Fossil folklore: some myths, monsters, swallows and butterflies

Myths are traditional stories embodying ancient yet false ideas. At the root of many myths lie unusual events, for example, extreme floods, or mysterious objects such as fossils. Numerous myths about different kinds of fossils can be found in the folklore of many countries around the world. Indeed, some ‘monsters’ or mythical creatures of legend – such as the Cyclops, griffins and dragons – may have their roots in findings of fossil bones.

Angels’ Money and Slaves’ Lentils

The Greek traveller and writer known as Strabo the Geographer (c. 63BC–21AD) visited the pyramids of Gizeh in Egypt, which were then some 2,500 years old (Fig. 1). The pyramids are constructed of Middle Eocene nummulitic limestone. Nummulites are a type of foraminifera. These single-celled protists lived on the seabed and secreted disc-like chambered shells up to 4cm in diameter (Fig. 2), the large size for animals having only one cell reflecting the presence of symbiotic algae in their tissues.

Fig 1 pyramids
Fig. 1. The pyramids of Gizeh, constructed of Eocene nummulitic limestone.

Fossil nummulites drop out of the limestone at Gizeh after weathering. Picking up examples of these fossils, Strabo was informed that they were the petrified remains of the food belonging to the workers who built the pyramids. Strabo wrote in Chapter 1 of his Geography Book 17:

One of the marvellous things I saw at the pyramids should not be omitted: there are heaps of stone-chips lying in front of the pyramids; and among these are found chips that are like lentils in both form and size… They say that what was left of the food of the workmen has petrified; and this is not improbable.

Fig 2 Nummulites
Fig. 2. Eocene nummulites from Gizeh, Egypt. The block on the left contains both large and small specimens, ‘Angels’ Money’ and ‘Slaves’ Lentils, respectively. On the right are three specimens of ‘Angels’ Money’, weathered out of the limestone matrix.

The main nummulite found in the limestones of the pyramids is a species called Nummulites gizehensis. This exists in two different forms, large and small, representing respectively the diploid (with two sets of chromosomes) and haploid (with one set of chromosomes) stages of the life cycle. The large form has become known as ‘Angels’ Money’ and the small form ‘Slaves’ Lentils’.

The name ‘nummulites’ derives from the Latin nummulus meaning small coin. Indeed, elsewhere in the world, they are associated in folklore with money (Duffin and Davidson, 2011), for example, as St Peter’s money in Belgium and Ladislaus’ pennies in Hungary.

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