By Adrienne Mayor (regular contributor)
When the Roman commander Quintus Sertorius arrived in Tingis (Tangier, Morocco) in 81 BC, the locals showed him a huge mound said to be the grave of Antaeus, the city’s famous founder. In Greek myth, Antaeus was a giant of North Africa notorious for his compulsory wrestling contests. Every opponent succumbed to his lethal grip. That is, until the Greek strongman Heracles took up the challenge and slew Antaeus. According to the locals, Heracles then took up with Antaeus’s giant widow, Tinga, and fathered Sophax, the city’s first king.
Skeptical, Sertorius ordered his soldiers to dig up the mound.
Sertorius was so gob smacked by the enormous skeleton that emerged under the men’s shovels that he personally affirmed the Tingis legend and reburied the giant Antaeus with great honors. According to Plutarch’s biography of Sertorius and the geographer Strabo, the skeleton in the mound was 60 cubits long, about 85 feet (26 meters).
Modern commentators have sarcastically dismissed the possibility that the Romans could have discovered such a vast skeleton. They assert that Plutarch’s narrative simply shows how Sertorius cleverly manipulated the beliefs of the ignorant Moroccans.
But until now, no one troubled to check the paleontology of North Africa. In fact, the Antaeus incident is an important milestone in paleontological history. Sertorious’s investigation of the Tingis folklore claim is the earliest recorded deliberate excavation of the significant Pliocene-Miocene (Neogene) fossils of Morocco. The local story about the giant Antaeus was consistent with the traditional geographical distribution of the extinct race of giants in Greek mythology, and it also turns out that the location of immense bones’ corresponds to actual fossil beds in the region.
Ancient historians Gabinius and Strabo tell us that the giant was unearthed in Lixus (modern Larache) about 40 miles south of Tingis on the Atlantic coast. Pliny also placed Antaeus’s remains in Lixus, but refused to write down any of the region’s “fantastic” legends, complaining that the native words “are absolutely unpronounceable.”
So what kind of skeleton was identified as the giant Antaeus? In 1806, the French naturalist Georges Cuvier pondered this Roman event and suggested that the remains might have belonged to a whale. Cuvier also remarked that, based on his studies, the ancients “often exaggerated giant skeletons by eight or ten times the size of the largest fossil elephant.” If we apply Cuvier’s formula, we might guess that in reality the skeleton was about 9 feet long. This matches the size of species in the rich fossil bone beds around ancient Tingis and Lixus. The remains include Pliocene-Miocene elephants (Tetralophodon longirostris, Anancus), the early mammoth M. africanavus, and giant giraffids (as well as Eocene whales, which could measure up to 70 feet long). Any of those skeletons would stagger the ancient imagination. (It may be worth mentioning that stupendous dinosaur remains lie in the Atlas Mountains, about 150 miles (250 km) southeast of Lixus. But it seems unlikely that these could have been transported to the coast in antiquity.) It seems safe to conclude that the true identity of the huge bones identified in 81 BC as the mythic giant Antaeus belonged to an extinct mammoth that lived 23-3 million years ago.
About the author: Adrienne Mayor is the author of The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myths in Greek and Roman Times, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, and The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World.