by Rob Cooper
‘As tall and ragged as an alp’ and with a ‘voice like thunder’ in the loosely translated words of Homer from book nine of the Odyssey; the Cyclops was indeed a menacing spectre. As with all legends it seems wildly fanciful to imagine there was such a grumpy one eyed old giant that lived alone butchering sheep and bashing brains from hapless Greeks in his spare time. However, there is some evidence as to what might have inspired the creation of such a story and the progenitor is by no means a less terrifying or majestic apparition.
Around eight million years ago there really was a ‘huge, terrible beast’ wandering around Greece. Its name was Deinotherium giganteum and it literally means ‘huge terrible beast’. The animal in question was a relative of the modern day elephant and stood 4.6 meters tall at the shoulder and could have easily massed over 10 tonnes, making it one of the largest extinct Proboscids (the group containing modern elephants) to have walked the earth, only eclipsed by the titanic imperial and possibly the steppe mammoth. The skull clearly shows an enlarged gape where in life the trunk of the animal would have attached and curious recurved backwards facing tusks which actually emerged from the lower jaw in contrast to the forwards facing tusks emerging from the upper jaw of modern elephants.
Deinotherium also had an enlarged nasal opening situated further back in the skull which indicates a particularly well developed trunk although the specifics of its appearance are difficult to gauge. The prominent trunk, along with the backwards facing tusks, imply Deinotherium may have been adept at manipulating tree branches or other objects in order to reach food. Other proposed uses of the peculiar tusks include the stripping of bark from trees as well as digging for roots and tubers. The 1895 compendium ‘Curiosities Of Science’ even stated:
‘The family of herbivorous Cetaceans [i.e. sirenians] are connected with the Pachydermata of the land by one of the most wonderful of all the extinct creatures with which geologists have made us acquainted. This is the Deinotherium, or Terrible Beast. … It appears to have lived in the water, where the immense weight of these formidable appendages [i.e. tusks] would not be so inconvenient as on land. What these tusks were used for is a mystery; but perhaps they acted as pickaxes in digging up trees and shrubs, or as harrows in raking the bottom of the water.’
Noting the close relationships between the early whales and elephants and concluding that Deinotherium was too monumentally huge to have lived anywhere other than an aquatic environment and may have used its tusks in order to obtain food from the bottom of lakes and rivers.
Unfortunately the fossil evidence of Deinotherium is still inconclusive as the recovered teeth are suitable for both grinding and shearing indicating a varied diet and there are yet to be found any tusks with clearly preserved marks or scratched to indicate any particular use.
So how does this tie in to the Cyclops? Many archaic cultures discovered fossil evidence of truly giant animals and it makes sense that the farming oriented Greeks might happen along a skull or two of the extinct Proboscid that used to inhabit their land. How would they have interpreted the skull of such an enormous creature? Perhaps the hole in the front of the skull was interpreted as an eye socket and the genesis of the Cyclops thus occurred. Thomas Strasser, archaeologist at California state university, Sacramento claims ‘With no concept of evolution, it makes sense that they would reconstruct them (fossil bones) in their minds as giants, monsters, sphinxes, and so on,’.
This line of thought is particularly appealing when considering just how many similarities creatures of the past and legend share. From comparing sea serpents and plesiosaurs to dragons and dinosaurs and even sauropod leg bones to giants it seems likely that our ancestors best attempts at interpreting the fossils may have been manifest in the legends they created; and while they may have been some way of the reality, they were still thrilling to imagine.
Deinotherium was recreated in walking with beasts interacting with early hominids - check it out in this video!