There are few figures from Ancient Greek mythology that have become such a part of mainstream knowledge as the Cyclops. Stories of the one-eyed, man-eating giants have been used to scare children for thousands of years—but it’s entirely possible that the origins of this creature have more basis in reality than scientists could have ever imagined.
In 2003, archaeologists working on the island of Crete uncovered several bones, tusks, and teeth of an enormous prehistoric mammal. Previous to that, additional bones and skulls of the same creature were uncovered elsewhere on the island. The animal is believed to have been an ancestor to today’s modern elephant, but what makes this mammal so special is the single hole in the center of the skull.
Today’s biologists have looked at the skulls and theorized that, in comparison our modern elephant, this ancient creature must have had a very pronounced trunk, much bigger than what we see today. However, to the Ancient Greeks, the skulls of these animals may have provided the foundation for their belief in ancient one-eyed monsters.
Remember, the people popularly referred to as “Ancient Greeks” (typically referencing to 5th-century Athens) had ancestors as well, and they were acutely aware of their heritage. Archaeologist Thomas Strasser from California State University has explained how the Ancient Greeks might have understood their own past: “The idea that mythology explains the natural world is an old idea, you’ll never be able to test the idea in a scientific fashion, but the ancient Greeks were farmers and would certainly come across fossil bones like this and try to explain them. With no concept of evolution, it makes sense that they would reconstruct them in their minds as giants, monsters, sphinxes, and so on.”
Scientists estimate that the Deinotherium giganteum, or “really huge, terrible beast”, stood around 15 feet tall, with 4.5 foot long tusks, making it one of the largest mammals who ever walked the Earth. They lived during the Miocene and Pliocene eras before their extinction, roaming Europe, Asia, and Africa. Much like today’s elephants, this creature was likely a strong swimmer, and would have reached Crete by swimming from Turkey during a period of lower sea levels.
As for the Ancient Greeks, they likely found the skulls and explained their existence as best they could. One of the best-known examples of Cyclops in mythology comes from Homer’s epic poem (The Odyssey) about the Trojan War hero Odysseus’ 10-year journey home after the war: When Odysseus and his men were trapped in a cave with a Cyclops—who started eating Odysseus’ men—they fooled the giant by getting him drunk, stabbing him in the eye, and sneaking out of the cave by tying themselves underneath the giant’s sheep as they were let out to pasture.
Image: Dwarf elephant skull, copyright D. Finnan/AMNH