Early Interpretations of Dinosaurs as Myth and Science

In 2000, Princeton Univ. Press published “The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times” by Adrienne Mayor. As a folklorist, she presents an interpretation that the Greek myths and legends demonstrate knowledge of the fossilized remains of Protoceratops as the not-so-mythical beast “The Griffin.” She also demonstrates that fossils of giraffes, mammoths and mastodons led to fabulous stories indicating general knowledge of these extinct species. And she shows how the large bones contributed to legends about giants and monsters that indicate people in Greece prior to 350 BCE were trying to figure out what the fossils meant.

Mayor also describes some of the early “interpretations” of fossilized remains in China. From about 300 CE, there are descriptions of so-called “dragon bones” that were ground up by apothecaries for naturalist remedies, which is done to this day. Zhang Qu describes some of these fossil finds in “Hua Yang Guo Zhi,” a book that is a form of gazeteer about regions in China. He attributes the dragon bones to Wucheng in Sichuan Province. The stuff called “dragon bone,” which is to be ground up and compounded, is also described in a traditional medicine pharmacology from about 100 CE, named “Shennong Bencao Jing,” but the sources for such fossils are not identified. These fossils are also directly connected to the Chinese dragon myths that developed into the elaborate ceremonies still presented today in books, artwork and parades.

Using passages from Herodotus, Mayor shows how the dragon tales of both India and Egypt parallel the Chinese dragon folklore and are connected to extensive areas of fossil remains that are on or near the Earth’s surface or exposed in famous outcroppings.

In her 2005 book “Fossil Legends of the First Americans,” from Princeton University Press, Mayor applies similar techniques to the myths, legends and folktales of native peoples in the Western hemisphere. The interpretations are essentially similar to those of the European cultures, although based on oral traditions and various glyphs throughout the New World, rather than written records.

The early interpretations of dinosaurs, then, are related to the presence of fossils that inspired fabulous stories to explain the huge bones that had become rock-like. Until such bones became the objects of scientific examination, which quickly developed into seeming contradictions of the myths and legends, these extinct creatures were the inspiration for creative explanations of a fanciful pre-history.

“Early” scientific interpretations of dinosaurs typically focus on the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) who studied fossils and built on his knowledge of comparative anatomy to develop vertebrate paleontology. His descriptions and naming of the Pterodactyl (Pterosaurs) and the Mosasaurus (a Lepidosaur) are, in most respects, the first scientific studies of saurian remains, although neither are terrestrial reptiles, or technically dinosaurs. There are earlier observations by Leonardo da Vinci and Robert Hooke concerning fossils, in general, but not the specific dinosaur group.

Almost all of the early “scientific” developments in the interpretation of fossils that came to be known as “dinosaurs” took place in England. Robert Plot, in 1677, published a description of a Megalosaurus femur, which he identified as the thigh bone of a “giant.” Edward Lhuyd published an accurate article on the tooth of a Sauropod, which he called “rutellum implicatum,” in 1699. The first reasonably scientific analysis of these types of fossils was in 1824 when William Buckland published a paper on lizard fossils that he named “Megalosaurus.” The term “dinosauria” had not yet been coined, however, in 1842 Richard Owen applied it to the collection of Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus bones at the newly founded Natural History Museum in London. From this point forward, almost all scientific interpretations of dinosaur remains follow modern protocols for the naming of things, or taxonomy.