Christopher Lee Doesn't Know Much About Dinosaurs | Science | Smithsonian

Christopher Lee Doesn't Know Much About Dinosaurs

I can't say I am a huge fan of British actor Christopher Lee, but he has done some good work. From his role as Lord Summerisle in the original Wicker Man to his more recent appearances as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings, he has brought a number of challenging roles to life. In his gig hosting the ...

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The poster for One Million Years, B.C. It was one of many films to show humans and dinosaurs living together.


I can't say I am a huge fan of British actor Christopher Lee, but he has done some good work. From his role as Lord Summerisle in the original Wicker Man to his more recent appearances as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings, he has brought a number of challenging roles to life. In his gig hosting the 1996 documentary series 100 Years of Horror, however, he revealed that he doesn't know very much about dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs have been stomping around on screen since almost the beginning of cinema . The 100 Years of Horror show selected a few , many involving bikini-clad cavewomen fleeing from dinosaurs. Dinosaurs and humans never coexisted (except, of course, for the dinosaurs we now call birds) but I can't necessarily blame movie producers for trying to find ways to put dinosaurs and people in the same place at the same time.

Perhaps because this theme in dinosaur films is so strong, the creators of 100 Years of Horror decided to peddle the idea that there are still dinosaurs roaming the world today. Christopher Lee cites the Paluxy River tracks from Texas, which some claim show the footsteps of humans with those of dinosaurs, and says the discovery of the coelacanth shows that "long-lost" creatures may still be lurking in hard-to-reach spots on the globe. I can't say whether Lee really believes this or not (maybe he just needed the paycheck), but there are some major problems with the "evidence" he mentions.

People have been claiming to find giant human tracks in extremely ancient strata for well over a century. In all cases the tracks have turned out to be misinterpreted or outright frauds. This makes sense given that our last common ancestor with chimpanzees existed only about four to seven million years ago. (Indeed, some of the oldest human tracks are the 3.6 million year old footprints from Laetoli, Tanzania. The last of the non-avian dinosaurs died out over 61 million years before they were made.) The Paluxy tracks Lee mentions are just like all the other "human" tracks said to come from the age of dinosaurs. They are either dinosaur tracks misconstrued to look like human footprints or fakes. Even so, some young earth creationists continue to use them to make their case that dinosaurs and humans walked side by side. What they always neglect to mention, though, is how we survived in a world populated by dinosaurs.

As for the living coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae, it does nothing to prove dinosaurs might exist. The fossil record of coelacanths ended in the Cretaceous, but in 1938 a living species not yet discovered as a fossil was found in the waters off of South Africa. Although it is not presently known why there are no coelacanth fossils between the end of the Cretaceous and the present, it may be because the group survived as deep-water species. This would have them hidden away in the ocean where the rocks that would contain their fossils would rarely, if ever, reach the surface for paleontologists to find. The fact that the living species is only similar to the last fossils also shows that these fish have kept evolving over the past 65 million years, even if it has been at a slow rate. This is quite a different situation than claiming that sauropods are making the trees shake in African jungles or that a modern version of Tyrannosaurus might be hiding somewhere. If there was a remnant population of dinosaurs alive today, someone would have noticed by now.
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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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