for National Geographic News
Ever wonder where our worst nightmares come from?
For the ancient Greeks, it may have been the fossils of giant prehistoric animals.
The tusk, several teeth, and some bones of a Deinotherium giganteum, which, loosely translated means really huge terrible beast, have been found on the Greek island Crete. A distant relative to today's elephants, the giant mammal stood 15 feet (4.6 meters) tall at the shoulder, and had tusks that were 4.5 feet (1.3 meters) long. It was one of the largest mammals ever to walk the face of the Earth.
"This is the first finding in Crete and the south Aegean in general," said Charalampos Fassoulas, a geologist with the University of Crete's Natural History Museum. "It is also the first time that we found a whole tusk of the animal in Greece. We haven't dated the fossils yet, but the sediment where we found them is of 8 to 9 million years in age."
Skulls of Deinotherium giganteum found at other sites show it to be more primitive, and the bulk a lot more vast, than today's elephant, with an extremely large nasal opening in the center of the skull.
To paleontologists today, the large hole in the center of the skull suggests a pronounced trunk. To the ancient Greeks, Deinotherium skulls could well be the foundation for their tales of the fearsome one-eyed Cyclops.
Explaining the Natural World
In her book The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, Adrienne Mayor argues that the Greeks and Romans used fossil evidencethe enormous bones of long-extinct speciesto support existing myths and to create new ones.
"The idea that mythology explains the natural world is an old idea," said Thomas Strasser, an archaeologist at California State University, Sacramento, who has done extensive work in Crete. "You'll never be able to test the idea in a scientific fashion, but the ancient Greeks were farmers and would certainly come across fossil bones like this and try to explain them. With no concept of evolution, it makes sense that they would reconstruct them in their minds as giants, monsters, sphinxes, and so on," he said.
Homer, in his epic tale of the trials and tribulations of Odysseus during his 10-year return trip from Troy to his homeland, tells of the traveler's encounter with the cyclops. In the The Odyssey, he describes the Cyclops as a band of giant, one-eyed, man-eating shepherds. They lived on an island that Odysseus and some of his men visited in search of supplies. They were captured by one of the Cyclops, who ate several of the men. Only brains and bravery saved all of them from becoming dinner. The captured travelers were able to get the monster drunk, blind him, and escape.
A second myth holds that the Cyclops are the sons of Gaia (earth) and Uranus (sky). The three brothers became the blacksmiths of the Olympian gods, creating Zeus' thunderbolts, Poseidon's trident.
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