Part of the work the students are doing in the course is writing blog posts. The point of the posts is to help students learn to communicate persuasive, insightful, evidence-based arguments through writing. The student blog posts related to "giants" are listed here. I wanted to integrate those posts into a synthesis of what we discussed in the class.
Our discussion of "giants" began with some background, tracing the origins of western giant mythology through the Bible, Greek and Roman writings, and early European sources. We discussed the somewhat isomorphic narratives found in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean writings (e.g., Hesiod's Five Ages of Man, the Old Testament, the Book of Enoch, and The Epic of Gilgamesh), noting the parallels in some ancient notions about a past world populated by giant, quasi-supernatural, human-like beings. One student wrote about the association between giant mythology and cannibalism (the giants often tend to be cannibals).
I introduced the idea (following Adrienne Mayor and others) that at least some ideas about giants may have been related to ancient peoples finding a way to accommodate into their worldview the remains of large, extinct animals that they would have no doubt encountered from time to time. It's an easy enough mistake to make, especially for people with no formal training in comparative anatomy confronting the remains of Ice Age megafauna in an era before the concept of extinction took hold.
That human societies use mythology to make sense of the world around them and to shape their views of themselves is not surprising, of course, and I think we can see this sort of thing play out repeatedly through time with respect to "giants." We discussed how giants played into the mythologies of post-Roman Europe in a number of interesting ways. The Historia Britonnum (a "history" of the indigenous people of Britain written around AD 828), for example, borrowed heavily from Roman and Greek mythology. Europeans continued the tradition of interpreting the bones of extinct megafauna as those of human giants, whether wicked or noble. The stone constructions left by the Romans themselves were later regarded as the work of giants from a past age. Interpreting megalithic constructions as the work of giants is common today, despite plenty of positive evidence that normal-sized people can and do move big rocks.
Science began to chip away at the evidence for giants in the 1700's, marked first perhaps by Hans Sloane's argument that some of the bones identified as those of giants actually belonged to elephants. Pushback came in the form of the famous 1735 "list of giants" by Claude-Nicholas Le Cat. Le Cat's address was reprinted in the Encyclopedia Britannica and hopped across the Atlantic at some point in the late 1700's (the earliest American printing I have found so far in a 1765 Maryland newspaper). Abridged versions of Le Cat's address were printed time and again in American newspapers from the 1840's until the 1890's as the reporting of giant bones ramped up and reached its peak.
The decades-long American fad of giant skeleton reports differs from what happened in Europe earlier, and it remains a fascinating subject to try to understand. The "giant phenomenon" occurred in the context of the appearance of new information technologies (i.e., telegraph and rotary printing press), the forced removal of Native Americans from the eastern U.S., and the debate over the "Mound Builders," among other things. A couple of students wrote about the historic contexts of ideas about a "giant race" that preceded Native Americans: the "white giant" myth of the Comanche didn't hold up to scrutiny, and early excavations of earthen mounds in Wisconsin found no evidence of giants.
Despite the lack of evidence, the "Mound Builder" myth survives in the public imagination. It is used as a hook in a recent travel piece written for a West Virginia newspaper, for example, and the "Adena giant" narrative is still regularly pressed into service. Two students looked at specific cases related to claims of "giant" skeletons in North America: one found that a "missing" giant skull from Texas was neither missing nor giant and another fleshed out the case of "giant skeletons" from Branch County, Michigan.
The main agendas underlying modern beliefs in giants in the United States are related to two main Christian communities: (1) Young Earth Creationists; and (2) Nephilim enthusiasts. (After teaching this class, I think there is more overlap between these two orientations than I previously recognized). The relationship between Christianity and giants was one of the subjects of an attempted survey about beliefs in giants.
The appeal of giants to the YEC crowd is that the existence of giants would prove evolution to be false and the Bible to be true (that's the rationale, anyway, based on the flawed argument that giants would show that things get smaller over time rather than bigger). The struggle against evolution has compelled Young Earth Creationists to somehow deal with the accumulation of fossil evidence that is consistent with a very long (i.e., six million years) human evolutionary timeline rather than a very short (i.e., six thousand years) Biblical timeline. One student wrote about how creationists have tried to characterize the fragmentary remains of Meganthropus as a giant, and another wrote about the idea that Neanderthals were the Biblical Nephilim. In both of these cases, just as in ancient Britain and the ancient Near East, we see the struggle to somehow reconcile and explain facts of the natural world.
Even after teaching this course, it is still not clear to me exactly what the Nephilim enthusiasts are all about (other than monetizing gullibility). The Nephilim Whirlpool is an absurd mishmash of giants, religion, mythology, aliens, paranormal, and conspiracy theory that takes Genesis 6.4 as the "Rosetta stone" to understanding the world. One of my goals in talking about it was to illustrate that, in the absence of a mechanism for discriminating between credible and non-credible "evidence," you are compelled to concoct a story that can incorporate, literally, everything. Thus, for example, all of the stories from all mythology, extra-biblical or not, can be accepted literally and scooped up into the Nephilim dragnet.
Another was to show how the absence of evidence (i.e., where are the bones?) is used by Nephilim enthusiasts to support the claim of a "multi-thousand year cover up" rather than the much more parsimonious position that the lack of giant bones suggests a lack of giants. It's impossible to have a conversation about evidence in that kind of framework.
Although Nephilim theorists exemplify the baloney cannon approach to the human past, they're not alone. Manufactured and misinterpreted "evidence" related to giants is everywhere. One student wrote about Klaus Dona, for example, one wrote about the "giant's armor" at Schloss Ambras, one wrote about the taxidermied giant Kap Dwa, and another wrote about claims connected to the "Balanced Rock" of upstate New York. On the biological side, one student explored claims about Rh negative blood (commonly related to Nephilim heritage) and another asked if there were any known genetic disorders that could have contributed to the often-cited (but never demonstrated) triumvirate of large stature, dental anomalies, and polydactyly.
When you discard the desire to use evidence to discriminate credible ideas from non-credible ones, you're just throwing it all into a blender and drinking whatever comes out. Is there anything left after we do that to "giants"? In reality, probably not much. That doesn't mean it isn't worth exploring further and still trying to understand why people believe what they believe. In eastern North America, are you left with anything after you throw out the obvious hoaxes, fabrications, and gross misrepresentations, disregard the "double rows of teeth" mirage, and adjust for some patterned over-estimates of height? Maybe, and maybe not. Perhaps we're still left with the possibility that relatively tall individuals are over-represented in the earthen mounds of eastern North America. Perhaps the "Adena royalty" hypothesis will still be standing after the dust settles. Or maybe it too, like so many reported "giant" bones, will crumble away when exposed to the air.