When Giants Roamed Europe


IN 1932 a road-construction crew was digging near the Colosseum in Rome when one of the men struck a hard object. It turned out to be the tusk and cranium of an elephant. This discovery is not an isolated case. Over the years, about 140 fossilized remains of elephants have been found in and around Rome, the first confirmed case being in the 17th century.

People thought that the bones belonged either to elephants imported into ancient Rome or to the ones that Carthaginian General Hannibal brought into Italy. G. B. Pianciani, a 19th-century priest and professor of Natural Sciences in Viterbo, challenged those assumptions. Because the bones were mostly found in alluvial deposits, he concluded that  they belonged to animals that had died elsewhere and were carried to their new location by floodwaters.

Many elephant fossils found in Italy are not those of the elephants we know today. Rather, they belong to an extinct species called Elephas antiquus, or ancient elephant. (See page 15.) This creature had almost straight tusks and grew to about 15 feet [5 m] at the shoulders, making it about six feet [2 m] taller than its modern-day counterparts.

How common were those giants? The fossil record indicates that they once roamed throughout Europe and England, as did their close relatives the mammoths. What is more, the elephant fossils are not always found in isolation but, rather, in fossil beds containing the remains of numerous other species, some of which were natural enemies.

From Hyenas to Hippos

Fossils found in Lazio, a region of central Italy that includes Rome, suggest that the area at one time had a climate more like that of Africa, for hippopotamuses, gazelles, and even big cats once roamed in this region. In fact, fossils of one cat, dubbed the leopard of Monte Sacro, were found right in the heart of Rome. At the Polledrara deposit outside the city, more than 9,000 fossil remains have been unearthed, representing a diversity of animals: ancient elephants, buffalo, deer, Barbary apes, rhinoceroses, and aurochs​—large  oxen that were driven to extinction about four centuries ago. A museum at the site provides an elevated walkway for visitors to view the fossils in their original locations.​—See page 16.

A cave near Palermo, Sicily, was filled with many tons of remains, including the fossilized bones of deer, oxen, elephants, and hippopotamuses of various ages​—even a fetus. In fact, 20 tons of fossils found their way onto the market in the first six months after the site was discovered!

In Southern England, paleontologist J. Manson Valentine discovered fossil beds containing massive deposits of splintered bones of many of the same animals as well as of hyenas and polar bears. What is the reason for these large beds of fossils in such diverse places?

Some scientists believe that the circumstances in which the animals died are consistent with a natural catastrophe. Whatever the cause or causes of such mass extinctions, their effects were felt over a large area that included mainland Europe, the British Isles, Siberia, and Alaska.

Thanks to the fossil record, we are able to imagine a world that was quite different from the one we know today. Indeed, in Italy alone, if you went back far enough in time, you could be excused for thinking that you were in the wilds of Africa.

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At first glance a fossil might look like a normal bone. In fact, it is the result of a chemical transformation​—fossilization—​that takes place before the remains of dead animals can decompose.

One common form of fossilization is mineralization. In this process the original organic material is replaced, either totally or partially, by minerals present in wet sedimentary deposits. Thus, for fossilization to occur, specific environmental conditions are necessary. They include an abundant deposit of sediment and rapid burial of the remains, as well as their resistance to disintegration. Under normal circumstances, animal remains that are left uneaten are finished off by bacteria as well as mechanical and chemical agents, such as wind and water. Fossilization, therefore, is very rare.

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The fossil record indicates that the woolly mammoth roamed over a vast area, which included Asia, Europe, and North America. In Europe, Italy appears to have been at the southernmost extremity of the animal’s range.

About the same size as present-day Asian elephants, the woolly mammoth had hair that grew up to 20 inches [50 cm] in length, and the males had long curved tusks that grew to about 15 feet [5 m]. A particularly large amount of mammoth ivory has been found in Siberia​—so much, in fact, that from medieval times it was exported to China and Europe.

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Photo courtesy of the Royal BC Museum

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The Polledrara fossil deposit

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Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma

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Top: Museo di Paleontologia dell’Università degli Studi “La Sapienza” di Roma; bottom: © Comune di Roma - Sovraintendenza Beni Culturali (SBCAS; fald. 90, fasc. 4, n. inv. 19249)