Mayor's research suggests myths and legends about giants and monsters served ancient people as a way to remember and explain the bones that the people undoubtedly encountered in their daily lives.
A visit to a fossil museum in the village of Mytilini on the Greek island of Samos inspired Mayor to develop her theory on the connections between myths, legends, and fossils. There, she saw freshly dug-up limb bones from an extinct creature, still encrusted with dirt.
"Of course people must have come across these fossils as they were plowing up their fields in antiquity. It's not something they would ignore. Such huge bones demand an explanation," Mayor said.
Mayor went digging through classical Greek and Latin texts and crisscrossed the Mediterranean for evidence to support her theory. The result, 15 years later, was her book The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, published in 2000.
Guardians of Gold
Among the mythological creatures Mayor connects with fossil inspiration is the griffin, a beast with the body of a lion and the beak and claws of an eagle. According to mythology, griffins lived in the arid Asian region known as the Gobi and were guardians of gold.
Mayor researched paleontological finds in the Gobi and discovered that some of the most abundant fossils there belong to Protocerotops, a beaked dinosaur. She suggests that legends of griffins were inspired by Protocerotops bones that nomads encountered while prospecting for gold.
"It's one of the most convincing cases. We can't prove it, but everything seems to come together in a coherent way," she said.
The same forces of erosion that exposed gold in the hills of the Gobi would also have exposed the fossils. To get gold from the fields, the nomads would have had to pass through territory that was "guarded" by the fossils, Mayor said.
Dodson, the University of Pennsylvania vertebrate paleontologist, added that in the Gobi, the Protocerotops skeletons are unusually white and show up well against the red sandstone cliffs. Protocerotops fossils would have been nearly impossible to miss.
"To me, it just adds up," he said.
Mayor is careful to say that not all myths were inspired by fossils. And she does not intend to reduce any myth to just fossils. To her, only stories that directly refer to physical remains, such as bones and footprints, qualify as fossil legends.
Her studious approach has earned her the respect of the academic community. Many academics, Mayor said, are fascinated by the evidence that ancient cultures paid attention to fossils and attempted to explain them in a rational manner.
Dodson said that he is uncertain how much Mayor's work has affected the academic community. But he said Mayor is probably opening up minds to the historical context of fossils.
"I've very much appreciated what she's done, but I can't say I've followed up on it myself, other than having chosen an Indian name for a dinosaur I discovered last year [in Montana], Suuwassea emilieae, which means 'ancient thunder' in the Crow Indian language," he said.
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