Since I know that this post will only be at the top of the blog for a few hours until I review Ancient Aliens tonight (provided my son cooperates), instead of writing something long and complex that no one will read, I instead devoted my time to translating an interesting passage that illustrates the power of the myth of the giants in European scholarship
The text in question comes from Belgian scholar Édouard Dupont, writing in the second edition of his French-language book Man During the Stone Age (1873). Dupont was the director of the Royal Belgian Museum of Natural History, and as such he attempted to prove that Belgium had ancient human artifacts to rival those being uncovered in Germany, England, and France. Dupont uncovered the jaw of Furfooz Man, which he determined to be a different species or subspecies from France’s Cro Magnon, but his more lasting legacy was to develop the tripartite division of the Stone Age familiar to us today. He called his divisions the Age of the Mammoth, the Age of Reindeer, and the Age of Polished Stone. We know them better as the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic.
In the book, Dupont attempted to understand the intellectual world of Furfooz Man, whom he called “our Mongoloid.” In so doing, he turned to the myth of the giants to explain why ancient Stone Age people would have kept a mammoth’s ulna next to their hearth deep in a Belgian cave. “We can therefore ask ourselves,” he wrote, “whether the presence of this great remnant in the dwelling place of our Mongoloids is not a sign of fetishism: found underground by this tribe, it would have been considered as a witness to a superior race destroyed, just as popular belief has continued to do down to the present day.” In other words, he suspected that the prehistoric inhabitants of the cave worshiped the bone as the remains of a human giant.
This is an odd interpretation to be sure, but his discussion of the subject raises two fascinating points. The first is that the myth of giants held such sway that the leading lights of European archaeology and paleontology still used it as framework for understanding prehistoric beliefs, assuming that Classical and medieval attitudes must have had Stone Age antecedents. The second is the more interesting for me: Dupont states quite plainly that there is little controversy among his peers about the notion that mammoth bones were the origin of giant myths: “It is generally agreed that we should attribute its persistence to the discovery, at long intervals, of the remains of the gigantic mammoth.”
How is it that an understanding that was, as best we know today, correct was so widespread and universally accepted before World War I and yet fell into such obscurity that when Adrienne Mayor proposed the same thing in 2000, it was greeted as a revelation and something entirely new, and even Mayor herself wasn’t aware of just how universal the idea had once been. I wonder if it wasn’t a combination of factors—a postwar scientific culture unwilling to engage in analysis that could not be proved experimentally, and a growing postmodern culture that wished to see myths and legends in contexts that were largely divorced from material reality, reacting against the myth-and-ritual school that had preceded it. Whatever the reason, I’ve collected enough documents now to demonstrate that every educated Victorian would have known the “real” history of giants, even though his twentieth century counterpart did not.
I have translated the section from Dupont’s book covering giants and place it in my Library.
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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