I’d like to thank Edward Babinski for drawing my attention to an interesting account of the discovery of a fossilized “giant.” His interest in the story is a little different than mine, but I think you’ll find that both perspectives offer some insight into the zany world of giant hunting.
Our story begins with a medical doctor named Joseph Comstock, who produced a book called The Tongue of Time and the Star of the States in 1838. This is a very strange book that claimed to offer a complete understanding of human nature, ranging from diet and exercise to the remains of the giants to Egyptian magic to diseases to volcanism to synesthesia! It’s, frankly, a largely incoherent hodgepodge of random material. But one of the accounts he provides is rather interesting. He discusses the discovery of a “giant” on the island of Sicily in 1807. But rather than share his elaborated version, I’d like to peel back the layers still further and uncover Comstock’s vaguely acknowledged primary source, the Medical Repository in 1812.
Although published in reverse order, the prefatory remarks (published second) lay out the circumstance through which a man named Joseph Backus, probably the prominent Bridgeport, Conn. lawyer of that name, grandson of a clergyman, came to deliver to the journal a letter written to him by Capt. James Allen, lately returned from Sicily. Note that even at this early date—1812!—the idea of gigantic skeletons was already associated with proving the literal truth of Scripture, something strangely missing from many earlier European accounts of giants, which for Europeans were simply part of the everyday background of intellectual life. Something about America seems to demand the security of connecting experiences back to Scripture:
Amongst the many who near the time of the end, according to the prophet Daniel, should run to and fro, and by whom knowledge should be increased, Capt. JAMES. ALLEN, of this borough, appears to be one. He has lately returned to his family and friends, after an absence of about two and an half years, traversing different seas, and visiting different countries. At the port of Girgenti, in the island of Sicily, in the Mediterranean, he spent considerable time. Among many things gratifying to the curious to hear, he lately described to me some enormous human skeletons seen by him on that island. The relation was so extraordinary, that I requested of him that his statement might be committed to writing, and that he would make oath to its truth; to which he very politely assented. I was not induced to this by any doubt in my mind of the truth of the facts, as all who are acquainted with Captain Allen, will as readily give credit to his naked certificate of facts within his own knowledge, as to the affidavit of any person whatever. But as I thought the statement worthy of publication, strangers might, by the solemnity of the mode, give more attention to it.
Well, enough of this. Let’s turn to the giant himself, in Capt. Allen’s letter:
Concerning some HUMAN Bones of an extraordinary size, dug from a great depth, near Girgenti, (the ancient Agrigentum) in Sicily: In a letter from Capt. JAMES ALLEN to JOSEPH BACKUS, Esq. of Bridgeport, dated
Here we have an interesting account sadly rendered rather useless by too many secondhand details. Capt. Allen saw a collection of bones he took for a large human skeleton, and he saw some buried ruins (or what he took for ruins), though the only connection between the two is the word of the people of Girgenti, a city built atop ancient ruins dating back to at least the sixth century BCE. Oddly, the “ruins” were somehow so destroyed that they could not be understood yet were intact enough to determine they were opulent! Agrigento was famous for its fifth-century BCE network of underground aqueducts, the hypogeum, so it’s possible that these are the “vaults” that Allen visited, unknowingly.
If so, the skeletons found within begin to make more sense. They probably eroded out of the excavated underground caverns over the centuries. If so, the skeletons are probably those of extinct dwarf elephants, the bodies of which have been mistaken for giants and Cyclopes for thousands of years. Giovanni Boccaccio reported on the discovery of the skeleton of a “giant” at Trapani, on the same side of Sicily, in almost identical circumstances, back in the 1300s (Genealogia deorum gentilium 4.68). Those bones remained on display for hundreds of years.
In 1806, the French naturalist Georges Cuvier surveyed the distribution of known fossil elephant bones and discovered that they correlated well with the reports of the discovery of “giant” or “heroic” skeletons of extraordinary size. In fact, he specifically noted that “Sicily possesses these curiosities in abundance” and concluded that the skeleton reported by Boccaccio as well as another found in Palermo were those of fossil elephants.
I’m comfortable concluding that Capt. Allen saw another in the endless parade of Ice Age fossil mistaken for the bones of giants.
OK, so let’s return to Joseph Comstock. Comstock’s version of Capt. Allen’s story repeated all of the essential details and added Comstock’s own recognition that the discovery occurred in the land where mythology claimed the Cyclopes lived. It’s strange that Comstock was familiar with and endorsed Georges Cuvier’s geological work, but he seems to have either not known about or rejected Cuvier’s claims about giants, since Comstock concludes from Allen’s testimony “that the remains of Goliah’s, and of the sons of Anak, or the similitudes of their race, are occasionally found in a fossil state, must be admitted.” In other words, the existence of giants is important for understanding the world through scripture, something that the less fanatical French didn’t have as much problem ignoring. Comstock concludes that, like Pompeii, a lost city was buried by a volcano, trapping the ancient giants beneath its effluvia.
More importantly, Comstock’s book included the following drawing of Allen’s discovery, an artist’s impression by someone who had only a 25-year-old letter to go on.
Why is this important? It’s important because creationists have blurred the image and, as Edward Babinski reported on his blog, have passed off the blurry version of the engraving as a photograph of the giants! A photograph from 1807!
According to Babinski’s earlier report, creationist Carl Baugh calls the image a “photograph” in his 1987 book on dinosaurs, and Baugh told Babinski by phone that he got the engraving as a photocopy from yet another creationist, Clifford Burdick, and never bothered to look for the source of the image. Baugh had a slide made of the image and used it as a photograph in his presentations on creationism. Similarly, before his arrest and conviction on tax charges, creationist Kent Hovind used the image, taken from Baugh, in his creationist ministry as proof of the existence of giants. So far as I can tell, until Babinski questioned the image’s provenance no one in the creationist movement displayed any interest in the picture’s origins, or whether it was an actual photograph.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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