If you’ve been following archaeologist Andy White’s blog, you’ll have read some very important pieces this week on giants and their relationship to hoaxes and misidentified mastodon and mammoth bones. I’d like to expand on White’s terrific research by pointing out the way it undercuts a foundational claim made by the gigantologists. In order to do so, we need to make a distinction that gigantologists aren’t often willing to do: We need to establish what we mean by a “giant.” According to gigantologists, this can be anyone six feet tall and up. However, to classify claims for skeletons of six, nine, twelve, and eighteen feet as all part of the same continuum is to close the door to seeking alternative explanations for each group.
For our purposes, I would like to propose that there is no one explanation for every giant report and therefore we can and should consider “giants” as catch-all term for a variety of phenomena, much the way that the category “UFO” contains a plethora of phenomena, not least hoaxes.
Anyway, in our taxonomy of giants, we can dispense with six foot tall people since they have nothing special or even remarkable about them, falling as they do under normal human height. As Andy White has shown, the seven and eight foot skeletons are often the result of incorrect height estimates derived from outdated formulae for calculating height from femur length. This does not exclude the occasional seven to eight foot person, since such heights are known from historical and contemporary individuals, but it does cut down significantly on the number of such cases, casting doubt on the “race” of giants.
OK, so much for them. What we have left to deal with are the really big giants, the ones who are more than nine feet high. On Search for the Lost Giants, Jim Vieira states more than once that skeptics have attempted to unfairly undermine his claims about giants by suggesting that such bones belonged to paleomegafauna like mastodons and mammoths, as has been documented from Old World “giants” like the 19-foot-high giant of Lucerne, later shown to be a fossil elephant, and the famous 25-foot-high Teutobacchus Rex, the bones of a great barbarian king later shown to also be a fossil elephant.
Greg Little has frequently attacked me for my investigations into giants, and he sums up the most important objection to this identification of extra-large skeletons with megafauna bones in an article published this summer: “In addition, there is not a single case where one of the old newspaper reports about the so-called giant skeletons was found to be a misidentified mastodon or mammoth bone, which has been a feeble attempt by a blogger to avoid the facts.”
In many cases we can infer that the bones described are those of megafauna, but it is true that there is rarely enough evidence to prove it. Oh, how delicious it is that Andy White and Kevin Smith have both identified just such a case where newspaper reports of a “giant” were investigated and admitted to be a mastodon. The initial reports, from the fall of 1845, are indistinguishable from other so-called giant reports. Here’s some representative reportage from the Cleveland Herald on September 10:
We are informed on the most reliable authority that a person in Franklin county, Tennessee, while digging a well, a few weeks since, found a human skeleton, at the depth of fifty feet, which measures eighteen feet in length. […] The finder had been offered eight thousand dollars for it, but had determined not to sell it any price until first exhibiting it for twelve months. He is now having the different parts wired together for this purpose.
(Note: I’ve added the full text of all of the articles discussed in this post to my page on giants in newspapers.)
In 1845, $8,000 was worth around $250,000 in today’s money. The initial news reports, however, erred in mistaking the site of the discovery—near the town of Franklin in Williamson County—for Franklin County, in another part of the state entirely. A local physician examined the bones and declared them those of a human being. They were “restored” by that esteemed anatomist to take the form of a giant human skeleton (a new skull and pelvis were supplied) and put on display, despite an offer of $50,000 for the bones. The Tennessee House of Representatives passed special legislation to exempt exhibitions of bones like these from the $50 public exhibition tax, and the skeleton itself was frequently mentioned in legislative debate—though one indication that all was not well could be found in the wording of the law, which granted an exemption for “the skeleton or fossil remains of animals.”
Sure enough, when an expert, the natural scientist Dr. William Carpenter, came to town the next year to look at the skeleton, he quickly revealed it to be that of a mastodon. “At a glance it was apparent that it was nothing more than the skeleton of a young mastodon, (one of Godman’s Tetracaulodons, with sockets for four tusks.)” As White and Smith report, Carpenter described the exhibition of the rebuilt “giant” in the American Journal of Science:
The artificial construction was principally in the pelvis and head; and take it as thus built up, with its half human, half beast-like look, and its great hooked incisive teeth, it certainly must have conveyed to the ignorant spectator a most horrible idea of a hideous, diabolical giant, of which he no doubt dreamed for months. To one informed in such matters it really presented a most ludicrous figure.
This incident tells us a number of things: First, that Greg Little is wrong. Second, that the physicians of the nineteenth century weren’t familiar enough with fossils to identify them. And third, that we can’t take at face value what we read in nineteenth century newspapers. If physicians could mistake a mastodon for a human, what credence can we put in similar stories from other newspapers? In short, this incident provides a good case study in the ways that a biblical worldview, scientific illiteracy, and sensationalism distort data and help create a phenomenon of giants out of misunderstood and often unrelated data points.
In this, there is a close parallel to modern UFO reports. As I discussed in the journal Paranthropology last year, the various aspects of the modern UFO myth, from lights in the sky to visitations by strange creatures, all became folded into one overarching myth even though they once had nothing to do with one another. Here, too, the giant myth takes in a wide range of skeletal anomalies of various stripes, along with Mound Builder myths, diffusionism, and Biblical literalism and marries these unrelated parts into one overarching story.
So powerful is this myth that the very idea of giants becomes a lens for interpreting the past, even against the evidence, in effect replacing evidence. As an example, let’s take Lord Pakal (or Pacal) of Palenque, whose body (or what is believed to be it, anyway) was excavated from his tomb in 1952. The skeleton measured about 162 cm, around 5 foot 4. So how do we explain David Hatcher Childress’s assertion that Pakal was “said to have been nine feet tall” in Lost Cities of North & Central America (1992)? Even Jacques Vallée, writing in Passport to Magonia (1969), exaggerated Pacal’s height, saying that the king was six feet tall and therefore a giant who towered over the five-foot Maya—citing evidence from the racist fabricator Pierre Honoré that the king was white and the god Kukulkan.
There is a persistent idea that greatness manifests physically, not just intangibly, and therefore great men were very tall and the great peoples who did great things must also have been giants. Such a belief goes back to Greece, at least, and the idea that the heroes of old were giants. What’s so odd is that this belief in what one website calls “greater ancestors” seemingly contradicts the Biblical notion that the giants were evil, or at least outside of God’s grace. That such a conflation long existed is well known: The Targum Jonathan (at Numbers 21:33-35) reported, for example, that Moses was himself a towering giant of ten cubits (15 feet)! So popular was this belief that the medieval Cluniac monk Peter the Venerable wrote an argument against the idea (Against the Inveterate Obduracy of the Jews 5).
Somehow, though, a large number of people are still looking to find proof that the ancestors were great, and if they cannot find that in their words and deeds—suffused as they are with ignorance, prejudice, and cruelty—then they will find greatness physically.
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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