In researching Agatharchides yesterday, I chanced upon an interesting discussion of Lucretius that ties in with some of the material I’ve brought up before about the use of fossils in the creation of myths and legends. Agatharchides had written (preserved in the Paradoxographus Vaticanus 10, parallel to Photius codex 250) that the Indians used gigantic tortoise shells as roof tiles. In 1970, a French professor by the name of Ernout proposed that a few lines in Lucretius (De rerum natura 2.532ff) similarly referred to the use of elephant tusks in the building of ancient Indian homes. Here are the lines:
Even as we mark among the four-foot kind
Prior to this, scholars had assumed these lines to either be mythical or to refer to the use of elephants as steeds for Indian warriors. Ernout instead seized upon the discovery that Paleolithic peoples used mammoth tusks and bones to build their huts as evidence that the Indians continued the practice with modern elephants. It was a lot to read into the brief allusion.
Three years later, E. K. Borthwick added to the evidence with a passage from Dio Chrysostrom (Discourse 79.4): “Again, if ivory is a marvellous possession and worth fighting for, the Indians are of all men most blest and pre-eminent by far, for in their land the bones of the elephants are tossed aside and no one troubles to go near them, just as in our land the bones of cattle and of asses are treated; they even say that in many places the skulls of the elephants, tusks and all, are built into their house walls” (trans. H. Lamar Crosby).
This isn’t really all that relevant to the study of alternative history, but it is certainly an odd bit of ancient lore. It does make me wonder, though, how it was that the same ancient people who could identify the skeletons of elephants somehow were so baffled by the similar bones of extinct mammoths and dwarf elephants that they mistook them for the gigantic bones of super-human heroes. At least in later ages, medieval people, when they weren’t mistaking these same bones for giants, were attributing them to Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, apparently with thousands of elephants, to account for all the bones they found.
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.
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