21 May 2019 from 15:30 to 17:00

Descartes Centre History of Science colloquium with Anita Guerrini

Prof. Anita Guerrini will deliver the lecture When we were giants: Fossils and the material origins of early modern nationalism.

Fossil bones had long been sources of wonder and speculation in the pre-modern world. In antiquity, they were thought to be the remains of gods and fantastic creatures.  Early modern intellectuals, building on ancient texts and artifacts in good humanist fashion but also adding new observations and discoveries, employed fossil remains in their efforts to rewrite national histories, thus crossing knowledge domains of natural philosophy, natural history, and human history. 

historical narratives

In France, the supposed remains of the Gaulish king Teutobochus, found in the Dauphiné in 1613, occasioned a five-year pamphlet war and two centuries of debate.  The “Antwerp giant” who supposedly founded the city was debunked and then rehabilitated in the second half of the sixteenth century. Various bones in Sicily were ascribed to historical figures, and bones found at Stonehenge were said to belong to ancient Britons.  All of these bones were very large, from two to five times the size of the average human adult; therefore their attribution to humans implied that giants had once existed.  Thus the historical narratives built around these bones at once encompassed a notion of superhuman origins for a favored nation, and a pervasive belief in human decline that extended into the eighteenth century.

Fossil evidence

Modern historians and archaeologists have considered these bones mainly in terms of what modern science has determined them to be: the remains of mammoths, mastodons, and other extinct animals.  My concern is instead with how early modern antiquarians and natural philosophers, each claiming specific expertise, struggled to interpret them within the shifting boundaries of early modern knowledge.  While early modern savants considered fossil bones as historical artifacts, fossil evidence also figured in debates among physicians and natural philosophers about human and animal anatomy. As geology became a distinct discipline in the eighteenth century, these debates crossed over into new explorations into time and extinction, once more rewriting natural and human history.

Anita Guerrini

Anita Guerrini

Anita Guerrini is Horning Professor in the Humanities and Professor of History at Oregon State University (emerita as of 1 January 2019) and adjunct Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Her most recent book, The Courtiers’ Anatomists: Animals and Humans in Louis XIV’s Paris (University of Chicago Press, 2015), won the 2018 Pfizer Prize of the History of Science Society for best scholarly book.  Her new book project looks at giants, fossil bones, and nationalism in early modern Europe.  She continues to work on early modern anatomy and natural history and on the role of history in ecological restoration, and has published 70 articles, book chapters, and review essays and over 100 book reviews.  She has won grants for her research from (among other agencies) the National Science Foundation, Centre national de la recherche scientifique, NEH, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the Camargo Foundation, and the Descartes Center in Utrecht.

Start date and time
21 May 2019 15:30
End date and time
21 May 2019 17:00