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Goliath in the Peloponnese

A recent letter from John R. Armstrong, a long-time member of NCSE in Edmonton, Canada, included, without comment, a sheaf of interesting documents (which appear also on David Emery’s About.com Urban Legends website). The first was a computer-generated map, in modern Greek, of the Peloponnese, with a particular site perhaps twenty kilometers north of the town of Nafplio marked by hand. The rest of the documents were outré, though: photographs showing paleontological excavations of giant humanoid skulls and skeletons, presumably at the indicated site in Greece.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen these photographs, however. A year and a half earlier, I received them by e-mail along with the message:

I am aware of the controversy about “doctored” photographs of huge skeletons as displayed on some websites. Below are some recent photographs from Greece that I find amazing! Will you please tell me if these submitted photos are fake or the genuine thing? If you say they are fake, how can you really tell? If the photos are real, how does science explain these skeletons? Something in the Bible says that: “There were GIANTS in the earth in those days” (Gen 6:4). Might these be their remains?

And even that wasn’t the first time that working at NCSE I had to research claims about the fossilized remains of Biblical giants.

Back in 2004, the anthropologist H. James Birx asked me to write a short article for his Encyclopedia of Anthropology (Thousand Oaks [CA]: Sage, 2006) on the Cardiff Giant hoax. The hoax started in 1869, when workers digging a well on a farm outside Cardiff, New York, exhumed a gray stone figure of a giant man with contorted limbs and a serene facial expression. The popular view, encouraged by its exhibitors, was that it was a petrified giant, possibly one of the giants described in the Bible: it was sometimes called “the American Goliath” after the Philistine giant in 1 Samuel 17. But scientific investigators, including O. C. Marsh, the paleontologist who discovered Apatosaurus and Allosaurus, and Andrew Dixon White, the president of Cornell University, regarded it as a hoax, and were proved right when the perpetrator of the hoax, George Hull, finally revealed that he commissioned the sculpture and arranged with his cousin to bury it on his farm. The Cardiff Giant continued to attract attention anyhow, inspiring such literary works as Mark Twain’s 1870 “A ghost story” and Harvey Jacob’s 1997 novel American Goliath. It is now on display in the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

The nineteenth-century scientists were able to conclude that the Cardiff Giant was a hoax based on the physical evidence: it was composed of gypsum, a soft stone that would not hold details for long when buried in wet soil; it displayed soft tissues, such as skin and muscle, which are unlikely to petrify; and it appeared to bear the marks of sculpting tools. But what could I do to convince my correspondent that these photographs supposedly from Greece were hoaxes, with only the digital files to examine?

I might, I suppose, have appealed to the physics of the matter. As the biologist J. B. S. Haldane famously explained in his 1926 essay “On being the right size,” the eighteen-meter-tall humanoid giants of Pilgrim’s Progress are biologically impossible:

These monsters were not only ten times as high as Christian, but ten times as wide and ten times as thick, so that their total weight was a thousand times his, or about eighty to ninety tons. Unfortunately the cross sections of their bones were only a hundred times those of Christian, so that every square inch of giant bone had to support ten times the weight borne by a square inch of human bone. As the human thigh-bone breaks under about ten times the human weight, Pope and Pagan would have broken their thighs every time they took a step. This was doubtless why they were sitting down in the picture I remember. But it lessens one’s respect for Christian and Jack the Giant Killer.

The Greek giants look like they were only about seven meters tall, making them maybe only fifty times heavier than a regular human, but that’s still unworkable.

Or I might have tried to appeal to the incongruities in the photographs themselves: the skull is unrealistically somewhat flattened, for example, and—more telling—the same image appears in a different photograph purportedly of a different site.

But what clinched it, as far as I was concerned, was the fact that the photograph from which the giant photograph was adapted had been identified: it was a picture from the paleontologist Paul C. Sereno’s 1993 expedition to Niger, showing his team’s excavation of Jobaria, a primitive sauropod from the Middle Jurassic. (I don’t remember where I learned of the Sereno photograph: to give credit where it might be due, it was probably from either David Emery’s article “Giants in Greece” or Snopes.com’s article “They might be giants.”)

I wasn’t surprised not to receive a reply from my correspondent when I explained that at least one of the photographs was unquestionably a hoax, providing a link to the University of Chicago News Office’s story that included the original photograph.

As for Armstrong, I feel confident that he wasn’t fooled, in part because I knew, from earlier correspondence with him, that he was involved in a skeptical investigation of the Paluxy footprints: tracks in the Cretaceous limestone of the Paluxy River basin in Texas that a number of creationists have notoriously adduced as evidence for the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs. But that’s a story for another day!

A version of this article was originally published in the print supplement to Reports of the National Center for Science Education 2011;31(5):4–5. Had you been a member in good standing of NCSE when it was published, a copy of the supplement, lovingly printed on recycled paper, would have been delivered to your mailbox, and you wouldn’t have had to wait for it to appear on the Science League of America blog. So why not take a moment to join NCSE, or renew your membership, right now? It’s only $35, $40 for foreign addresses, and $700 for a lifetime membership. Such a deal!