Sunday, 27 July 2014

Mythical monsters and ancient fossils

The idea that humans stumbling over fossils influenced myths is not new, but can we link mythical monsters to *specific* fossils? Classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor says, yes we can. Intrigued by this idea I decided to investigate her claims a bit further.

Mayor is a classical folklorist and uses historical texts, place names and cultural artefacts as evidence for ancient interactions with fossils. You could call it 'historical cryptozoology', or as she does geomythology. It's all very interesting, but necessarily involves some speculation. So I picked three cases to see how much that speculation was warranted.

The Monster of Troy

The 'Hesione Vase' depicts teh story of Heracles saving the Troyan princess Hesione as she is about to be sacrificed to a sea monster sent by the god Poseidon. The monster seen on the vase is claerly a bit odd, with it's formless body and skull for a head. Mayor suggests that the vase shows the skull of Samotherium (a giant prehistoric giraffe) weathering out of a rock face. I can see where she's coming from with that, but I do have some qualms. 

First of all the skull isn't that much like a Samotherium skull, except maybe in size. It lacks ossicones (the horn-like stubs on a giraffe's head), it has a sclerotic ring (bones inside the eye) which mammals don't have, and it is apparently "embellished" with pointy teeth, holes in the skull and a long narrow tongue. 
Rather than the skull of an extinct giraffe it looks more like that of a lizard to me, maybe a Nile monitor (or if you prefer sticking with fossils a Plesiosaur skull). 

The gold-guarding Griffin 
The Protoceratops as Griffin is probably Mayor's best story and it has unsurprisingly been taken up by others, because it is a fun and interesting story. 
The TL,DR: Scythians looking for gold in the Gobi stumbled upon well-preserved skeletons of Protoceratops which led to the myth of beaked, flying guardians with lion bodies. This myth then spread West alongside the gold, eventually ending up in Greece.

It's a cool story, but it has some serious problems. First of all Protoceratops is not lion-sized like you may have heard. Their maximum size is around two meters including the tail, or just over half that without the tail (even the smallest female lions are 140 cm long, not counting their tail). Their heads are proportionally huge, something not seen in Griffin depictions. Protoceratops obviously don't have wings either, so it's been suggested that broken frills may have been mistaken for wings. Which is a stretch to say the least. 
If you take half an eagle and half a lion and concoct a fictional animal you pretty much get a Griffin. Engaging in this kind of monster-building is probably as old as humans
And it does away with the need for detours to the Gobi and wildly distorting the features of skeletons that may have been found there to fit the Griffin image. 

The Harry Potter Dinosaur 

This probably the weakest case, but Mayor has made some very strong claims about it. I'll start of by quoting Mayor

“The shape of the dinosaur’s skull, with its long muzzle, bizarre knobs and horns, surprised the scientists. But the skull looks strangely familiar to anyone who has studied dragons! Dracorex has a remarkable resemblance to the dragons of ancient China and medieval Europe." (Source)

That sounds convincing, but it's mostly bunk. Knobs and horns are rarely seen in medieval European dragons, which tend to have long pointy ears as their most prominent feature. The faces of medieval dragons are also anything but uniform, some have a distinctly feline look, while others have pointy beaks or the `classic` dragon look. Mostly they don't have long muzzles though, and I've yet to see one that closely resembles this skull. In many ways the Dracorex would look more at home in modern fantasy film than in a medieval bestiary.
The same goes for Chinese dragons, which often have comparatively broad muzzles and generally have antlers rather than backwards pointing horns. Dragons with antlers may sound odd to us, but in Chinese mythology the dragon is said to combine the parts of nine animals:  the antlers of a deer, the head of a camel, the eyes of a demon, the that of a snake, the belly of a clam, the scales of a fish, the claws of an eagle, the soles of a tiger and the ears of a bull. Now the fact that dragons were interpreted as being composite animals doesn't mean they started out that way, but it is food for thought.
There is also another major problem, the reason those scientists were surprised is because Dracorex looks like no other dinosaur. It also lived in what is now North America. So how did medieval Asians and Europeans get their hands on these apparently unique skulls? 
Historically dragons started out as giant serpents (that's actually what the name originally meant) that were embellished over time, that the skull of Dracorex resembles the dragons from Hogwarts seems to me just coincidence.

Consider also Chinese dragon bones, these are fossil (or just very old) bones found in China and used in traditional "medicine" or to make soup. These can be from any old animal, from turtles to dinosaurs and mammals. Which suggests that these fossils are made to fit a preconceived idea of dragons existing, rather than an image of dragons being built up from these fossils.

Mayor as a source

Some notes on Mayor in general: I used the word cryptozoology earlier and not without reason. The use of folklore has it's uses in zoology (it does on occasion lead to exciting discoveries), but Mayor also exhibits some of the less favourable traits seen in the cryptozoological community. Castigating scientists for not seeing the truth (the term hidebound academics comes to mind), putting a lot of faith in possibly unreliably sources (ancient sources like Aelian, who also claimed that beavers self-castrate when threatened), a tendency towards literalism (mythical stories are reflective of concrete observations, rather than imagination) building entire frameworks of reasoning by stacking one speculation on top of another and interpreting all evidence in a way that supports her hypotheses.
Just as an example her paper on ancient discussion of the fossils on the island of Samos (Mayor 2004) she quotes Aelian (quoting Euphorion) that the bones belonged to 'Theria', wild beasts. From this she concludes that the ancient Greeks knew they were mammals (because the writer didn't use the more general word 'Zoon', for animal). The same author in the same fragment also used 'palaiotatois', meaning very very old, to describe the bones. This to Mayor suggests they had an understanding of Deep Time. Combining these two (speculative) ideas with the knowledge that Greeks and Romans collected and displayed fossils they found she concludes that the were actually vertebrate palaeontologists (and those mythical animals are thus reconstructions on par with the dinosaurs you'd see in a museum today.
That's a pretty bold conclusion to base on words in an ancient text that is quoting an even older text.

In conclusion, while I think the idea is interesting the evidence left me underwhelmed. The specific examples don't stand up to close scrutiny and are generally better explained by the human tendency for imagination and allegory. Reading Mayor's work also gives the impression of running on quicksand, you have to keep going or sink in a mire of speculation.