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Around the year 1335, a mysterious skull was recovered from a local quarry near the town of Klagenfurt, Austria...and it looked downright monstrous. For one thing, it was way larger than a human skull. And it had big teeth, a long snout, and some major-league nasal openings. This odd skull went on display at Klagenfurt’s Town Hall, where it remained for hundreds of years. And then, in the late sixteenth century, the skull was immortalized. Artist Urlich Vogelsang used this specimen as reference for a colossal sculpture of a dragon. The stone beast was completed in 1590, and is estimated to weigh six metric tons! But the cranium that had captured the artist’s imagination didn’t come from a fire-breathing reptile. It came from a rhino. A woolly rhino, to be precise. That’s right, in 1840, a paleontologist confirmed that the fossilized skull belonged to an ice age mammal named Coelodonta antiquitatis, also known as the woolly rhinoceros, which we’ve talked about before.
A big herbivore with a thick furry coat, the woolly rhino lived around Eurasia as recently as 12,000 years ago. And even though Vogelsang got the anatomical details wrong, his sculpture is historically significant. Because it’s an early attempt at reconstructing the appearance of a long-extinct animal -- a kind of visual storytelling. Today, we’d call that “paleoart.” People have been discovering the traces and remains of prehistoric creatures for thousands of years. And they’ve also probably been telling stories about fantastic beasts since language became a thing. So, is it possible that the monsters that populate our myths and legends were influenced by the fossil record? Today, we’re tackling that question with a little help from Dr. Emily Zarka at our fellow PBS Digital series, Monstrum. Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s just science. And monsters. Now, we should point out, that dragon statue that was inspired by the rhino skull is pretty rare Not only are historians confident that it was based on a specific fossil, but scientists
still have access to that fossil. Usually, we lack that kind of evidence. Stories and works of art tend to have complicated origins--and multiple sources of inspiration. So more often than not, when we try to figure out how fossils might have influenced mythical monsters, all we can do is speculate. But that didn’t stop Francis Buckland, whose father William described the dinosaur Megalosaurus in 1824. A bipedal predator, Megalosaurus stalked England about 165 million years ago. Today’s scientists think it measured about 6 meters long, but back in the Victorian era, some naturalists thought it was more than twice that in length. And in 1858, Francis Buckland asked, “May not the idea of the dragons, curious stories of which are chronicled in various parts of England, owe their origin--in some way or other--to the veritable existence of these large lizards in former ages?” Today we know that dinosaurs weren’t really lizards, but Buckland’s point is still worth considering: Could their bones have been the inspiration for dragons in other parts of
the world, too? Our friend and colleague Dr. Emily Zarka, a professor at Arizona State University and the host of Monstrum, is here to weigh in. Take it away, Dr. Z! Dragons are an integral part of mythology and philosophy in Asia, and look quite different from Western legends. The benevolent, shape-shifting dragons of China have the physical features of nine different creatures and look very different from the winged, fire-breathing dragons of Northern Europe. Wang Fu of the Han Dynasty wrote that each element of the dragon’s appearance came from the camel, cow, stag, snake, clam, tiger, eagle, carp, annnndd...a demon. Some scholars theorize that each of these are meant to represent the totems of several main tribes of Ancient China that integrated into one. The dragon appeared in China at least 6,000 years ago and continues to play an important role in religion, mythology, literature, and culture. Clouds are said to be made from their breath. They can fly through the air and turn invisible. For the Chinese, dragons symbolize divine power, controlling the rain, rivers, sea,
and all other bodies of water. They’re part of the fundamental Chinese philosophical concept of balance—Yin and Yang. Dragons represent yang, the masculine force. Dragons are also a part of its imperial history. During the Han to Qing dynasty period, the great and powerful dragon became associated with emperors as a way to show they were divinely chosen. Myths from other parts of eastern Asia also associate dragons with water and imperial power. In Japan, dragons were believed to control rainfall, although in these myths, the dragons were crueler and more likely to act in anger than their Chinese counterparts. The Dragon King of Vietnamese mythology was said to be the ruler of the waters, gifting his subjects with fresh water while he dwelled in the salty oceans. But why are dragon myths so prevalent in east Asia? Fossils probably have something to do with it. Thanks, Dr. Z! And you’re right--some paleontologists think fossilized bones could have influenced Asia’s dragon tales. One fourth-century text dating back to China’s Jin Dynasty mentioned that lots of dragon
bones had been found in what’s now Sichuan Province. Many sediments in this area date back to the middle and late Jurassic period. And those beds are teeming with fossils, including a variety of dinosaurs -- Meat-eating theropods, spiky-tailed stegosaurids, and colossal sauropods with clubs on the ends of their tails have all been found there. Given all this, paleontologist Dong Zhiming once suggested that the alleged “dragon bones” discovered back in the 4th century were probably dinosaur remains. And speaking of dinos, let’s talk about Protoceratops. A hornless, sheep-sized relative of Triceratops, this critter lived in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia some 75 million years ago in the late Cretaceous Period. And it was really common. Some dinosaurs are only known from one or two specimens, but we’ve found literally hundreds of Protoceratops skulls and skeletons--representing every stage of the animal’s life. And dinosaur eggs are also really common in the Gobi. Some of the first fossilized dino eggs known to modern science were found there in the
