Dinosaurs roamed the earth for over 200 million years. The last “terrible lizard” died 65 million years ago. Some dinosaurs happened to die in a place that allowed a fossil to be cast. These fossils were formed and lay uncovered until earthquakes and floods uncovered them. The earliest human hunted and sought shelter. Dinosaur fossils were not an important factor in human survival. It was not until civilization about 5000 years ago that evidence of human interest in dinosaur fossils are found. The early period of human civilization never realized the significance of these remains.
Ancient Chinese writings dating to about 350 BCE refer to “dragon bones.” Legends of dragons and griffins grew during medieval times. Most people of the times recognized fossils as some type life form but certainly not an ancient giant reptile. The Period of Enlightenment opened the door to scientific thinking. Thinkers, such as Da Vinci, Harvey, Newton and Galileo, paved the path to scientific investigations. Da Vinci and Galileo believed that fossils were the remains of creatures that once lived on the earth but no longer exist. The first scholarly study of dinosaurs appears in 1676 when Robert Plot, an Oxford chemistry professor, received a bone fragment that had been discovered in a limestone quarry. He correctly concluded that it was a lower leg fragment from a very large animal. However, he concluded that it must be the remains of a giant elephant that had been used by the Romans. The first scientific study was published a few years later by Edward Lhuyd, a friend of Isaac Newton. Would this be the first dinosaur discovery? Perhaps but neither Plot or Lhuyd knew the significance of what they were studying.
The first scientific description of a dinosaur that appears in a scientific journal is an 1824 report of the work of the Reverend William Buckland, a professor of Geology at the University of Oxford. His work examined the lower jaw of a Megalosaurus that had been found in 1815. This was followed shortly after by a report by Mary Ann Mantell indicating the similarities between the modern day Iguana and a fossil she named Iguanodon. This is the first scientific work that treats dinosaurs as a creature that seemed related to present day organisms. Would this be the first dinosaur discovery? Perhaps but the term “dinosaur” was yet offered as a distinct category.
The term “dinosaur” is attributed to Sir Richard Owen who offered the name dinosauria as a taxonomic group for the fossil species thus far identified. It was Owen’s enthusiasm that sparked a public interest into the newly recognized group of strange fossils. He captured the interest of Prince Albert. With the aid of Prince Albert, they were able to convince Queen Victoria’s support for the establishment of the Natural History Museum in London to spotlight dinosaur fossil finds. Would this be the first dinosaur discovery? Maybe. Dinosaurs are known only by teeth or a jaw bone or femur or some tracks. There is yet to be a full skeleton.
About the time that Darwin was publishing his “On the Origin of Species,” the first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton was uncovered by William Parker Foulke, an English fossil hobbyist. While vacationing in New Jersey, he heard stories of gigantic bones being found in a gravel pit. He excavated the bones of a larger than elephant sized lizard-bird creature. This is considered by many to be the beginning point of dinosaur Paleontology. Would this be the first dinosaur discovery? It certainly is the point that caught the attention of the general public.
The first discovery of a dinosaur was probably some primitive man who stumbled upon an exposed fossil bone. But it was until civilized people had the luxury to ponder the significance of dinosaur fossils that these finds represented something different. The enlightened scientists of the 17th and 18th Century helped move the understanding of these fossil finds in positive direction. The 19th Century paleontologists defined the dinosaur and thus provided a significance to these fossil finds. The discovery of “Sue” in the early 1990’s illustrate that the discovery of dinosaurs is a “task in the works.”