The Lost Giants: A Great Big Contentious Debate
“It is the mark of a great man,” wrote the French novelist Honoré de Balzac, ”that he puts to flight all ordinary calculations. He is at once sublime and touching, childlike and of the race of giants.” In putting aside those calculations of the modern epoch which might be deemed “ordinary,” one nevertheless runs the risk of plummeting to depths of the inevitable couloir that comprises the modern debate over supposed giant skeletons.
Believed to have belonged to a literal race of giants presumed once to have existed at some point on planet Earth, for years there have been hotly debated arguments regarding the supposed existence beings of large stature, particularly throughout parts of the ancient Americas. Key to this viewpoint is, to borrow again from Balzac’s words, that a literal race of giants trudged throughout the ancient world, existing apart from the ancestors of humans that live today. But how likely is it that actual “giants” once roamed the Earth?
What strange and spurious knowledge, the layman may ask, could lend itself to such a fantastic view of the ancient world? Arguably, if there were the bones of actual giants being unearthed, this would be something that would dominate the news in our modern era of sensationalism. Furthermore, if evidence existed of the reality that giant beings once walked our lands, our current viewpoints regarding the anthropological record would indeed have to revised… and in likelihood, this astounding information would become household knowledge.
At this point in the discussion, the argument tends to become fragmented into two extremely opposing positions on the matter. Believers look to decades-old documentation drawn from newspapers, science journals, and publications by entities such as the Smithsonian (issued mostly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) that do document human skeletons of extraordinary proportions, often measuring greater than seven feet in length. Those of the skeptical persuasion argue that things such as erosion and other natural processes that occur over time contribute to the scattering and enlargement of bones, thus giving an inaccurate representation of the specimens being examined. Furthermore, even if a skeleton were accurately measured and found to be in excess of seven feet in length, this is nothing too far beyond the extremities of human height today, especially among those whose physical stature lends itself greatly to competitive sports.
In truth, there is some merit to both positions: debunkers can try to sweep the “giant” finds under the rug all they wish, but there truly are a number of instances where very large skeletons have been discovered. These often bear a number of curious traits, such as double rows of teeth and strange bone formation, suggesting growth abnormalities and the possibility of genetic disorders. But leaning more to the skeptical side, it is important to maintain that if these beings looked human, and possessed traits that are still observed among modern humans, we would probably be incorrect in asserting that they are thus representative of a separate race that existed apart from humankind… something that is constantly asserted in books seeking to address the subject. Again, perhaps there is room both for skepticism, as well as acceptance that reports of large skeletons might present an element of human history worthy of closer study. But is it wrong to call them “giants”, if indeed these instances represent humans of tremendous stature that once existed?
It is curious that there is so often an attempt by the more doubtful among us to dismiss these reports of “giants”, since in at least some cases, excavations have apparently revealed multiple bodies of very tall individuals, buried alongside humans of normal stature; in the best case scenario, this could be viewed as evidence which suggests, at very least, that these human “giants” of long ago might have appeared more frequently than the typical, sparing appearances of individuals today who exceed normal height, due to genetic growth irregularities caused by such things as clinical giantism and acromegaly.
As noted previously, while many have suggested that so-called “giant” bones and their discovery are more likely the results of hoaxes and misidentification, there are a number of cases where giant bones have indeed been recovered, photographed, and even stored in museums; rather famously, the allegations that the Smithsonian has, in many instances, sought to recover these specimens, only to turn around and claim to misplace them, has fueled notions of an intentional cover-up seeking to silence such discoveries. However, there are many giant specimens that have both made headlines, and which made their way to the Smithsonian, as we see in the photograph above, which features one of the largest skulls kept in the U.S. National Museum collections.
Another of these had been a jawbone recovered by Civil War veteran Dr. William DeHart in 1911, which still exists in the Smithsonian’s off-site storage facility, according to their records (see accession card below, obtained via the request of a research associate of mine who inquired about a number of allegedly lost skeletons at the Institute).
The discussion of these aforementioned conditions of giantism and acromegaly brings to light a few other interesting arguments regarding the debate over giant discoveries. For instance, when we examine some of the photographs of giant skulls that exist in collections, we often begin to see traits that are in keeping with conditions like acromegaly, which is a growth hormone imbalance resulting from the production of hormones within the anterior pituitary gland, often resulting from the presence of a tumor. Physical characteristics of individuals suffering from this condition often include pronounced features such as raised cheekbones, a bulging or sloped-looking forehead, and enlargement of the jaw.
In the photograph to the right, the skeleton of an Iranian man who likely suffered from acromegaly (referred to here as a “pituitary giant”) features many of the signs of a growth hormone imbalance, including periosteal reaction, which involves the formation of new bone in response to stimuli periosteum, a membrane that covers bone. Altogether, this would make for a rather “beastly” looking individual, and one can only imagine the rumors that might have circulated had nineteenth century laymen uncovered such an example while, say, plowing a field where they had occasionally managed to turn up arrow heads!
