In 1914, Othenio Abel, an Austrian paleontologist, suggested that the Cyclops of Homeric legend was based on fossil elephant finds in antiquity. Abel, who excavated many Mediterranean fossil beds, related the image of one-eyed giant cavemen to the remains of Pleistocene dwarf elephants, Palaeoloxodon antiquus falconeri, common in coastal caves of Italy and Greece. Shipwrecked sailors unfamiliar with elephants might easily mistake the skull’s large nasal cavity for a central eye socket.
Skull of Palaeoloxodon falconeri, from Museum of Natural History of Verona.
Marble head of Polyphemus, first or second century A.D., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The small elephants ranged from 3 to 6 feet (1-1.8 m) high at the shoulder, and the skulls and teeth are much larger than men’s. In profile, elephant skulls do resemble grotesque human faces, and the vertebrae and limb bones could be laid out to resemble a giant man.
Since Cyclopes lived in caves, the ancient Greeks imagined them as primitive troglodytes who used rocks and clubs as weapons. The great piles of bones on the cave floors might be the remains of shipwrecked sailors—the savage Cyclopes were probably cannibals! Human occupation of Sicily and other islands where dwarf elephant bones abound occurred long before Homer, and descriptions of them probably circulated among sailors from Mycenaean times onward. The Cyclops story was assimilated into the epic poetry tradition and made famous in Homer’s Odyssey.
Palaeoloxodon antiquus falconeri was an archaic elephant that developed insular dwarfism due to the lacking of predators on mediterrenean islands.
The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. Adrienne Mayor