Here Be Dragons | Science | Smithsonian
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Here Be Dragons

Before the development of paleontology in the late 18th century, people collected fossils for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Some fossils, such as seashells, were from familiar animals. (Although they may have been scattered where there was no longer any ocean.)But others were so large and m...

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Before the development of paleontology in the late 18th century, people collected fossils for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Some fossils, such as seashells, were from familiar animals. (Although they may have been scattered where there was no longer any ocean.)

But others were so large and monstrous that people did not know what to make of them. As historian Adrienne Mayor has shown, legendary creatures like the Cyclops, griffins, and dragons may have been inspired by the unfamiliar remains of dinosaurs and ancient mammals.

Even 19th century paleontologists could not deny that there was something monstrous about the bones they were examining, and many of the early illustrations of dinosaurs like Iguanodon and Megalosaurus depicted them as ancient dragons. The dinosaurs in S.G. Goodrich’s 1851 book A History of All Nations were no exception, clawing and biting at each other in a tangled ball of scales and teeth.



Yet the illustration above of the prehistoric beasts included in Goodrich’s book was hardly original. As was common during the time, illustrations were often copied and reprinted in different books. There were many of the same pictures drawn in slightly different ways. In this case, the drawing was an amalgamation of two paintings by the famous artist John Martin.

Martin was well known for his bleak, chaotic depictions of biblical history he created for the illustrated version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and he continued these themes in his restorations of ancient life. One envisioned a Megalosaurus attacking an Iguanodon (the modified version of which is on the right half of the photo), and other depicted massive sea reptiles in battle with each other (from which the plesiosaur and pterodactyl on the left half were taken).

Such artistic plagiarism aside, the illustration in Goodrich’s book reveals that there was only a subtle distinction between the dragons of mythology and ancient creatures studied by science. Even today, with all science has revealed about the lives of dinosaurs, they are still our favorite monsters.
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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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