Eager to uncover where our westward nightmarish dreams come from? For the ancient Greeks, it may have been the fossils of giant prehistoric animals. The tusk, resembling a serrated tooth, and bones of a deinotherium giganteum, which, loosely translated means really huge terrestrial beast, have been found on the Greek island of Crete. A distant relative to today’s elephants, […]
Ever wondered where our worst nightmares come from?
According to the ancient Greeks, our fears might be rooted in the fossils of prehistoric creatures.
The tusks, several teeth, and some bones of a deinotherium giganteum, which loosely translates to roughly huge terrestrial 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 southern Aegean in general,” said Charalambos 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 proboscis trunk. To the ancient Greeks, deinotherium skulls could well be the foundation for their tales of the fearsome Cyclops.
In her book “The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times,” Adrienne Mayor argues that the Greeks and Romans used fossil evidence—the enormous bones of long-extinct species—to support existing myths and to create new ones.
In his epic tale of the trials and tribulations of Odysseus during his 10-year return trip from Troy to his homeland, Homer describes the traveler’s encounter with the cyclops. In “The Odyssey,” he depicts the Cyclops as a band of giants, one-eyed, man-eating shepherds. They lived on an island that Odysseus and some of his men visited in search of supplies. The Cyclops were captured by one of the Cyclops, who at several of them devoured in single bites. The captured travelers were able to escape from the monster’s lair, blinding him, tricking him, and sneaking out.
A second myth holds that the Cyclops are the sons of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky). The three brothers bear the brontes (thunder), steropes (lightning), and arges (brightness), creating Zeus’ thunderbolts, Poseidon’s trident, and Hades’ helmet.
Mayor makes a convincing case that the places where a lot of these myths originated occur in places where there are a lot of fossil beds,” said Streeter. “She also points out that in some myths monsters emerge from the ground after big storms, which is just one of those things I hadn’t ever thought about, but it makes sense, that after a storm the soil has eroded and these bones appear.
A cousin to the elephant, deinotheres roamed Europe, Asia, and Africa during the Miocene (23 to 5 million years ago) and Pliocene (5 to 1.8 million years ago) eras before becoming extinct.
Examining the remains on Crete suggests the mammal’s large areas of Europe then previously believed, Fossulas said. Fossulas is in charge of the museum’s paleontological division and oversees the excavation.
He suggests that the animals reached Crete from Turkey, swimming and island-hopping across the southern Aegean Sea during periods when sea levels were lower. Many herbivores, including the elephants of today, are exceptionally strong swimmers.
“We believe that these animals probably came progressively from Turkey via the islands of Rhodes and Karpathos to reach Crete,” he said.
The deinotherium’s tusks, unlike the elephants of today, grew from its lower jaw and curved down and slightly backward rather than up and out. Wear marks on the tusks suggest they were used to strip bark from trees, and possibly to dig up roots and gather vegetation.
“According to what we know from studies in northern and eastern Europe, this animal lived in a forest environment,” said Fossoulas. “It was using its ground-faced tusks to dig, select the branches and bushes, and generally to find its food in such an ecosystem.”