Ancient legends once walked among early humans?
By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
Wild, hairy, folks who fought griffons and nomads — have paleontologists unearthed mythic figures of folklore?
Siberia's Denisova cave held the pinky bone of an unknown early human species, a genetics team reported in March. The Naturejournal study, led by Johannes Krause of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, offered no answer for what happened to this "archaic" human species, more than one million years old and living near their human and Neanderthal cousins as recently as 30,000 years ago.
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 Mongolia, 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 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.
As a mater of fact, I have identified a replica of an Almas skull from Mongolia and it is definitively Neanderthal and of historical-period origin. The presumably "divergent line" is very likely conspecific with the Neanderthals as well, and both other legends and possible relics are of midieval date, only a few thousand years old. There can be no doubt that the Almases were Neanderthals and that they persisted up until the modern period.
(RIGHT) Representation of Mongolian Almas Skull in White Jade (LEFT) La Ferrassie Neanderthal Skull
As to the "Round Eye[socket]s" of the Arimaspians, the representational Almas skull certainly shows that: And the next photo on shows the corresponding socket on the Neanderthal skullOther Russian experts have suggested that the name "Arimaspai" is derived from "Almas" ("Aramas"+ "Pai", also oddly similar to a Chinese name used for the Almas in the Orient, P'i pronounced "Pei" or Pay")
And "Cyclops" does not mean "One-eyed", it means literally "Round-eyed" and it could be a specific reference to the circular eye-sockets of the Neanderthals in this case. If so, that would be a definite reference to a specific identifying characteristic of the type. [I use the Standard Oxford Greek-English Lexicon, by Liddel and Scott. But that is the standard meaning for "Cyclops" given in most of the dictionaries. The Arimaspai are not the standard Cyclopses of Mythology and there seem to be more than one type. But in this case, that interpretation makes perfect sense.]
Checking Wikipedia and other sources, it seems there is a good deal of confusion about these Arimaspai or Arimaspians, and they were ordinarily depicted in Classical times as ordinary Scythians (Iranians). The name does have a plausible Iranian etymology, BUT there are also vehement denials that these wildmen can be considered as the usual Iranians or ancestors of known tribes. I did find a photo of a Greek vase that illustrated a Gryphon fighting with one of the Arimaspai, but it showed him as an ordinary Greek Satyr.
Geographically, the stories are muddled because several sources specify that they live in the far East (Mongolia and North China most likely) but other sources put them closer to, in the Urals and Caucasus; and some conservative sources place them in Europe, in the Carpathian mountains. I think the best indications are that the stories meant Almases and situated them in Mongolia. One feature is that the Arimaspi stole gold from the Gryphons "to weave it in their hair". Scythians had a lot of gold (mostly as loot, probably) but this would be a separate tradition - they are saying that the Arimaspi were blondes and that their head-hair contrasted with their body-hair. In other words, what Mark Hall and Loren Coleman call Marked Hominids (which are not distinguished from Almases by this trait anyway).
The original reports about Gryphons and Arimaspai or Arimaspians are lost but repeated by Herodotus. The stories went that Gryphons mined gold and jewels and used them to line their nest, and then the Arimaspi stole what they wanted from their nests. Herodotus does NOT give a physical description for the Gryphons.
(RIGHT) Scythian Thunderbird (LEFT) Male Ostrich Displaying (Museum mount)
However, the original attribution of the nest-raiding to Arimaspians would have been for another reason - they would be stealing the eggs. At a time when ostriches were more abundant and other game more sparse, raiding ostrich eggs could have been a major source for the Almases to get protein (and water in desert conditions).
The sources that place the legend in the Carpathians identify the Gryphons of the legend to a local mythical "Hen" that gathers gold ore and stones into its nest, which is possibly a local variant of the same legend but then the "Hen" would not have been a native animal either. That would indicate the story had been imported from the East as well.
The Herodotus map (left) shows the Arimaspians (Almas) situated in the area where modern maps show Mongolia, in which case his Hyperboreans were more likely arctic peoples like the Asiatic Inua (Eskimos, and the Siberian naives that are most like them).
The Mirror of Medicine illustrations are from Heuvelmans's book Le Homme Neanderthal Est Toujours Vivant. These illustrations are reprinted in various sources and the captions do not always agree in detail. Sanderson also has them as plates in Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life, where he identifies them as illustrating the Sasquatch type. Myra Shackley's book Still Living identifies them as (left) the 18th century edition printed in Pekin and then another edition printed a century later in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, of a book most commonly known as Mirror of Medicine. The two pictures mean to show a Mongolian Almas, and included in the book for the reason that certain body parts were believed to have medicinal value. The different editions label the illustration in Tibetan, Chinese and Mongolian; the older uses the names Samdja, Bitchun, and Kumchin Gorgosu (respectively) and the later edition uses the names Osodrashin, Peeyi (Pe'i) and Zerleg Khoon (respectively)--all names meaning "Wildman"
The name "Bi-Tchun" of the first edition might be related to the Pe'i (Peeyi) of the second and it is the term used as the Chinese equivalent. The name Almas is not used but that is undoubtedly the creature that is being described. And the older version of the illustration is cruder but many authors thought it was more likely to be more authentic. The later version of the illustration impressed Myra Shackley as having Neanderthal-like features.