Mason Winfield’s Twilight on the Western Door – The Spiritual, the Supernatural, the Paranormal
Some of you have seen the new History Channel program The Search for the Lost Giants. A Facebook friend gave me a tag while discussing his enthusiasm for the show, and it’s gotten me updating my comments on the subject.
I wrote about the giant skeleton reports in Western New York’s past in Shadows of the Western Door (1997) and its sequel Spirits of the Great Hill (2001). Each book is a paranormal survey devoting two pages to the subject, which to me is a mere curiosity. I gave the matter a quick and lighthearted recap in The Paranormal Almanac of Western New York (2012). The reports I dug up vary in quality, clarity and development. I bet there are more to be found for anyone who chooses to specialize. From the sheer number of giant skeleton reports (hereafter GSR) from widespread locations – with an apparent concentration on the underside of the Great Lakes – one might start speculating that there had once been a caste, a nation, or even an entire race of oversized human beings in ancient America.
When I did my first few talks and radio programs after the publication of “Shadows,” I saw how sensational the matter was. It does not surprise me that the subject of ancient human giants would be a hook that could lead to a national TV program. One reason I didn’t pursue that route of specialization is that I didn’t want to become an advocate for something I couldn’t advocate.
In the first of two earlier articles, I introduced the subject of giant skeletons and their reports and discussed my meeting with one of the founders of the pertinent show. In the second, I delivered a list of my top ten favorite reports from Western New York, the historic territory of the Seneca nation. Even though I took The Search for the Lost Giants somewhat to task, the philosophical problems I have with the show do not address the issue as a whole. Could there have been human giants in North America? I can think of more questions than that that could be asked. This is my top ten list.
Why might there ever have been human giants?
When the natural conditions are favorable to gigantism, that is what tends to happen in most animal species. Long periods of sustained cold seem to fit the bill. In an Ice Age, the thinking goes, body mass helps you stay warm, and a breed can get gradually bigger. There is also the idea out there that the limited food resources of an Ice Age might extend the adolescence, the growth phase, of a living species, which means it simply grows for more years of its life. The zoologists have it all thought out, and I defer to them if I have phrased something poorly.
The Pleistocene epoch – 2.5 million years ago to about 12,000 years – was the world’s most recent period of “extended glaciation,” – Ice Ages. (The period after it is called the Holocene. We are still in it.) During the Ice Ages we had representatives of many of today’s mammals species who were often several times bigger than their living cousins. The biggest land mammal of all time came from this period, a dinosaur-sized relative of the rhino that may have weighed 20 tons. There were T-Rex-sized ground sloths and beavers the bulk of today’s grizzlies.
Anatomically modern humans appeared during the Pleistocene. The first of them probably set foot in the American continents 15,000-20,000 years ago, where they would have encountered a colorful array of warm-blooded species. Not all of them were welcoming.
There were rats in South America that grew to the size of bulls. North America had wolverines like some of today’s bears. The American lion – Leo atrox – was up to double the weight of the one we find in Africa, as was a sickle-fanged bushwhacker we call the saber-toothed tiger. The dire wolf was a blocky pack-villain who would have liked his name; he was well bigger than any living canids. There were man-sized eagles and ten-foot-tall hook-beaked land-birds. Today’s polar bear would have run for its life from one of its Ice Age cousins, the giant short-faced bear, a lanky goon that could haul its car-sized carcass 40 miles an hour and catch whatever it craved. (They call Arctodus “short-faced” because of its pushed-in, bulldog profile, a shape that gave enormous power to its bite.) This beastie drove lion prides off their kills. These “larger than normal” versions of contemporary animal species were the megafauna.
My old friend, the late East Aurora antiquarian Rodger Sweetland, used to conjecture that it might be more the mystery if the human was the only mammal species that did not adapt with body mass during extended centuries of cold. Why couldn’t there have been mega-humans?
2) If there were human giants in the Ice Ages, why don’t we have them now?
The answer – accepting the almighty “if” – would have to be that being a giant is no survival advantage for a human, at least once the Ice Ages are over. We saw that with the animal species, in which most of the megafauna got smaller over time and some just went extinct.
Size can be an edge. Size can help you compete with others in your ecological niche. Size helps you shove aside or, even better, intimidate others going after the same resources, which in the animal world almost always means, “food.” Size helps you take down prey animals that may also be growing. Size helps you brush off predators that may want to take you down. There is evidence of this odd sort of “arms race” among dinosaur species. Size also helps you compete with rivals of your own species for mates, meaning that size tends to get passed along.
