How the ancients understood prehistoric fossils
Giants have long appeared in the tales and folklore of people throughout the world. Larger than life characters such as the Cyclops from the Odyssey and the Jötunn of Norse mythology are still well known to us today.
The Israelites, too, had their own tales of giants, many of which were already ancient when the biblical stories were written down. The first explicit mention of giants in the Hebrew Bible is in the report of the 12 spies found in Numbers 13. It records that Hebron was home to three monstrous brothers (or tribes) called the children of Anak, whose size made the spies feel like grasshoppers. The text even claims they are descendants of the infamous Nephilim of Genesis 6.
Later, in the Book of Deuteronomy, even more giants are mentioned—the Rephaim and the Zamzummim—who once lived in the land of the Ammonites (Deuteronomy 2:20). In Genesis 14:7, these same giants are said to have lived in the land in the days of Abraham and Lot. The famous King Og of Bashan, who was among those defeated by the Israelites, was considered to be the last of the Rephaim. According to the Bible (Deuteronomy 3:11), Og’s legendary iron bed (which was roughly 14 feet long and 6 feet wide) could still be seen in the town of Rabbah.
The most famous biblical giant, however, was the Philistine warrior Goliath, who was slain by a young David in 1 Samuel 17. But he was not the last of his kind. According to 2 Samuel 21, more giant warriors fought for the Philistines.
In this rich world of stories and folklore, it was only natural for people to look for evidence of giants in the world around them. In their article “Encounters with Fossil Giants” in the Fall 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Steven Fine and Elisha Fine discuss examples from ancient history where individuals found what they thought were the bones of giants. Locals would often discover unusually large fossils and present them to visitors as the remains of famous or mythical giants.
Josephus, the celebrated Jewish historian, had his own encounter with giant remains outside Hebron, which he mentioned in Antiquities:
So they [the Israelite army] moved their camp to Hebron, took capture of that town and massacred all therein. There remained there a race of giants, who, by reason of their huge frames and figures in no way like the rest of mankind, were an amazing spectacle and a tale of terror to the ear. Their bones are shown to this day, bearing no resemblance to any that have come within men’s ken.
Josephus’s experience with giant remains was not unusual. Greeks and Romans discovered huge bones across the Mediterranean world, remains they often associated with giants from their own mythical past.
To discover more about ancient fossil remains and how people viewed them, read “Encounters with Fossil Giants” by Steven Fine and Elisha Fine, published in the Fall 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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