What was the first discovery of dinosaur remains? Does anyone really know? The answer to both questions depends upon how one defines discovery, defines remains and who you ask. Was it a discovery when primitive man encountered big bones in Asia or in the Badlands of North Dakota several thousand years ago? Or does discovery mean by “modern” man, when they were first classified by Sir Richard Owens in 1842, that was when the word dinosaur was first used.
Do remains mean the imprints of feet in petrified mudflats and sandstone, or do remains refer to teeth, eggshells and actual bones? Giant stone footprints have existed in the desserts around the world for millions of years, and mankind saw them and created stories about creatures such as dragons. This wasn’t just in China, but also Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Some dragons flew, some roamed the land, and some swam in the seas, but all were considered reptiles in every culture that talked about them. Sounds similar to dinosaurs, but does that count as a discovery or just superstition?
There were stone eggshells kept for centuries in the temple of Apollo in Ancient Greece and worshiped as fragments of the shells from which Castor and Pollux, the sons of Zeus, hatched. They have now been shown to be the remains of dinosaurs eggs, uncovered thousands of years ago. Those fragments were kept on public exhibit over 2000 years ago, but were they “discovered”.
Chinese folklore used “stone bones and teeth” that were from “dragons” to make powders which were believed to ensure good health and long life. These could have been whale or elephant bones, but Chinese were very well educated and should have known the difference between reptile and mammal bones. Also they knew the difference between stone and bone! They were using dinosaur remains!
Then we can also go to some of the religions to discuss artifacts from prehistoric times. “Bones of Giants” were mentioned in Genesis and were considered sinister in nature by the Church. Some early priests claimed that the fossils and artifacts were pushed up from the depths of Hell, believed parts of serpents used to punish sinners. They were likely dinosaurs remains even if not recognized as such, and as the bard says, “a rose by any other name smells as sweet”.
And that brings us back to the original question, what does one define as “discovery”? If one only goes by recorded history and requires scientific recognition that the bones were properly identified as dinosaurs, then dinosaurs were first identified in the 1800s and first named as such by Sir Richard Owens in 1842. Of course the Ancient Chinese, Europeans, Africans, and even Native Americans would all disagree!