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MLA Full: "Fossil Myths: Cyclopes, Griffins, & Magic Fairy Bread." YouTube, uploaded by thebrainscoop, 31 May 2017,
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Before modern science, what evidence did people use to help explain the inexplicable? For some things -- the fossil record! Today we’re looking for griffins, cyclopes, magical bread and enchanted stone snakes in our museum collection.
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Producer, Writer, Creator, Host:
Emily Graslie

Producer, Director, Editor, Graphics:
Brandon Brungard

Sheheryar Ahsan

Production Assistant:
Laurel Tilton

This episode is supported by and filmed on location at:
The Field Museum in Chicago, IL

Georges Cuvier is known by many as the father of modern paleontology.

One of his most notable contributions to the world is establishing the concept that species can, and do, go extinct. He first presented this idea in 1796 at the National Institute in France in a paper that showed how living elephants were anatomically much different than the fossil bones found in the region.

Up until that point it was assumed that those animals still wandered different parts of the earth and had somehow evaded detection. Even Thomas Jefferson told Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for any living mastodons on their journey to map out the western United States. But it’s not as though fossils weren’t a part of world culture and history before the 18th century- we humans have been using the fossil record to explain away the inexplicable for thousands of years.

So today we’re talking about: Fossil Myths! One of the most popular stories linking fossils to fables is that of the griffin, and the dinosaur Protoceratops. In the book “The First Fossil Hunters,” author Adrienne Mayor suggests that early Roman and Greek scholars some 3,000 years ago encountered Saka-Scythian nomads along the trade route between the Mediterranean and Asia.

The Scythians were prospecting for gold in the Gobi desert, which is also known today for its Protoceratops fossils. The Greek author Aristeas wrote down their stories about griffins: four-legged creatures with a body like a lion, and the wings and beak of a bird. Mayor concluded that the Scythian gold-miners found these fossils and interpreted them as mythical beasts responsible for guarding the desert’s gold- since, over time, their fossil nests could collect the small bits of gold that would blow across the desert.

As popular as the story is, some paleontologists have questioned the interpretation- noting that griffin folklore had existed almost 2,000 years before the Greeks and Romans[6] wrote it down. Plus, it isn’t too outlandish to assume people could come up with the idea of a griffin on their own based off of observations in the natural world. Eagles and lions have always been powerful symbols -- so why not just mash them into one?!

But another mythical creature with potential ties to the fossil record is the Cyclops. These ancient one-eyed giants were popularized in epic Greek poems by Homer and Hesiod. In 1914 the Australian paleontologist Othenio Abel conjectured that ancient sailors came across fossil dwarf elephant skeletons in coastal caves around Italy and Greece - and, unfamiliar with the concept of elephants, assumed the gaping hole in the middle of the skull was the single eye socket of an ancient monster.

More recently, skeletons of the ancient elephant relative Deinotherium giganteum -- which means “huge, terrible beast” -- were found on the island of Crete. These enormous animals stood 15 feet - 4.6 meters high at the shoulder. It’s possible other fossil evidence of Deinotherium was discovered by inhabitants around the island, which could have contributed to the Cyclops myth, too.

The Greeks and Romans weren’t the only societies to use fossil evidence as a way of explaining the world around them. Hildoceras bifrons is an extinct species of ammonite that lived 175 million years ago in the Early Jurassic, and is named after the Christian Saint, Hilda of Whitby. Whitby is located on the shore of North Yorkshire, and its coast contains a rich fossil deposit home to number of invertebrates, including ammonites - but at the time it was unclear to residents what they were - and many assumed they were serpents turned into stone.

The story goes that Hilda was tasked with building the new Abbey in Whitby, but the coast was plagued with snakes which were seen as evil omens that needed to be displaced. To remove them, she prayed the snakes into stone and tossed them off the cliffs, where they were found on the shores below. Some savvy fossil dealers would even go so far as to carve snake heads into the ammonites they found to corroborate the story- and a few can be found in museum collections today.

Not all fossil finds were given a zoological interpretation. “Thunderstone” is a name given to a multitude of different artifacts and fossils, including found stone and flint axe heads. In parts of Europe until the early 20th century, belemnites - a type of fossil invertebrate - were also called thunderstones. Belemnites were squid-like creatures that had an internal, bullet-shaped skeleton, and these fossils are commonly found even today.

Thunderstones were worshiped and feared- they were regarded as powerful physical manifestations of thunder and lightning. The thought was that lightning was produced by a stone shooting from the sky that penetrated deep into ground, and over time the stone would make its way to the surface- which made sense that they’d be found after heavy rainstorms. Depending on the region some people hung the thunderstones in the stable to keep their horses from having nightmares, in the home to keep children safe from witches, or they were placed on a shelf next to the dairy to keep the milk from spoiling.

But in general thunderstones were thought to protect the house from thunder, since it was believed that the thunderstones contained superhuman powers. Fossil echinoderms - like sea urchins and stars, and sand dollars- have inspired many mystical tales about witchcraft and supernatural powers, too. In England these urchins were called ‘fairy loaves’ and were kept next to the hearth- it was thought they helped ensure there would always be bread in the house, and would offer protection against witches.

Other species of fossil sea urchins were believed to be the eggs of snakes- and if one was lucky enough they could steal the egg, but they’d have to keep it on a cloth and run away across a river to ensure the egg would retain its magical properties, protecting the thief against deadly poisons. We know more today about our world and its history than has ever been known before. Our interpretation of fossil evidence changes and evolves along with our understanding of past periods and epochs, influenced by a steady accumulation of knowledge based off of physical evidence.

And so long as we keep pursuing that curiosity- who knows what our world will look like to us generations from now.