In 1914, Othenio Abel, an Austrian paleontologist, suggested that the Cyclops of Homeric legend was based on fossil elephant finds in antiquity. Abel, who excavated many Mediterranean fossil beds, related the image of one-eyed giant cavemen to the remains of Pleistocene dwarf elephants,
Palaeoloxodon antiquus falconeri, common in coastal caves of Italy and Greece. Shipwrecked sailors unfamiliar with elephants might easily mistake the skull’s large nasal cavity for a central eye socket.
Skull of Palaeoloxodon falconeri, from Museum of Natural History of Verona.
Marble head of Polyphemus, first or second century A.D., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The small elephants ranged from 3 to 6 feet (1-1.8 m) high at the shoulder, and the skulls and teeth are much larger than men’s. In profile, elephant skulls do resemble grotesque human faces, and the vertebrae and limb bones could be laid out to resemble a giant man.
Since Cyclopes lived in caves, the ancient Greeks imagined them as primitive troglodytes who used rocks and clubs as weapons. The great piles of bones on the cave floors might be the remains of shipwrecked sailors—the savage Cyclopes were probably cannibals! Human occupation of Sicily and other islands where dwarf elephant bones abound occurred long before Homer, and descriptions of them probably circulated among sailors from Mycenaean times onward. The Cyclops story was assimilated into the epic poetry tradition and made famous in Homer’s Odyssey.
Palaeoloxodon antiquus falconeri was an archaic elephant that developed insular dwarfism due to the lacking of predators on mediterrenean islands.
The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. Adrienne Mayor
In an odd little corner of Northern Greece, where as recently as twenty years ago no one expected there had ever been any elephants at all, the longest fossil tusks ever found were excavated in 2007. These are from a proboscidean (the taxonomic order containing today’s Elephantidae as well as all the extinct species of elephants and mammoths) known as Mammut borsoni that lived in the late Pliocene, some 2.5 million years ago.
Elephants in Greece? Yes, elephants. And mammoths. When the initial discovery of elephant fossils were made in the 1990’s (as it happens, in a field belonging to my husband), they were thought by many residents to be the remains of elephants that had escaped from a traveling circus. This first find, an Elephant antiquus (also known as the “straight-tusked elephant”) was dated to ~200,000 years in age. The far older Mammut borsoni lived throughout Southern Europe and Asia, and possessed long (very long!) straight tusks. They also had small tusks jutting from their lower jaws as well, as can be seen in some of the local fossil finds.
Previous to this discovery, the “tuskholder” record had been from a nearby fossil with tusks measuring ~4.39m. But even before those tusks could be entered into the Guinness Book of World Records, a chance excavation in a sand quarry revealed a new pair of tusks, even longer, measuring 4.58 and 5.02m in length. And much more… The site has recently revealed the tusks of a newborn baby Mammut, which might comprise the smallest tusks in the fossil record.
This week we celebrate these tusks and many other amazing fossil elephant discoveries at the VIth International Conference on Mammoths and their Relatives held in Siatista-Grevena, Northern Greece.
Annie R Photo: by Dina Ghikas on our field trip to the excavation in 2007.
This fossil of a young Pterodactylus antiquus was found in the layers of limestone near Solnhofen, Germany, an area known for its rich fossil beds. Pterosaur bones rarely form fossils this clear and complete.
Pterosaur fossils are extremely rare because of the fragility of their skeletons, owing to their hollow bones.
Thecodontosaurus was another small, early sauropodomorph from the Late Triassic to the Early Jurassic, about 203 to 199 million years ago, specifically from the Rhaetian to Hettangian ages of these two periods. Many species have been named for the genus but only the original (type) species is still considered valid. It has been found at the quarry of Durdham Down, Clifton, in Bristol, however it also has been found in France. It is known from many remains and was on average 1.2 meters long, but it could be up to 2.5 meters long. The leaf shaped teeth of Thecodontosaurus indicate that it had a fairly strictly herbivorous diet, unlike other early sauropodomorphs such as Pantydraco which were probably omnivorous. It also had a fairly short neck compared to other early members of the group. Its original remains were destroyed in World War II bombings, but bones were salvaged after the Bristol Blitz. It’s cladistic position among sauropodomorphs is under some confusion, as it could befairly basal or more advanced. It was the fifth (non-avian) dinosaur ever named, after Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, Streptospondylus, and Hylaeosaurus.
New Lower Palaeolithic elephant butchering site has been discovered in Greece
A new Lower Palaeolithic elephant butchering site, Marathousa 1, has been discovered in Megalopolis, Greece, by a joint team of researchers from the Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology and Speleology (Greek Ministry of Culture) and the Paleoanthropology group, University of Tübingen.
Marathousa 1 is located in an open-cast coal mine, on what was once the shore of a shallow lake. It has yielded stratified stone artefacts in association with a nearly complete skeleton of Elephas antiquus, as well as the exceptionally well-preserved remains of fauna (rodents, birds, amphibians, reptiles, mollusks and insects) and plants (wood, seeds, fruit). The association of lithic artefacts with the elephant remains, as well as the discovery of cutmarks on elephant bones, indicate that Marathousa 1 is an elephant butchering site. Read more.
Perhaps, early observers theorized, that specimen’s long skinny arm-and-finger bones were for swimming? Or was it some kind of toothed, clawed, winged bird? Or even a mammal? Debates raged, even after 1801, when the great French anatomist Georges Cuvier analyzed drawings of the skeleton and determined the animal to be something new to science: a flying reptile that Cuvier later named ptero-dactyle (wing finger in Greek).
The Jurassic hall is the oldest part of CMNH’s dinosaur display, the huge Diplodocus carnegii being the museum’s first dinosaur. This part of the hall has been updated with newer fossils since then, offering an impressive collection of Morrison fauna (and others). Across from the Diplodocus is its smaller cousin Apatosaurus, plus a juvenile underneath. Nipping at its tail is a possibly unwise Allosaurus.
Around the edge with the mural one finds the ornithischians represented as well, with Stegosaurus and Uteodon. Above the latter is a small mounted pterosaur, probably Pterodactylus by the looks of it.
Speaking of whom, there is a cast of the original Pterodactylus antiquus specimen nearby, along with that of the first full Archaeopteryx from Solnhofen.
Around the corner, one crosses over into the Cretaceous and, conveniently, a separate post.
Bison are large, even-toed ungulates in the genus Bison within the subfamily Bovinae. Two extant and four extinct species are recognized. Of the four extinct species, three were North American: Bison antiquus, B. latifrons, and B. occidentalis .
In the year 1954 in rural northwest Nebraska, two ranchers named Bill Hudson and Albert Meng were digging a pond when they uncovered a mass of bones. Archaeologist Larry Agenbroad was brought in to investigate soon after. What began as a few square meters of bones was revealed through excavations to be a massive bonebed of Bison Antiquus (about 25% larger than modern day bison, they could grow as tall as 7.5 ft at the shoulder). While only a small portion of the bone bed has been left open for viewers, taken in its entirety the bed is larger than a football field.
Located on the Oglala National Grasslands, the site sits on a windswept moor. Erosion, lack of tree cover, and the swift moving storms of the plains give the place a vulnerable feeling. That feeling is fitting for the site, as it is currently struggling for funding to remain open.
110-million-year-old crustacean holds essential piece to evolutionary puzzle
University of Alberta PhD student Javier Luque has found the oldest crown-group true higher crab ever discovered, deep in the tropics of Colombia. The discovery of Telamonocarcinus antiquus pushes back the oldest known record of true higher crabs into the Early Cretaceous, dating about 110 million years ago.