But size is not an advantage in all circumstances. In the grand scheme, the burden of the caloric demands and all else that goes with body-mass can be a detriment. Size brings you a long reproductive cycle and a smaller number of offspring per traumatic delivery. It takes a long time and a lot of food for those offspring to get to fighting weight. If your meal ticket vanishes and you are too big to catch anything else, you have a major problem. Size also doesn’t help you deal with environmental surprises like a diminution of water resources or a sudden climatic change. It all piles up on the big eater and the slow breeder.
Once the direct need for size fades away, the giants often shrink. We’ve seen this happen with isolated populations of generally big animals, like elephants. Protected from predators and competing for scarce resources on California’s Channel Islands, the mighty Ice Age mammoth shrank to the size of a Cub Cadet lawn tractor in a surprisingly short time.
3) Might we have had giants for a period after the loss of the megafauna? Could the Paleoamericans or pre-Columbian Native Americans have encountered them?
The big animals, the megafauna, were mostly gone by 10,000 years ago at the end of a gradual process referred to as the Holocene extinction event. The causes of the Holocene extinction are debated, but several, probably in partnership, are proposed, including climatic changes affecting food sources and competition for food and turf with modern humans. It’s likely that mega-humans, if there ever were any, would have survived the extinction better than the megafauna. Humanity has an adaptability that is missing from most animal species.
4) If there were giants for a few centuries or millennia after the Ice Ages in America, why didn’t we have them when the Europeans got here?
Many normal-sized Native Americans – the Adena, the Olmec, the Tiahuanacans – were no-shows when the Europeans arrived, and their genetic descendants can be hard to trace even today. In fact, native societies on the American continents tended to be more prone to eco-collapse than those on the Eurasian landmass. It’s one of the excellent points made by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel (1997). This was probably due to factors of the American continents’ topography and climate, as well as native plant and animal species.
It’s conceivable that, if there ever were North American giants, they survived the Ice Ages in diminished numbers and simply died out before the Europeans arrived. Many Native American legends point to conflict between the normal-sized humans and the giants. Maybe the giants were either outcompeted or exterminated after the Ice Ages were over. If you give in to the wildest speculation that might lead to a fantasy novel, the giants could have been a specialized caste of bodyguards and soldiers or even the ruling elite in some of the pre-Columbian societies.
We just might have had the giants, though, according to some highly contested reports of early explorers in South America, including Magellan, whose expeditions turned up accounts of meeting very large, very dim humans. It actually seems as if the giants in Patagonia, if there were any, were lower-tech cultures, and that they had been marginalized. Patagonia is the southernmost tip of South America and the place nobody would want to live unless driven there. (Being driven to the edge happened to marginalized populations in Europe, incidentally, particularly the Celts, whose descendants still live predominantly in what’s called “the Celtic Fringe.”) But these reports are hard to handle. I would presume that the last of the giants, had there ever been any, had either croaked or shrunk long before the Europeans got to North America.
5) Why do we have so many reports of giant bones from the old days?
The simplest supportive answer is that at least some of the reports were valid, and that the rumor-cycle got going from there.
One cynical-skeptical reply is that the giant skeleton reports were all figments of journalism. As the young U.S. expanded westward, there was immense curiosity about what the settlers were finding in the new land, and almost anything seemed believable. Once it was noticed that wild, captivating stories could be big sellers of of a paper or magazine, every frontier reporter looking for a hit would figure out a way to manufacture something. A GSR would certainly suit the purpose.
A counterpoint to that is that, at least in Western New York, few of the reports were made with any apparent commercial motive. Most appear in county histories. They are collected by historians through interviews and reviews of family papers, and in some cases by observing the finds first-hand.
Another skeptical theory concerns a religious motive for manufacturing mystery. Because the Old Testament mentions giant human races a number of times, religious fundamentalists in America were often looking for things that would support their take on Scripture, even if only by defying science. Many Mormons – another native Western New York religion – are continually hoping to find evidence of lost American civilizations and prehistoric battlefields that might confirm their founder’s vision of ancient pre-Columbian empires, typically centered around Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, N.Y. Clearly, there were people who had a motive for advocating almost anything that might upset the ideological apple-cart.
There still are. If they can get you doubting enough of your own fundamentals, then any craziness they want to propose has a shot, especially if they can make it trendy. I still think this was the point of the hip-in-the-1990s French-derived literary philosophy known as Deconstruction.
6) Could the old-timers have been honestly mistaken about the giant bones?
It is indeed a more understanding skeptical counterpoint to suggest that many giant skeleton reports were exaggerated or mistaken in other ways. It’s hard for an amateur to judge the size of a living being from the disarticulated remains. The most common mistake, I am told, is to overestimate.
