What is the “Giant” myth?
After learning about my series of articles on West Virginia prehistory in West Virginia Explorer Magazine, Olivia Jones, an adjunct anthropology instructor who recently joined the archaeological staff at the museum, suggested that we work together to address common misconceptions about “giant” Native Americans interred in West Virginia’s burial mounds.
“The so-called giants in West Virginia are a prevailing myth that the Adena people were a race of giant prehistoric humans based on accounts of large skeletons found during West Virginian mound excavations,” Jones says.
She clarified that the giants being described in the myth aren’t supernatural in size. They are described as unusually tall individuals who would now be diagnosed with gigantism or acromegaly. Both are rare hormonal disorders. Acromegaly stimulates bone growth in the hands, feet, and face, and gigantism may cause individuals to grow more than seven feet tall.
A 1907 article in the Wheeling News helped popularize the ancient giant myth in northern West Virginia
Although instances of these conditions among prehistoric natives is theoretically possible, Jones explained that “inspiration for the giant myth is based more on the misperceptions of early settlers and excavators alike.”
Many early histories of West Virginia include some form of the myth, often glorifying a mysterious past race of Mound Builders that had been driven out by “savage Indians.”
I’ve discussed this “Mound Builder” idea in an earlier article titled “Little-known facts about West Virginia moundbuilders,” however the Mound Builder and giant myths are intertwined in early American archaeology in which it was sometimes proposed that the mounds covered the bodies of these supposed giants.
Where did this idea originate? Is there archaeological evidence?
Similar ideas are found across the United States, but according to Jones, the West Virginia stories have been reinforced by a line from the book Mounds of the DeαԀ, published by Dr. Don Dragoo in 1963.
Dragoo was an archaeologist with the Carnegie Museum who excavated Cresap Mound and many other Adena burial mounds. His 1963 book mentions the excavation of a 7-foot-2-inch high skeleton beneath Cresap Mound, and this account is still used today as an example of a supposedly “giant” Adena. Unfortunately, many readers are unaware that this is a field measurement, not a scientific reconstruction.
An image of the Cardiff Giant, later revealed as a hoax. (Library of Congress)
“Estimating an individual’s living stature from skeletal remains requires well-preserved leg bones as well as considerations of the age and biological sex of the individual,” Jones says.
Natural processes after burial often result in the bones being broken, incomplete, and more spread apart. Thus, taking a measurement of the skeleton from the top of the skull to the bottom of the foot bones would provide an inaccurate stature of the individual.
Additionally, the skeleton was likely “measured by a workman in the field,” often local day laborers rather than trained osteologists in a lab. Estimating living stature from skeletal remains requires expertise in anatomy and forensic reconstruction. Partial skeletons are even more difficult, requiring special calculations. According to one of the curators at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the seven-foot measurement may even be a typo, as it can not be found in Dragoo’s original notes.
Jones also recounted information from the peer-reviewed article Giant Amerindians: Fact or Fantasy?, which could not find any evidence of gigantism in Native American skeletal data and noted that Adena males actually averaged five-feet-six-inches.
Some European settlers claimed to have encountered giant natives, such as those depicted in Theodor de Bry’s famous wood carvings, but these were rarely first-hand accounts and no skeletal evidence for these statures has been found. It suited these “adventurers” to sensationalize their survival accounts while also justifying harsh responses to Native American threats.
It should also be noted that alleged proof of giant skeletons often comes from late 19th- and early 20th-century newspapers. These accounts were often self-reported by the public, cited documented hoaxes like the Cardiff Giant, and would have appeared in the same publications as ads for miracle elixirs and opium-laced medicine.
“These journalists may have exaggerated or reprinted aggrandized information to sell papers rather than conduct the type of investigative journalism and fact-checking that is more common today,” Jones said.