The notion that a long-vanished race of giants once lived on Earth is an old one, pre-dating the Bible, which states "there were giants in the Earth" in the days before the great flood survived by Noah and his ark.
Ancient drawings on rock walls from Spain to India have given weight to this theory, as have legends and stories handed down by Scandinavian tribes and Bushmen of Australia. The Sumerians of Mesopotamia also believed in a primordial race of giants, as did the Inca, Aztec and other pre-Columbian peoples of the New World.
As recently as the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed that giants had once ruled empires from the steppes of Central Asia to the frozen wastelands of Norway. Who else could have built Stonehenge and other colossal stone ruins scattered across Europe, northern Africa and the Mediterranean?
Some legends suggest these beings were descended from star-gods who walked the Earth countless ages ago. They were said to have built handsome stone temples and walled cities and were capable of incredible feats, such as flying, walking on water, even turning lead into gold.
Nobody knows what happened to these supermen of old. Some say they returned to the stars. Others say they simply died off, leaving nothing behind but their bones and scattered legends.
In the 17th century, workers digging in a sand quarry in southern France found what some scientists believed were the remains of the last giant. The discovery touched off a firestorm of controversy that continues.
Eighteen feet down, the workers found a coffin 30 feet long, 12 feet wide and 8 feet deep. Inside were the bones of a giant no less than 25 feet tall, with shoulders 10 feet across. Its skull, according to one report, was 5 feet long and 10 feet around, with eye sockets as big as dinner plates.
Unfortunately, most of the bones crumbled to powder soon after they were exposed to air. All that remained were two fragments of the lower jaw, three teeth, three vertebrae, a shoulder blade, part of a thighbone, the humerus bone of one arm and a few assorted fragments.
An engraving on the sarcophagus identified the body as Theutobocheus Rex-King. Theutobocheus was a semi-mythological ruler who had led barbarian tribes against Roman legions at the battle of the Galaure River, not far from the site of the find.
According to a tablet enclosed within the tomb, King Theutobocheus was slain in combat and ordered buried in the coffin by Gaius Marius, the victorious Roman general.
News of the giant Theutobocheus spread quickly, and in due time what was left of him arrived in Paris, chaperoned by Pierre Mazuyer, the first scientist to analyze the remains. Not one to miss an opportunity, he put the bones on public display and quickly made a fortune.
When Nicholas Habicot, a respected and popular professor of medicine at the University of Paris, heard about the giant, he decided to investigate. His examination indicated that the bones were the real thing.
In a pamphlet summarizing his findings, the master surgeon wrote that the shape and composition of the bones left no doubt that they had come from a human male.
It wasn't until the 19th century that the issue was settled by Baron Georges Cuvier, a fossil expert at the Museum of Natural History in Paris.
The bones of "King Theutobocheus" were not really those of an ancient warrior after all. Rather, said Mr. Cuvier, they were the remains of an extinct elephant.
He did not blame Mr. Mazuyer and Mr. Habicot for their mistake. Like their contemporaries, they had never heard of dinosaurs and were completely unaware of the fact that long-vanished animals once roamed the land.
Randall Floyd of Augusta is a syndicated writer.