogmatist, Mayor ignores the evidence.

Since Protoceratopses lacked wings, she claimed that the Ancients merely appended wings generically, as they did to Pegasus and other mythic animals. When one tries to account for why griffins are never shown, in the graphics she provides, with the bony frills that defined the ceratopsian lineage, Mayor claims that small or oddly drawn ears are stand-ins for the frills. Again, this is clearly ridiculous and torturous logic.

I could go on in detail over her misconstruals of many other myths — such as he claims that mammoth skeletons were mistaken as the remains of humanoid giants, even as this is patently ridiculous, given that the ancients of the Mediterranean had extensive knowledge of African beasts, like elephants, and would never have mistaken mammoth bones for giant humanoids, but my point is well made.

Then there is Mayor’s actual writing style, which, while solid, in the grammatical sense, is rather generic, and too often laced with the Von Daniken-like tendency to regurge opinion where factual data would do. This is all the more remarkable considering the extensive noting I mentioned, yet which shows how much of that notation and referencing is superfluous. I earlier mentioned that Mayor is not all to blame; the editorial staff at Princeton University Press is also to blame, not only for Mayor’s self-indulgent prose, but even more markedly for how poorly wrought the physical layout of the text is in tandem with the illustrations and maps.

Often, these illustrations and maps are several pages away from the relevant text. Also, the maps, made by a relative of Mayor’s, are atrocious. They often try to pinpoint that the source of certain legends occur near known fossil beds, and Mayor gives little evidence for this as the physical genesis of the legends, and her ‘Aha!’ moments, where she sees geographic overlap, remind me greatly of the classic Starmap from the modern myth of the first widely reported UFO alien abduction: that of Betty and Barney Hill, in the 1960s, wherein Mrs. Hill, under hypnosis, drew a map she claimed was seen in the UFO, that showed star systems with lines running between them, supposedly indicating interstellar transit routes.

For years many believed this to be “proof” of the Hills’ claims. Yet, astronomer Carl Sagan showed that, while the Hill Starmap did resemble a map one could make of some of the sun’s closest stellar companions, especially if similar transit lines were drawn, the real test would be what the reality of the star positions would be with the lines removed. When done, it’s clear that the Hill Starmap was worthless. Likewise, Mayor’s maps are not exactly Mercator nor Rand McNally in quality, and I suspect that, even if her thesis was more believable, that if the maps and the relative positions of the bones she places as X marks over bone sites and myth birthplaces, were drawn to scale, there would be great distances between the two, as the bones she uses seem to cover 100 miles or more, in her Mediterranean maps, and almost three times the distance in her Southern Asia map. I would have a hard time thinking of another book, in the arts and sciences, as poorly rendered by the editorial staff as this one. And that this work is a reissue, without these edits, is amazing, and not in a positive way.

This is not to say that she does not make good points, such as this, from page 21:

In discussing the history of the word dinosaur, Montana paleontologist Jack Horner points out that the ‘saurian’ misnomer perpetuated ‘unexamined assumptions’ about the image and behavior of dinosaurs. The name shaped the ‘search image’ of paleontologists, leading them to ‘overlook, misinterpret, or dismiss’ any evidence that contradicted the image of dinosaurs as cold-blooded lizards. Horner’s concept of the ‘search image’- the conscious or unconscious scanning of evidence to concentrate on specific patterns or constellations of features- will be a handy one in this book.

The problem is, that despite this cogent observation, Mayor never lets the term be deployed, much less be handy. Hell, even a bit fingery would have been something. Instead, the rest of the book is basically Mayor pointing to dubious factoids that support whatever her claims are, and weeding out, distorting, or simply ignoring obvious evidence to the contrary, such as Griffin wings and Protoceratopsian frills. And for those who think that I am unfairly picking on Mayor, I need only point to Illustration 5.2 in the book, on page 212. It is a simple line drawing with this self-explanatory text of the image:

5.2. Philosopher and a giant bone. If an ancient Greek philosopher ever contemplated the fossil femur of a Miocene Samotherium (giant giraffe of Samos), this sketch shows the relative size of the thigh bone. Drawing by the author.

In short, there is absolutely no point to the drawing nor the text. Words like “if” and “ever” simply do not belong in such a work, but this shows a cheap way for a zealot to try and convince a reader, for they know that images carry more heft than mere words do. While I have no doubt that the human and bone represented are to scale, so what? There certainly is no proof given in the book that any ancient Greek philosopher ever contemplated nor held the particular bones of this ancient giraffe, so why show it? Because Mayor unconsciously knows she has not made her argument stick, so time to “show” the evidence, even if it’s made up. She knows that even the sensory ‘image’ of an “iffy” thing is more powerful than mere speculative prose.

Now, for those who may think I have slandered Mayor in comparing her work to that a noted charlatan, go look at the classic works of Von Daniken, and see how many easily explicable and mundane ancient carvings are given “deep” and sinister’ explanations in the drawing and photos he displays, and see how many times words like “if” and “if ever” are used and laced throughout the text of the book and the illustrations. This is the hallmark of scientific quackery, and any decent editor- whether versed in the sciences or not, should NEVER have allowed this, and numerous other illustrations to appear in the book. Other than to willfully mislead the reader, I can only guess the press felt a need to pad the book out.

Yet, at some level, the good reader senses that Mayor still does not wholly buy her own claims, for, late in the book, she offers up two telling tales. The first is of the hoaxed skeleton of a centaur that made the rounds in the 1980s and 1990s. There really is no reason for its inclusion in this book, save for this line, from Mayor:

As a scientist, Willers (the hoaxer) wanted to provoke people to question what their senses tell them and to treat authoritative texts with skepticism, adding a new twist to the old tension between popular beliefs and official knowledge.

Unfortunately, skepticism is what is wholly devoid from Mayor’s book. The second tale is that of the famed 1980 speculative dinosauroid model constructed by Dale Russell, which was made based on claims that certain small carnivorous dinosaurs may have developed human-like features and abilities had not an asteroid slammed into the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago. Tellingly, mayor grafts the reconstruction into her book, despite it having utterly no bearing on her claims, because it fits her idea of a ‘half-human, half-dinosaur’ hybrid, even though, this is the first claim that this is what the image is representative of.

All other claims have been of it being some sort of “proof” that the fetus-like appearance of the Gray aliens of modern UFO mythos means that they may not be from another planet, but from an alternate universe’s earth, living side by side with us, one reality next to another, where the K-T Impactor never hit the earth. Yet, the very fact that this wholly made-up image can be equally applied to the modern mythos of UFO abductions, as well as retro-fitted to fit Mayor’s thesis that the ancients based their mythologies on paleontological finds, shows convincingly how detached from any objective reality the bulk of Mayor’s hypothesis is, as she fails to see the very patterns of the bad seeds of her imbuements she has sown.

Luckily, I have no such blinders. The First Fossil Hunters is not a good book; not scientifically, not in its prose style, and not in its ability to convince an educated reader of its dubious thesis. If one wants to read egotistical preenings of a pseudoscientist, go back to the Von Daniken works, for they are, for better or worse, attempts at modern mythos that actually succeed in entertaining; yet another aspect Mayor’s book fails at. No ifs nor evers about it.

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