When looking at such reports of “giants”, the average height of these large individuals, while living, tends to have been around seven feet; there are, however, exceptional cases that allege giants of far greater size, sometimes exceeding ten feet in length, have been found. This brings us to another interesting point: a skeptical disposition that is often espoused when arguing about giants (or against them, rather) is that these beings are nothing truly anomalous, since we have often (or at least semi-often) seen humans in modern times of equal extremity in their size. We must accept this as a true statement, since seven feet in height might not indicate anything particularly far removed from some of the more extreme among today us in terms of size. However, the tallest living man on record, Robert Wadlow, stood at only 8′ 11” in height, coming in just short of being nine feet tall. Arguably, if a ten or eleven foot skeleton were actually ever unearthed, this would indeed be quite a find; whether one chooses to call it “anomalous” might still be debated, but using Mr. Wadlow for comparison, there are no known instances in modern times where any human has reached such heights.
There are at least a few compelling reports that have emerged since the late nineteenth century, which suggest ”giant” finds which might exceed the best records of today. The Winona, Minnesota History of Winona County from 1883 mentions the discovery of a pair of skeletons, one of them, found near Mineral Bluff being ten feet in length, and a second, unearthed near the Dresbach township, measuring nine feet. “Their size, form, and structure would lead those well versed in paleontology to believe they belonged to a race prior to the Indian,” the entry reads. If this information could be taken with certainty, we would be faced with the possibility of an ancient human more than a foot taller than Robert Wadlow, pictured here alongside his father, a man of nearly six feet in height (5′, 11” to be exact). Arguably, a ten-foot-tall human would be truly gigantic, by most anyone’s standards.
Similar discoveries of humans that exceeded Wadlow’s physical size tempt our imaginations, but without offering rock-solid evidence of men of immense stature. Taking these for what they are in a historical context, among the best of those cases, the story of the Giant of Castelnau remains perhaps the most intriguing. Here, a series of skeletal portions discovered in the 1890s in France pointed to a Bronze-Age man who, while living, had been at least ten feet or more in height, with a more impressive figure of 11′ 6″ estimated by Georges Vacher de Lapouge, who discovered the bones. Within a few years of Lapouge’s discovery, reports of human remains discovered at Montpellier, France included bones so large that the individuals they belonged to likely stood “between 10 and 15 feet in height.” The last we hear of these bones is that they were allegedly taken to the Paris Academy, where they were studied. Since at least a few of the good “seven-footers” that were allegedly lost or hidden away by the Smithsonian do still exist in their archives, perhaps if proper channels were followed, some new insights into the whereabouts of skeletal remains from the Castelnau and Montpellier finds could be obtained in modern times also. Arguably, if there were proof of humans growing to anywhere between ten and fifteen feet in height at some point in our past, it would indeed open an all new dimension to the debate over these so-called “giants.”
What we must keep in mind with regard to all this is that most who seek to address the topic are going to gravitate heavily in one direction or another, seeking to favor the likelihood of there being either a vast and mysterious riddle from our ancient past that is continually being covered up by “the powers that be,” or to the contrary, that there is absolutely nothing to any reports of alleged giants, and that all instances suggesting such discoveries are either hoaxes, hearsay, or the results of ineptitude when measurements and other would-be-scientific data was being retrieved. Clearly, there is some middle ground here; some of the extremely large skeletons, for those willing to go looking for them, still exist in private collections and, interestingly, even amidst the Smithsonian’s own archives; photographs and accession cards denoting their existence still exist just as well. Arguably, this should be given serious consideration by conspiracists and skeptical debunkers alike. While we can’t say there was ever a separate race of giants that existed in the Americas or elsewhere, as many have asserted, we can’t in honesty maintain that there have simply never been any skeletons of large stature ever found, or that among them there weren’t some specimens which aroused some compelling questions about the ancient living individual they represented.
Why, then, are many so quick to explain away reports of giant skeletons as being the result of newspaper hoaxes, erosion, scattering and displacement of bones, and other theories which would likely seek to dispel there ever having been a discovery in the first place? Maybe it’s more a semantic matter of what we consider to be a “giant.” Conversely, with the modern medical knowledge of conditions that cause excessive production of growth hormones that are known to cause such conditions among humans, how can so many of the “giant” finds be considered evidence of a “lost race,” or worse, the long-lost evidence of the Biblical Nephilim or some other equally improbable explanation for these finds?
At the end of the day, our best bet might be to stop shoveling dirt on top of the aspects of science and history that we would simply prefer to ignore, based on our beliefs, preconceived expectations, or purely our desire to be right. Behind the debate over the so-called giants of the ancient world exists an opportunity to come to a better understanding of human development and evolution. Choosing not to have that debate, based on ideological misgivings we maintain toward people who don’t share our views, will get us nowhere. Maybe it’s time we decided to meet in the middle, for a change.