A Case Study in Misunderstanding: An 1860 Report of Prehistoric "Giants" Found in Europe
Yesterday I ran across an interesting article in an old magazine, and it provides an unusual look at how the myth of antediluvian giants cast a shadow over the popular and scholarly understanding of paleontology in the years before the acceptance of the theory of evolution. Our article comes from Ballou’s Monthly Dollar Magazine, which its founder, Maturin M. Ballou, billed as “the cheapest magazine in the world,” for August 1860. It appeared in a column devoted to curiosities and records what the anonymous author claims to be the discovery of Bible giants:
“There were Giants in Those Days.”
This is a strangely confused account of the scientific debate occurring in Europe at the time, as filtered through the popular press. I am not entirely certain of all of the references in the article, but as best I can tell, the discussion of the Abbeville “giant” refers to the discovery of fossil mammoth bones alongside flint tools. These finds, which Jacques Boucher de Crevecoeur de Perthes had made over more than a decade before the Dollar Magazine wrote about them, attracted interest in 1859 when Joseph Prestwich viewed the discoveries and sent word back to England. The Royal Society began debating whether they were evidence of a deeper antiquity for humanity, while Boucher, who originally thought the tools to be post-diluvian, revised his view and argued they were antediluvian. (“These hatchets are called antediluvian because they are found in a virgin soil formed by its waters,” the Abbé Cochet explained at the end of 1860 in reporting on Boucher de Perthes’s finds to the French government.) It seems that someone, in trying to explain the story, had confused the gigantic mammoth skeleton found there for the skeleton of a humanoid giant, since there is no other reference I can find to a “giant” there.
The fossil beds at Abbeville would eventually yield the famous Abbeville jaw, found by Boucher de Perthes in 1863, which excited great controversy because it seemed too primitive and implied a more ancient species that had occupied France before the “Prussian” Neanderthals. The jaw was later discovered to be a forgery, planted by a worker hoping to earn a 200 franc prize for finding the bones of the people who made the flint tools Boucher de Perthes had previously found.
On the other hand, Neanderthals seem to lie behind the second reference in the Dollar Magazine article. The area where the Düssel River feeds into the Rhine is the area of the famous Neanderthal, or Neander Valley, where in August 1856 the first Neanderthal skeleton had been discovered. The cranium of said Neanderthal was found (well, obtained from workmen) and described by Johann Karl Fuhlrott, who must be the Fullratt of the Dollar Magazine. Fuhlrott said that he was the first to recognize the bones as human, for the workmen who discovered it thought it belonged to an animal. It was instead the second scholar to examine the bones, Hermann Schaaffhausen, who helped create the idea that the bones were those of a brutish monster. In his presentation, following that of Fuhlrott, to the Natural History Society of the Prussian Rhineland and Westphalia on February 4, 1857, Schaaffhausen compared the bones to the legendary monsters of medieval German folklore and myth (specifically the Classically described creatures said to live at the world’s ends), and he suggested that the bones belonged to the prehistoric antecedent of such tales, perhaps dating back before the Flood. He noted that the bones were thicker and more robust than those of human beings, suggesting an ogre-like appearance.
It appears that popular writers, either not understanding the issues involved or interpreting them through the lens of the familiar, took these claims to be referring to the monstrous Nephilim of Genesis.
What’s interesting in this is that we have a clear case where a news report about the “discovery” of the bones of a “giant” by “scientific men” can be traced back to specific individuals and their known claims. We then see that the media misunderstood and misrepresented the claims. This helps to cast doubt on other news accounts from the time, and should remind gigantologists, who rely on old newspapers for their evidence, that uncritical acceptance of news stories is bad history and worse science. The “giant” Neanderthal, that antediluvian monster, stood all of about five and a half feet tall.
12/12/2015 01:33:35 pm
An 1860 $1 is $27.70 in 2015. Not so cheap after all.
12/12/2015 06:20:18 pm
The "Dollar" in the title was just to emphasise its value for money. The actual price per issue was a dime (1/10 of a dollar, for non-US readers).
12/12/2015 02:39:21 pm
Looking at the illustration from Travels, it's easy to see where the myth of Bigfoot came from... Not the mention those equally famous cryptids, Twohead and Chestface.
12/12/2015 09:05:42 pm
While I'd much prefer Chestface, the Dogman on the far right has been a popular one in the last few years of Coast to Coast AM. It's seeped in here and there on the monster hunting shows, too, with almost no actual difference between it and Bigfoot besides the appearance and half-formed attempts to link it into ancient history (and Ancient Aliens) by way of Anubis.
12/12/2015 09:29:04 pm
I hear it also creeps up from the tunnels beneath Boston to pose for paintings, sometimes.
An Over-Educated Grunt
12/14/2015 09:50:44 am
Chestface has the world's most unfortunate goatee, though.
12/12/2015 09:09:55 pm
Good story, it's an all too common occurence that news is like a myth, a kernel of truth with obscuring layer of (multiple) personal interpretation(s).
12/13/2015 02:04:21 am
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
12/13/2015 02:15:59 am
That quote from a John Ford film is better than most of his films, that today are just too quaint to be viewed - I mean, how excruciating was it to Hollywoodise Ireland and to have Americans play Irish people.
Karie P Schneider
7/26/2018 06:08:04 am
It is odd how the huge land species died off, but the giant sea species did not.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.