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Airdate: Apr 10, 2001
Scientist: Adrienne Mayor

Fossils & Myths: Ancient Paleontology

Fossils & Myths: Ancient Paleontology
There is a new theory that thousands of years ago, the Greeks were analyzing remains of ancient animals, and creating myths about them.

Transcript:
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The study of fossils, supposedly began with the work of a French naturalist in the early 1800's. But there's a new theory that thousands of years ago, the Greeks were already analyzing remains of ancient animals, and reaching conclusions of mythic proportions. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet.

"In ancient Greek myth, the world before humans was populated by giants and monsters of all sorts. The Greeks came across the fossils of extinct animals, and they knew that such creatures didn't exist any longer so they made up myths to explain them."

Well, that's the somewhat revolutionary theory of Adrienne Mayor, author of The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Her book disputes the conventional wisdom that ancient people did not recognize fossils as the remains of living creatures. She points to many mythical beasts which may have been inspired by the discovery of old bones. For example, the Caledonian boar in one myth was described as having enormous tusks, very much like those of the extinct woolly mammoth.

"For the ancient Greeks, who had no idea of elephants until the fourth century B.C., when they found tusks of enormous and unfamiliar size, the only animal they knew of with tusks was a boar. So it was logical for them to imagine and create a myth of a gigantic boar that ravaged the land. Without reducing the body of Homeric myth to fossil legends, I think it's fascinating and interesting to tease out those portions of the myth that were actually based on scientific or historical reality."

To hear about our new CD, please visit pulseplanet.com. Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.

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