It’s also possible that the bones of other species could have been mistaken for those of large humans. My friend the paleontological illustrator Bill Parsons points out that many animal bones look quite a lot like their human correspondents. Pig-molars and deer-ribs resemble the matching parts of our species, and some could be quite a bit bigger. Even a mammoth femur could look to the newcomer like that of a giant human.
We might take a minute here to observe the potential error of judging a living individual from a single body part. We have all seen people with hands, noses, heads and other features that were way too big or small to match the rest of them, and if that was the only part of them you hauled out of the turf, you’d think you had a giant. Not every ancient human would have been as perfectly proportionate as the designer-monster in Mel Brooks’ film Young Frankenstein. (“He vould have an enormous schwanstucker.”)
The fact that many remains were seen and held by multiple witnesses is problematic for fans of the “mistake” theory. How anyone could be mistaken about the species of a skull or the size of a femur found with it is not easy to explain.
So few truly ancient American skeletons have been found that we cannot claim to have a representative sample of the sorts of people who were living here in the millennia that ended the Ice Ages. This is part of the reason that every ancient American find is a treasure.
7) Why aren’t we reporting giant skeletons now? Why do the only GSR seem to be from the old days?
An unsympathetic skeptic might say that there never were any giant skeletons in the first place and that that the reason they are no longer being reported is that no one in the last century thinks anybody could get away with such a hoax.
There are counterpoints that can be made. One of them is to suggest that there might have been giant bones, but that most of the ones that were out there in the obvious places – burial mounds and monuments – have already been found, and that there are very few more left in places likely to be excavated.
It must be remembered that the heyday of GSR was during the period of expansion, when the landscape was being heavily and even recklessly modified to suit the demands of agriculture, travel and settlement. This was the 18th and 19th centuries’ version of sprawl, to prey upon the Native Americans. (Today’s sprawl is more even-handed, victimizing instead greenspace, classic architecture, village life and taxpayers.) It is lamentably true that most of the ancient Native monuments are lost due to the type of expansion of the period that did report the giants in the first place.
Nowadays you can’t dig into the monuments that are left. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (hereafter, NAGPRA) will see to that. Like anything else that protects and preserves sacred spaces, that aspect of NAGPRA is a good thing.
It should also be pointed out that the discovery of human remains can be a real hassle for a construction project and bring it to a complete halt. It’s quite possible that odd finds are still being made but that they are being covered up as much as they can be. This type of behavior is something else that the NAGPRA could encourage.
8) If there truly were giant remains, where are they now? Where are the bones?
The skeptic would answer, “There weren’t any.” I confess my sympathy to that line of reasoning. If you can’t come up with the goods, at least in respect to something that ought to be material and verifiable, all you have left is excuses.
The advocate might answer that very few old bones of any sort would be expected to survive amateur handling and storing in the period in which most of these remains were reported. Furthermore, many of the finds were said to be quite fragile.
Another advocate could say that there have been some surviving specimens, and that they have been repressed. There is more than one case in which the local finders of the giant remains turned them over to museums. Some burned with such curiosity to know what the finds represented that they pursued the matter afterward, only to be stonewalled. This at least gives the suggestion of a coverup.
9) There are so many giants in world mythology. Could the origin be extraterrestrial?
Don’t even go there. There isn’t any scientifically acceptable proof of ETs. To use something you can’t prove to explain something else you can’t prove is a little far out, don’t you think?
As for the giants in mythology, it seems to me that they cannot be used to even suggest the existence of giants in reality. It should not be expected that ancient texts – religious or literary – should make truth other than metaphorical. And mythology is its own coherent discipline, which holds together quite well under existent scholarship. There is no need to think that people unexposed to the subject are going to crack its code as easily as looking at a bas-relief wall or reading passages of an epic in translation. [Check out an expose of Erich von Däniken (Chariots of the Gods, 1969) if you choose, for a list of embarrassing misapprehensions about ancient rock carvings.]
10) Could the proof be out there, but repressed?
We saw two parties of supporters of the giant skeletons in the middle 19th century: the journalists with their commercial motives and the fundamentalists with their religious ones. Just to play devil’s advocate for a second, we could have a similar tag-team today, and on the side of the disbelievers.
One force of repression could be an inadvertent one. As it stands, human remains that predate Columbus are presumed to be Native American and automatically subject to the 1990 act known as the NAGPRA, which has its good points. However, the reasoning behind the treatment of human remains under NAGPRA is based on a theory of history – “Columbus was the first non-American Indian person ever to set foot in the American continents” – that we now suspect to be outmoded. Any find since that mighty doctrine came about could be subject to “repatriation” – destruction for scientific purposes – before it has a chance to be studied.
