I learned something shocking and new today, and I learned it from a believer in giants. Before you get too excited, the believer in giants has been dead for almost 250 years. His name was Claude-Nicolas Le Cat (1700-1768), a physician, and in the mid-1700s he gave a famous address on giants to the Academy of Sciences at Rouen in an attempt to prove that giants existed. The address was translated into English and widely circulated through its appearance in the Encyclopedia Britannica, where it made up much of early editions’ account of giants, and was widely pirated in other encyclopedias. Here is Le Cat’s address:
Profane historians have given seven feet of height to Hercules their first hero; and in our days we have seen men eight feet high. The giant who was shown in Rouen in 1735, measured eight feet some inches. The emperor Maximian was of that size; Shenkius and Platerius, physicians of the last century, saw several of that stature; and Goropius saw a girl who was ten feet high.—The body of Orestes, according to the Greeks, was eleven feet and a half; the giant Galbara, brought from Arabia to Rome under Claudius Caesar, was near ten feet; and the bones of Secondilla and Pusio, keepers of the gardens of Sallust, were but six inches shorter. Funnam, a Scotsman, who lived in the time of Eugene II. king of Scotland, measured eleven feet and a half; and Jacob le Maire, in his voyage to the Straits of Magellan, reports, that on the 17th of December 1615, they found at Port Desire several graves covered with stones; and having the curiosity to remove the stones, they discovered human skeletons of ten and eleven feet long. The chevalier Scory, in his voyage to the peak of Teneriffe, says, that they found in one of the sepulchral caverns of that mountain the head of a Guanche which had 80 teeth, and that the body was not less than 15 feet long. The giant Ferragus, slain by Orlando nephew of Charlemagne, was 18 feet high. Rioland, a celebrated anatomist, who wrote in 1614, says, that some years before there was to be seen in the suburbs of St Germain the tomb of the giant Isoret, who was 20 feet high. In Rouen, in 1509, in digging in the ditches near the Dominicans, they found a stone tomb containing a skeleton whose skull held a bushel of corn, and whose shin bone reached up to the girdle of the tallest man there, being about four feet long, and consequently the body must have been 17 or 18 feet high. Upon the tomb was a plate of copper, whereon was engraved, “In this tomb lies the noble and puissant lord the chevalier Ricon de Vallemont, and his bones.” Platerus, a famous physician, declares, that he saw at Lucerne the true human bones of a subject which must have been at least 19 feet high. Valence in Dauphiné boasts of possessing the bones of the giant Bucart, tyrant of the Vivarais, who was slain with an arrow by the count de Cabillon his vassal. The Dominicans bad a part of the shin bone, with the articulation of the knee, and his figure painted in fresco, with an inscription, showing that this giant was 22 feet and a half high, and that his bones were found in 1705, near the banks of the Morderi, a little river at the foot of the mountain of Crussol, upon which (tradition says) the giant dwelt.
The Britannica dryly noted that “it seems strange” that the Bohemian “giant,” supposedly on display, have been entirely overlooked by every traveler to that country. But of special note for gigantology studies: Britannica goes on to cite the same Greco-Roman accounts of Gaulish and Germanic stature now used by Nephilim theorists to declare the Celts to be Nephilim-giants. We now know where they go it from.
What is fascinating, though, isn’t the collection of giant tales but rather how the arguments for giants we see today in the United States echo the arguments that eighteenth century Europeans made, almost as though the popular and academic culture of Europe carried over to colonial America and then froze in place when America declared independence. Europeans went on to reject giants, recognizing them as misunderstood fossil elephant bones, but in America all the old lore about giants lived on, applied now to the myth of the Mound Builders.
Now to what I learned: I had been under the impression that Georges Cuvier was the first to have developed the theory that fossil elephants were responsible for the development of the myth of giants and the discovery of their alleged bones, in his 1806 memoir. I was unaware of Hans Sloane’s contribution to the theory almost a century earlier, in 1728; indeed, Sloane does not appear in Adrienne Mayor’s First Fossil Hunters, which identifies Cuvier as the originator of the idea. Naturally I wanted to look up Sloane’s paper and see how far back into history we can push the connection between megafauna fossils and giants. I published a version of the article from a later abridgment in my Library, and linked there to the full-length original. I will be honest: I was not able to find a copy of the full length version that was not filled with special characters, marginal text, and oddly place quotation marks that would have taken far too long for me to proofread and edit from an OCR scan.
Sloane, a polymath scholar whose specimen collection helped start the British Museum, reported that fossil elephant bones crumbled into dust exactly the way “giant” bones were said to do in medieval and early modern literature. He then devotes a section to the wooly mammoth, of whom some observers “have them to be the bones of the Behemoth, mentioned in the 40th chapter of Job, the description of which they pretend fits the nature of the beast, whose bones and teeth they are imagined to be…” This section is well known among writers on the mammoth, but I am more interested in the latter parts of this lengthy monograph, in which he describes the giants. He relates a great deal of evidence that the remains of giants were those of elephants, including this doozy: In 1630 “giant” tooth was uncovered in Tunis around the time that an elephant happened to be available for study in France, so a scholar named “Peiresk ordered, that he should be brought to his country seat, on purpose to take that opportunity to examine the teeth of the creature, the impressions of which he caused to be taken in wax, and thus found, that the pretended giant’s tooth sent him from Tunis, was only the grinder of an elephant.” Yet down to the time of Sloane, it appears no one had tried to generalize this into an explanation for the myth of giants.
So why wasn’t Sloane widely believed either? Well, Sloane devotes considerable space to trying to argue that elephant skeletons were indigenous to the lands where they were found and not, as popularly supposed, buried in place by the Greeks or the Romans. He tried to prove that these bones long antedated the Romans, but he did not have a concept of extinction, or much of one of geological time, and as a result, his analysis could only suggest that so-called “under ground” elephants were the remains of long-dead elephants rather than either Greco-Roman-era imports or, as the Siberians had it, monsters that lived in the earth. This left him open to challenge, for no theory at the time could explain the presence of so many elephants, and as Sloane himself noted, at the time no one had yet conducted a study of comparative anatomy to determine how closely human bones corresponded to those of other animals. Thus, Le Cat was able to claim that “anatomists” had declared giants’ bones humans—despite their manifest ignorance of comparative anatomy—and that was good enough for him. Gigantologists continue the trend today, relying on the ignorance of older scholars as proof of what modern science has shown to be untrue.
Sir Hans Sloane intuited the truth about giants but didn’t quite have the tools to prove it, but he did produce a paper that anticipated by nearly 90 years all of the major points and many of the details of Georges Cuvier’s “Memoir on Fossil Elephants” (which cites him, secondhand), for which he deserves a place of honor as one of the founders of the academic study of the role of fossils in the development of the mythology of giants.
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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