History of Dinosaur Discovery

Thinking humans, Homo sapiens, made their presence known about 100,000 years ago. Dinosaurs had already been extinct for 65 million years. Early man may well have noticed the strange bones that later times would eager collect.

These early ancestors were too concerned of survival to be concerned about some strange bones. It took civilization to allow the Homo sapiens the opportunity to ponder the strange castings found in rocks. The earliest written reference to dinosaurs may be an entry from China in about 300 BCE. There is a reference to dragon bones. Three main periods of dinosaur discovery can be examined: The Primitive Period, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Modern Age.

Up to and extending through the Middle Ages, interest of fossils was limited. Dinosaur fossils were attributed to the remains of devils and demons. Legends of dragons and griffins and other strange creatures grew from the period prior to the Renaissance. Galileo, Newton and Hooke used their scientific skills and keen powers of observation to lay a foundation for other scientists to look critically at dinosaur fossils. Edward Lhuyd, a friend of Newton, published the first scientific study of dinosaur fossils. As the 17th Century closed, the Age of Enlightenment was open to new ideas.

The 1700’s and early 1800’s found an increased interest in dinosaur fossils but the remains were considered some biblical beast or abhorrent error of nature. The most famous scientist of this period was Georges Cuvier. He is attributed with founding vertebrate paleontology. His work established the concept of extinction. Da Vinci and Hooke before had suggested that fossils represent creatures that once lived but no longer roam the earth.

In 1824, William Buckman became the first scientist to write a scientific treatise that discussed a dinosaur fossil. Twenty years later, Richard Owen offered the word “dinosaur” as a taxonomic group for these primitive fossils. Using the resources and influence of the British Monarchy, he opened the London Natural History Museum. The purpose was to show the public the range of life on the planet including dinosaur fossils. From this point the concept of the Dinosaur is accepted and opens the door to the modern era of dinosaur study.

Dinosaur paleontology begins as a science when William Parker Foulke, an English hobbyist, on vacation in New Jersey unearths a nearly complete dinosaur fossil. This find stirred a wave of dinosaur mania in the United States and changed the study of dinosaurs forever. The fossil was a new discovery (Hadrosaurus). It was a dinosaur that walked on two legs instead of four. It opened a new era into dinosaur paleontology. The publication of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” confirmed the theories that dinosaurs were indeed past forms of life that had become extinct. The modern Age of Dinosaur study was at hand.

It took the “bone wars” of the turn of the 20th century that fired the public in its interest in dinosaurs. Edward D. Cope and Othniel C. Marsh began a bitter battle of trying to outdo one another in finding and naming dinosaurs. Marsh’s uncle was the very rich George Peabody who build the Peabody Museum at Yale University where Marsh taught. The Peabody has grown to be one of the great paleontological research centers. The news media carried the adventure of these “Indiana Jones'” of their day. The general public followed the exploits of these paleontologists as if it were an adventure series. Marsh and Cope unearthed and named over 100 species of dinosaur.

The dinosaur search was on! Fired by an interested public and natural history museums that were willing to fund the scientific adventures, new finds captured the news media’s attention. It was a great story to cover through the roaring twenties. Tut and T. rex battle for the headlines. The stock market crash, depression, onset of war and horrors that followed pushed the excitement of fossil finds far into the background.

The Cold War followed and the news media carried tales of the end of the human race. Fossilized bones of a bygone period seemed of little importance. Dinosaur paleontology moved ahead with little notice through those years. Explorations to Mongolia and other eastern countries illustrated the dinosaurs dominated the Mesozoic era around the world. Dinosaur footprints and eggs were uncovered. Great fields of dinosaurs were uncovered in the western United States. The search for the dinosaur continued in relative silence.

It took the imagination of a writer, the brilliance of a filmmaker and the federal government to bring the dinosaur back to the headlines. Michael Crichton’s best selling novel, Jurassic Park, was turned into a blockbuster movie in the early 1990’s. The public was amazed and wonder-struck in the summer of 1993 as a very plausible tale of dinosaurs cloned from the blood taken from amber trapped mosquitoes.

As the public jammed the theaters to experience this movie, the news media was focusing on the federal governments seizure of the most complete Tyrannosaurs rex fossil ever found. “Sue” was a 42 foot long fossil of the gargantuan terror of the Mesozoic. It was the biggest, best preserved and most complete specimen of T. rex ever found.

The government initially seized Sue because it was unearthed on federal lands. The outcry of the public forced the government to re-look at their role in Sue’s discovery. After years of legal hassles and who owns what, Sue was finally auctioned off. The Chicago Field Museum paid 8 million dollars for the fossil. It has been reconstructed and now is on permanent exhibit at the Field Museum.

Dinosaurs remain a focus of scientific interest. The physiology of the dinosaur has taken over the direction of investigations. Were dinosaurs warm-blooded? Did they live in herds? Did they swim? Could they fly? Just how fast could a dinosaur run? These are the questions that are faced by modern day paleontologists. The study of dinosaurs go on and on. The history of dinosaur discovery is still in it’s early chapters. There is much to learn of these great creatures.