For the ancient Greeks, nightmares may have been sparked by the discovery of fossils belonging to giant prehistoric creatures.
Recently, remnants of the Deinotherium giganteum, an enormous prehistoric mammal, were unearthed on the Greek island of Crete. Standing at a towering 15 feet (4.6 meters) tall at the shoulder, with tusks measuring 4.5 feet (1.3 meters) long, it ranks among the largest mammals ever to walk the Earth.
“This discovery marks the first finding of its kind in Crete and the southern Aegean region,” remarked Charalampos Fassoulas, a geologist at the University of Crete’s Natural History Museum. “It’s also the first time we’ve uncovered a complete tusk of this animal in Greece. While we haven’t yet dated the fossils, the sediment in which they were found dates back 8 to 9 million years.”
Analysis of Deinotherium giganteum skulls from other sites reveals primitive features and a much bulkier build than modern elephants, with an unusually large nasal opening at the center of the skull.
To paleontologists, this distinctive feature suggests a pronounced trunk. However, to the ancient Greeks, such skulls could have inspired tales of the fearsome one-eyed Cyclops.
In her book “The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times,” Adrienne Mayor argues that ancient Greeks and Romans utilized fossil evidence, such as the colossal bones of long-extinct species, to bolster existing myths and create new ones.
“Homer’s epic tale ‘The Odyssey’ depicts the Cyclops as giant, one-eyed, man-eating shepherds,” explained Thomas Strasser, an archaeologist at California State University, Sacramento. “Mayor makes a compelling case that many myths originated in places abundant with fossil beds. She also notes that in some myths, monsters emerge from the ground after storms, a detail I hadn’t considered before but makes sense given that after a storm, erosion may reveal buried bones.”
Deinotheres, relatives of elephants, roamed Europe, Asia, and Africa during the Miocene (23 to 5 million years ago) and Pliocene (5 to 1.8 million years ago) epochs before becoming extinct.
The discovery of Deinotherium remains in Crete suggests that these mammals traversed larger areas of Europe than previously thought. Fassoulas suggests they reached Crete from Turkey, swimming and island-hopping across the southern Aegean Sea during periods of lower sea levels, as many herbivores, including modern elephants, are adept swimmers.
“We believe these animals likely arrived from Turkey via the islands of Rhodes and Karpathos to reach Crete,” he explained.
The tusks of Deinotherium, unlike those of modern elephants, grew from the lower jaw and curved downward and slightly backward. Wear patterns on the tusks indicate they were used for stripping bark from trees and possibly for digging up plants.
“Based on studies in northern and eastern Europe, we know this animal inhabited forest environments,” noted Fassoulas. “It likely used its ground-faced tusks to dig, clear branches and bushes, and generally find food in such an ecosystem.”