1920s. We’re still finding them today, sometimes in clusters which suggest that certain dinosaurs nested colonially. But fossil-hunters aren’t the only prospectors with an interest in the Gobi. Nomads started hunting for gold in the western part of this desert almost 3,000 years ago. The Ancient Greeks began trading with these people at some point in the seventh century BCE. And when cultures interact, they swap monster stories. In this case, Greek travelers were entertained with tales of a winged creature that jealously guarded gold mines: The griffin. Dr. Z, what can you tell us about those beasties? In classical mythology, the griffin has the body of a lion with the head and wings of an eagle. Griffins have appeared in decorative arts and heraldry from Europe to Asia going back thousands of years. Different from other chimera-type monsters of myth, these creatures have no supposed supernatural powers. Although they do guard hidden treasure, an association that began in ancient Greek legends that might be explained by the existence of gold mines in Asia where the creatures were
said to live. Also unlike other hybrid creatures in mythology, the griffin isn’t associated with any gods or heroes but were seen as living animals. Stories depict them with real animal-like behaviors like roaming in packs, nesting on the ground, and hunting for animals and humans alike. So in 1993, Adrienne Mayor--a research scholar at Stanford University who studies classics and the history of science--proposed that myths about griffins may owe a lot to Protoceratops skeletons. Like the griffin, Protoceratops was a quadruped with a large, curved beak and triangular projections on the sides of its face that could’ve been mistaken for mammal-like ears. And maybe the abundant dinosaur eggs and nests reinforced the idea that large, half-bird-half-mammal creatures were hanging out in the Gobi. But not everyone accepts these ideas. Paleontologist Mark Witton has argued that griffins might have nothing to do with Protoceratops or prehistoric eggs. Perhaps the legends come from ancient encounters with living beasts, with no influence from
the fossil record. or maybe they were just creative storytellers And the sites where modern scientists find Protoceratops remains don’t really match up with gold deposits or trade routes. Still, we know that some ancient peoples did find fossils. Remember our buddy, the woolly rhino? Well, in 1978, a team of archaeologists announced they’d discovered a partial leg bone from this species in an unlikely place: The Acropolis of Nichoria Thousands of years ago, the residents of this Bronze Age town in southwestern Greece placed this fossil inside their citadel sanctuary. And some different fossilized bones -- those from ancient elephants -- from other sites around the Mediterranean Sea might be tied to one of this region’s most iconic monsters: The one-eyed cyclops. Dr. Z, what makes the cyclops so special? Well, cyclops monsters are distinguished by the same thing that gives them their name—one, round-eye. The most famous one comes from the classical text The Odyssey by Homer when the hero of the book, Odysseus, encounters an island inhabited by a race of giant people who spend all their
time tending sheep. Odysseus and some other men wind up stuck in a cave with one of these giants, Polyphemus, who starts eating them. Obviously, the men want to get out of there, so they carve a spear, heat it in the fire and stab the sleeping giant in the eye, blinding him. Another famous Greek poet, Hesiod, writes in his Theogony of a trio of “smiths.” These three brothers were the sons of gods, and each was born with a single eye in their middle of their foreheads. Known for their metalworking skills and great strength, they are said to be the ones who gifted Zeus his lightning bolt. While they each have names, they are commonly referred to as Cyclopes. These Greek myths are likely where the modern idea of the one-eyed cyclops comes from. But they are definitely not the only ones—there are actually stories of one-eyed giants in the histories of many cultures around the globe! Which makes sense when you think about the range in which elephant fossils have been found. Thanks for all the mythology knowledge,Dr. Z. Now, about those old elephant bones... In 1914, an Austrian paleontologist named Othenio Abel proposed that
cyclops legends weren’t inspired by rhinos or giant people. Instead, he thought they were rooted in dwarf elephant fossils. Specifically, in their skulls. Elephants and their extinct kin belong to a group called the Proboscidea. And the skulls of these animals have really large nasal openings high up on their foreheads. I mean, the trunk has to go somewhere. So Abel suspected that ancient travelers mistook those cavities for giant eye sockets. It’s a pretty understandable mistake… I mean… I can see where he was coming from. And although, wild proboscideans have been extinct in Europe for around 10,000 years - people would’ve encountered their fossils later. Plus with an almost 20 million year evolutionary history in Europe, that included giants like Deinotherium and Zygolophodon, well, there might've been a lot of strange fossils to be found. Oh...and then there were the dwarfs. Like I explained in our episode about shrinking mammoths, a miniature version of the extinct elephant Palaeoloxodon lived on the Island of Cyprus. And other pint-sized elephants and mammoths--some measuring less than two meters tall at the
shoulder--resided on Crete, Sicily and other islands in the Mediterranean. So dwarf elephants, club-tailed sauropods, and shaggy rhinos are just some of the amazing - real - animals that we know from the fossil record. And although cyclopes, dragons, and griffins are mythological, planet earth has seen much stranger creatures in its 4.5 billion-year history. But it’s not always clear how their fossils were interpreted by ancient people. Still, by speculating about the connection between dinosaurs and dragons, it reminds us that fossil-hunting is as old as humanity itself. And digging into the past, whether it’s through mythology or paleontology, can help us see how fossils might have inspired monsters. Are there other mythical beasts that you think might’ve had fossil origins? Let us know the fossil and myth in the comments! And if you like all of the mythology that Dr. Z was talking about be sure to check out Monstrum, another PBS Digital Studios channel Monster-sized thanks to this month’s Eontologists: Patrick Seifert, Jake Hart, Jon Davison Ng,
and Steve! Also we want to let you know that we now have a Discord connected with our Patreon! All our patrons have access to exclusive channels where we can chat about Eons, paleontology, and anything else! Our whole team is in there, and we're really excited to get to know the Eonites better. You can join us by heading over to patreon.com/eons and selecting any membership level. See you there! And as always...thank you for joining me in the Konstantin Haase Studio. Subscribe at youtube.com/eons to view more creature features!
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