Over two thousand years ago, the Greeks discovered the fossilized thigh bone of a giant mammal that had roamed their country a million years ago. This bone may have helped inspire Greek legends of strange and giant creatures.
As a serious, organized science, paleontology is still only a couple hundred years old, and almost all fossils were discovered in modern times. But on rare occasions, ancient humans came across such fossils and had enough understanding of their significance to hang onto them. The Nichoria bone is one of the most spectacular examples of this.
This particular fossil is likely the thigh bone of a woolly rhinoceros, a giant creature that could be anything from twelve to fourteen feet long and weighed two to three tons. It roamed Europe and Asia during the time of giant mammals, living alongside other huge beasts like the mammoth. Though this particular fossil is about a million years old, radiocarbon dating suggests the species survived until perhaps as late as 8000 BCE, although only in the isolated western reaches of Siberia.
Stanford classicist Adrienne Mayor explains how the bone was recovered from obscurity and what it meant for the ancient Greeks:
"It was presumed lost until 1998. Following my inquiries, the fossil was found stored in a cellar at the University of Minnesota. It then spent last decade in various U.S. labs. This venerable bone deserves to be displayed. It is one of only two large vertebrate fossils that were deliberately collected in antiquity and unearthed by archaeologists in Greece."
The bone is now going on display in England. Mayor has written the book The First Fossil Hunters, in which she argues that myths about giants can trace their origins to the exact same places where prehistoric fossils were found, suggesting ancient knowledge of these over-sized bones influenced these myths.
"Most likely, the ancient Greeks found the bone in the lignite deposits of the Megalopolis basin, known in antiquity as the 'Battleground of the Giants.' There, the dense concentration of large fossil bones inspired the belief that entire armies of giants were blasted by Zeus's thunderbolts."
We don't know the precise meaning the bone held for the ancient Greeks, but it was definitely significant. The bone was taken 35 miles from the lignite deposits to be stored in the acropolis at Nichoria, a place reserved for important objects.
For more on the fossil's rediscovery by modern scholars, check out Discovery News.