You could dig up a guy in a Viking helmet or a suit of Roman armor and if it were judged from his situation or his radiocarbon dating that he was older than the annus mirabilis of 1492, he could be handed over to the nearest Native American nation to be disposed of. Something like that has happened recently with a number of very ancient finds, including one 10,000 year old skeleton from Idaho nicknamed “Buhl Woman.” Over the outraged protests of many archaeologists, Buhl Woman’s nearly complete remains were turned over to the Shoshone-Bannock nation and reburied in 1993. The bit of study to which she was subjected got some DNA out of her, which revealed that her closest relatives among any living population group may have been the Polynesians. What the ancestors of today’s Native Hawaiians may have been doing in prehistoric Idaho or why they should be answering to the Shoshone today will have to be answered, if it ever can be, by other finds if they are allowed to be studied.
Truly dynamic and theory-shattering finds can make it to the light of day, but the right academics have to be willing to wage pitched battle. The 1996 Washington State discovery of Kennewick Man – a 9000-year-old who seems not to be an American Indian – is one example. A number of impressive scholars went to the wall over Kennewick Man against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and every relevant legal force of the American government that could be mustered. Today Kennewick Man rests with the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, but the last I heard, the Corps refuses to let his remains be studied any further, which means no DNA. What are they afraid somebody might find? And Kennewick Man was no giant; it is merely entrenched historic theories that he seems to have the potential to disrupt. Human remains that are troubling only because of size and not ethnicity might be disposed of more easily.
Another force of repression could come from another group of people who think they are looking out for the rest of us. I can only repeat an anecdote that you are free to disbelieve. It’s as third-hand as the typical “vanishing hitchhiker” tale.
I have a friend, an anthropologist and Ph. D., who told me off the record that more than one set of very large human remains have been found, handled and verified at sites in the central Great Lakes region. By “verified,” you understand that that means, “recently.” Knowing the high standard of proof required for revolutionary claims, no old reports or testimonials would qualify without still-extant evidence. My friend had been told this himself through back-channels. He didn’t know how big the bones were, but I infer that they were those of individuals of at least remarkable size, and that, since more than one site was involved, a pattern was suggested. When I asked this gentleman why they were being kept secret, he stopped and looked at me.
“Think of the emotion involved with any aspect of the human species: cloning, abortion, evolution, reproduction…” I did. I ask you to think only of the way just one of the issues, abortion, rouses hackles. Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, it doesn’t seem to matter; people will risk life and they will take it. Bombs have gone off at clinics. Life is denied within them. The suits might presume that the news of the onetime existence of an imposing human species would be just too challenging to be broken in a single generation.
Sometimes, people cover things up because they don’t like them. At other times, they don’t care at all about the things they cover up. They cover things up because they don’t like the people who like those things.
Since some of today’s advocates for the ancient giants might use them to support fringe theories about second comings and post-Biblical conspiracies, and others might use them to support paranormal irrationality in other forms (like ET takeovers), it might be considered in some quarters that the subject of the human giants is one of those that had better be left at rest.
Maybe we should leave the last word on the lost giants to the descendants of the people who might have known them, the Native Americans. The ones I know best are members of Iroquois/Hodenosaunee and Algonquin nations of upstate New York. None of them have any doubt that the white establishment’s picture of the world, past or present, has a few gaps in it, especially in their home territory. They have legends about the giants, and not just in their skeletal forms. They know there were such giants in New York State and other Great Lakes regions, they say, not only because of their traditions, but because they have proof.
There is talk among Reservation insiders that a few very large human bones are preserved to this day by their own culture-keepers. I hear that the Medicine People of both the Seneca and the Onondaga may have such giant remains. If you are asking me to explain why no one on the outside ever gets a look at them, I would have to suggest that the reasons could be both religious and cultural.
There are giants in the most ancient legends of the Iroquois/Hodenosaunee. While some of these characters are fixtures of fantastic and lighthearted storytelling whose only point is to be entertaining, the giants in general have a not-easy-to-summarize-quickly connection to things that are truly sacred, hence, some giant-related subjects and stories are sensitive. With the giants, you can get on touchy ground pretty quickly, and few outsiders will know how to respect the boundaries.
Today’s Reservation folk might also feel that, since their traditions have been trivialized enough for the past three centuries, there is nothing to be gained by opening up any further just to help Honyo solve one of his problems. They’ve tried contributing insight many a time before and gotten nowhere. If there are such things as giant bones on the Rez and you don’t happen to be Native, good luck getting a look at them now, Long Knife.
©2015 Mason Winfield
Mason Winfield is the author of eleven books on supernatural-paranormal subjects.
Twilight on the Western Door welcomes questions and comments.