Dinosaurs lived for over 160 million years, dying out about 65 million years ago. We would not know about them had they not left us hints of their existence in the form of fossils. Just how we came to understand what these fossils were is a long story.
Early Discoveries Were Not Recognized as Valuable Finds
Nobody can be sure as to when dinosaurs were first discovered. Certainly odd shaped rocks were found long before people even know what they were or where they came from. Undoubtedly skulls had been found in multiple places on our planet, giving rise to so many areas having their own form of “Dragon” legends.
From China, where fossils were ground up to be used as magical medicine, to Europe where an ancient leg bone was thought to be that of a giant human killed in the biblical flood, there is no mistake that many dinosaur bones had been discovered long before they were accounted for as Dinosaurs.
Finally Recognized as Dinosaurs
It was not until the early 1820’s when William Buckland described a dinosaur in a scientific journal, and later, in 1842, Sir Richard Owen coined the term Dinosaur, which meant “terrible lizard”, that these creatures finally seemed to come to life, and be looked at seriously.
In 1822 a new word was born, “Paleontology”, the study of ancient living creatures though their fossil evidence.
Several mistakes have been made along they way. One notable error was the reconstruction of the Iguanodon. Found in 1822 in Sussex, England, early bones were reassembled as though the creature walked on all fours, much like its namesake, the Iguana. It was even given a nose horn. Statues were made of it in this form. It was not until years later that the nose horn was found to be a thumb, and the Iguanodon was recognized as being bipedal (walking on two legs, not four).
In 1858 a nearly complete dinosaur skeleton was found in New Jersey. This one caused quite a stir, because the pelvis was clearly that of a bipedal animal. It was in part due to this discovery, that the aforementioned mistake with Iguanodon was corrected. Prior to this find people could only imagine dinosaurs walking on four legs, slow and clumsy.
Brontosaurus was an other mistake, not only was it reconstructed wrong, by using head bones of an unrelated species, it was assembled incorrectly, showing its head high, compared to what we now know was its posture of a long stretched out neck, and it was mistakenly portrayed as a swamp dwelling creature. The classification of “Brontosaurs” no longer even exists, and animals of this structure are now referred to as Apatosaurus.
With the rush on, people took to sloppy collection methods and undoubtedly several specimens were lost or destroyed as bone diggers employed dynamite to find what they thought were never ending treasures. Certainly some specimens were held back by “collectors” and were never handed over for scientific study.
In 1861 a discovery in Germany indicated that some dinosaurs were covered with what appeared to be feathers. As recent as the 1990’s other fossils have come from China showing feather like structures on other dinosaurs (including one that was revealed as fraud).
In 1884 Joseph Tyrrell, a mining consultant, was studying geology in a region known as the Alberta Badlands, in Canada. He stumbled upon not only a new species, later called Albertosaurus, but what also turned out to be a hotbed for dinosaur remains.
Since then dinosaurs have been discovered on every continent, even Antarctica. Several other hotbeds of discovery are known to exist, including those in Montana, and in the Gobi desert in China.
The history of Dinosaur discovery is not yet complete, with new finds it continues to grow every year. The hope is that we have not lost too much in our earlier lust for discovery.