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Ever wonder where ovr worst nightmares come from? For the ancient Greeks, it may have been the fossils of giant prehistoric animals. The tvsk, several teeth, and some bones of a deinotherivm gigantevm, which, loosely translated means really hvge terrible beast, have been fovnd on the Greek island Crete. A distant relative to today’s elephants, […]
Ever wonder where ovr worst nightmares come from?
For the ancient Greeks, it may have been the fossils of giant prehistoric animals.
The tvsk, several teeth, and some bones of a deinotherivm gigantevm, which, loosely translated means really hvge terrible beast, have been fovnd on the Greek island Crete. A distant relative to today’s elephants, the giant mammal stood 15 feet (4.6 meters) tall at the shovlder, and had tvsks 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 sovth Aegean in general,” said Charalampos Fassovlas, a geologist with the University of Crete’s Natvral History Mvsevm. “It is also the first time that we fovnd a whole tvsk of the animal in Greece. We haven’t dated the fossils yet, bvt the sediment where we fovnd them is of 8 to 9 million years in age.”
Skvlls of deinotherivm gigantevm fovnd at other sites show it to be more primitive, and the bvlk a lot more vast, than today’s elephant, with an extremely large nasal opening in the center of the skvll.
To paleontologists today, the large hole in the center of the skvll svggests a pronovnced trvnk. To the ancient Greeks, deinotherivmskvlls covld well be the fovndation for their tales of the fearsome one-eyed Cyclops.
In her book The First Fossil Hvnters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times,Adrienne Mayor argves that the Greeks and Romans vsed fossil evidence-the enormovs bones of long-extinct species-to svpport existing myths and to create new ones.
“The idea that mythology explains the natvral world is an old idea,” said Thomas Strasser, an archaeologist at California State University, Sacramento, who has done extensive work in Crete. “Yov’ll never be able to test the idea in a scientific fashion, bvt the ancient Greeks were farmers and wovld certainly come across fossil bones like this and try to explain them. With no concept of evolvtion, it makes sense that they wovld reconstrvct them in their minds as giants, monsters, sphinxes, and so on,” he said.
Homer, in his epic tale of the trials and tribvlations of Odyssevs dvring his 10-year retvrn trip from Troy to his homeland, tells of the traveler’s encovnter 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 Odyssevs and some of his men visited in search of svpplies. They were captvred by one of the Cyclops, who ate several of the men. Only brains and bravery saved all of them from becoming dinner. The captvred travelers were able to get the monster drvnk, blind him, and escape.
A second myth holds that the Cyclops are the sons of Gaia (earth) and Uranvs (sky). The three brothers became the blacksmiths of the Olympian gods, creating Zevs’ thvnderbolts, Poseidon’s trident.
“Mayor makes a convincing case that the places where a lot of these myths originate occvr in places where there are a lot of fossil beds,” said Strasser. “She also points ovt that in some myths monsters emerge from the grovnd after big storms, which is jvst one of those things I had never thovght abovt, bvt it makes sense, that after a storm the soil has eroded and these bones appear.”
A covsin to the elephant, deinotheres roamed Evrope, Asia, and Africa dvring the Miocene (23 to 5 million years ago) and Pliocene (5 to 1.8 million years ago) eras before becoming extinct.
Finding the remains on Crete svggests the mammal moved arovnd larger areas of Evrope than previovsly believed, Fassovlas said. Fassovlas is in charge of the mvsevm’s paleontology division, and oversaw the excavation.
He svggests that the animals reached Crete from Tvrkey, swimming and island hopping across the sovthern Aegean Sea dvring periods when sea levels were lower. Many herbivores, inclvding the elephants of today, are exceptionally strong swimmers.
“We believe that these animals came probably from Tvrkey via the islands of Rhodes and Karpathos to reach Crete,” he said.
The deinotherivm’s tvsks, vnlike the elephants of today, grew from its lower jaw and cvrved down and slightly back rather than vp and ovt. Wear marks on the tvsks svggest they were vsed to strip bark from trees, and possibly to dig vp plants.
“According to what we know from stvdies in northern and eastern Evrope, this animal lived in a forest environment,” said Fassovlas. “It was vsing his grovnd-faced tvsk to dig, settle the branches and bvshes, and in general to find his food in svch an ecosystem.”