East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


Dragons of the ancient world

It was in 2005, if I remember correctly, and I was on my third congress of the Italian Palaeontological Society.
In the 2005 congress two works were presented – a colleague’s paper on the connection between fossils and mythology, and a poster of mine on the cultural relevance of dinosaurs.
My colleague’s work featured griffins and cyclops, my poster featured Godzilla and Bruce Willis.
We were both severely thrashed, the standard question being “You call this paleontology?”
To which the reply was of course, yes – we were after all discussing ancient remains, deep time, and the perception and interpretation of those remains – but our position was not shared by a large portion of the audience*.

And yet, the idea of Geomythology was emerging in the early 21st century – and the book I’m reading these nights, part for research duties and part for the sheer pleasure of it, was one of the first works on the subject.
It was published in 2000, by Princeton University Press.

k9435Adrienne Mayor‘s The First Fossil Hunters – Dinosaur, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times (new edition, 2011) is a delightful and higly stimulating read.
The idea that a culture of fossil observation existed in ancient times – not limited to a few philosophers chancing on an old bone – is intriguing, as is the idea of a strong, direct connection between fossils and certain beasts of myth.
The book is filled with illustrations, and offers ample material in support of its central thesis.
And there’s much food for thought (and for fiction!) between its covers.

So I’m reading it both because of my job as a paleontologist (as long as I have one) and as documentation for my writing.
And anything providing a different angle on the perception we have of ancient times, is sure to slip straight on top of my reading list.
This one is highly recommended.

* one year later the situation had changed enough for two members of our hostile audience to publish in the Society’s magazine an article that followed closely my poster (curiously enough forgetting to credit my work in its very short bibliography)


Dragon bones

And talking about China and fossils… 50 cents per kg is the price of dinosaur bones used as medicine in central China.

I was researching Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald, a German paleontologist that in the 1930s found a tooth belonging to a Gigantopithecus in an Hong Kong pharmacy, and I collected a few factoids about the practice of consuming “long gu” (“dragon bones”) for medical purposes – which is still is still going strong in China today.


The most common afflictions cured by boiling or grinding into powder the fossil bones are cramps and dizziness, but the list of possible applications is long and varied.

“… “dragon bones” are crushed to a fine powder, boiled, and mixed with other ingredients to make healing concoctions. According to an ancient Chinese medical text (dating back around 2000 years) pulverized fossils have been used to treat conditions ranging from diarrhea to epilepsy to “manic running about.” Some ancient “medical” conditions were mystical ailments. For example, dragon bone “mainly treats heart and abdominal demonic influx, spiritual miasma, and old ghosts.”

In 2007, the BBC revealed that one enterprising bone collector had found, dug out and sold about 8.000 kilos of old bones.
According to online sources, today, more than 100 tons of “dragon bones” are consumed each year in China and Southeast Asia.

All of which is great news not only for my Silk Road book (updates, updates!), but is also excellent fodder for stories.