An historical perspective on our ancestors living along side little people and bigfoot.
Ancient legends once walked among early humans?
By Dan Vergano,
Wild, hairy, folks who fought griffons and nomads — have paleontologists unearthed mythic figures of folklore?
But at least one scholar has an intriguing answer: "The discovery of material evidence of a distinct hominin (human) lineage in Central Asia as recently as 30,000 years ago does not come as a surprise to those who have looked at the historical and anecdotal evidence of 'wild people' inhabiting the region," wrote folklorist Michael Heaney of the United Kingdom's Bodleian Library Oxford, in a letter to The Times of London.Herodotus, the father of historians, wrote about these human cousins, the "Arimaspians," around 450 B.C. They were "strong warriors, good horsemen rich in flocks of cattle and sheep and goats; they are one-eyed, 'shaggy with hairs, the toughest of men'," according to John of Tzetses, a writer of the Byzantine era. They also fought griffons, mythical winged lions with eagle's faces, for gold, according to Herodotus and his contemporary Aristeas, who clearly knew their stuff when it came to spicing up historical writing.Heaney notes that legends of hairy wild people, or almases, have been standard fare in the Russian steppes for centuries. "The reports of wild men, although having typical mythic overtones, do often reflect what we know of primitive hominins," Heaney says, by e-mail. "The presumed almases of
Central Asia could be any one of a number of pre-(homo) sapien ancestors." What about their gold-mine-guarding griffon foes? In a 1993 companion piece to a look at the Arismaspians by Heaney, Stanford historianAdrienne Mayor, author of The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, suggested their legend sprang from dinosaur bones unearthed by nomads in their travels across the steppes of Western Mongolia."That region could well be Bayan-Ulgii aimag (province) in western Mongolia and environs, where I have wandered many long days and have seen ancient and contemporary small gold mines," says archaeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball of the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads, who calls a dinosaur-bone origin for griffon stories reasonable. But as for Arimaspians being the same as the newly-discovered archaic humans, Davis-Kimball has pretty strong doubts."We have excavated Bronze Age hunters and gatherers and small villagers along the Eurasian rivers — these were the people that precede the nomads by a 1,000 or maybe even many more years. I've seen lots of skeletons from many locales in my travels from Hungary to , but none that correlates with this new hominid line or with the one-eyed Arimaspians," Davis-Kimball says, by e-mail. "It's too difficult for me to believe that hominids living 1,000,000 years ago could be perpetuated in a myth to the time of Herodotus or about 450 BC." Another explanation came in a 2008 Archaeology Ethnology & Anthropology of Eurasia journal study by Dima Cheremisin of the Mongolia Russian Academy of Sciences who looked at the ancient Pazyryk tribe of Siberia, an Iron Age tribe whose burial mounds dot the Altai Mountains. "The mythical griffon is the most popular figure in Pazyryk art, suggesting that the Pazyryk people maybe identified with the 'griffons guarding gold,' mentioned by Aristeas and Herodotus," Cheremisin noted.And cryptozoologists, who make a study of legendary creatures, have offered similar archaic human explanations in the past for sightings of the Yeti or Bigfoot. Bernard Heuvelmans, the father of modern cryptozoology, theorized in the 1980's that such sightings of the wild people could be based on ancestral memories of Neanderthals.Of course, it does turn out that people seem to have interbred with Neanderthals, according to a May Science magazine report led by Svante Pääbo, a long-time ancient genome researcher who also was a co-author on the Denisova Cave discovery report. More than 50,000 years ago, most likely in the Near East, intermingling of early modern humans and Neanderthals led to modern-day Europeans and Asians typically having a genome that is 1- 4% Neanderthal, according to the study.Such interbreeding is another staple of old stories. Hercules, the hero of Greek myths, walked around in a lion skin with a club over his shoulders and was wondrously strong, a bit like a Neanderthal, due to half-divine parentage.Even the Old Testament contains references to Nephilim, "giants," who married people and had children."These stories go back millennia, but they don't go back that far," says biblical archaeologist Robert Cargill of UCLA. "There's no way that the author of the Book of Genesis had in mind Neanderthals." Most likely, ancient people were trying to explain the origin of tall people, Cargil says, and pointing back to a time when things were so bad that even semi-divine creatures were misbehaving.Of course, it's fun to speculate. After all, researchers in 2003 discovered another human species, Homo floresiensis, nicknamed "hobbits" for their puny stature about three feet tall, who died out perhaps 12,000 years ago in Indonesia.So we have hobbits, giants, and possibly cyclopean wild men, running around in prehistory. It's not quite The Lord of the Rings, but we can certainly forgive Herodotus for some of his taller tales.