Since I wasn’t terribly interested in the topic of whether the Ice Age really happened, I hadn’t given the book a second look. But after I saw Jack Churchward mention on Facebook that it had a section on giants, I was intrigued enough to open it up. Lo! Its first chapter is a treasure trove of information about fossils and their connection to mythology. Indeed, clocking in at almost 10,000 words, it’s also one of the longest and most sustained arguments about the fossil origins of myths and legends published in the nineteenth century.
I was especially impressed that Howorth had closely anticipated the main lines of argument—and the main evidence—that Adrienne Mayor gave in The First Fossil Hunters (2001), including the first argument I have seen prior to Mayor’s own that the legendary griffin had been inspired by the fossil fields of central Asia. Howorth noted the connection between the bizarre shape of the griffin and the types of fossils found in Asia, and he pointed to the fact that surviving objects passing under the name of griffins’ bones are in fact fossils of known creatures. He did not know about the specific fossil Mayor identified as that of the griffin—Protoceratops—but the argument is otherwise nearly the same. (Howorth’s book isn’t referenced in Mayor’s.)
But the more than half of the chapter focuses on the accounts of giants and the fossil bones that were mistaken for those of the Nephilim and Gigantes. Many of these are familiar to me from earlier research, but there are an ungodly amount I had ever heard of and I can’t even imagine how I would go about tracing them back to their origins. Most of them are lifted, sometimes nearly verbatim, from earlier sources—Cuvier’s books on fossils and geology, Figuier’s The World Before the Deluge, etc.—but Howorth seems to have had a knack for collating accounts.
The one thing that tends to stand out is the fact that early modern scientists were really impressed by the skeletons of giants and struggled to understand them, while early modern regular folk seem to have shrugged their shoulders and moved on with their lives. Consider this account that Howorth summarizes from Athanasius Kircher’s book on the subterranean world: “In 1550 some workmen, repairing a tomb at Culatrari near Entella, found a tomb containing a skeleton twenty-two cubits high, which they set up in sport, and then threw stones at until it was destroyed, the teeth alone remaining.” Such an account is hardly unique, and it probably explains why so many who dug up big skulls felt compelled to try to wear them like helmets, one of the weirded side-themes in accounts of giant bones. Sadly, I wasn’t able to find it in Kircher’s text; it doesn’t appear on the page Howorth specified in Kircher, or in the two secondary sources he cited either. The real source, as it took me a ridiculous amount of time to find, is Fazellus’s History of Sicily 1.6. There, the story is set in the town of Calatrasi, “not far from Entella.” How Howorth got the name so mangled, I can’t say, but it’s one of the problems with all gigantology: Tracking the real sources and original stories is painful work, and usually not worth it.
Anyway, do check out the chapter in my Library. It is a long but very interesting read.