We will never know the identity of the first person to discover a fossilized dinosaur. Sure, the British naturalist William Buckland described Megalosaurus in 1824, now regarded to be the first dinosaur to be scientifically named, but people were finding dinosaurs long before Buckland puzzled over his “great lizard.” As Adrienne Mayor and other geohistorians have documented, people all over the world have been recognizing and wondering about dinosaurs and other fossilized creatures for centuries – from the Greeks to Native Americans. In fact, as paleontologist Ken McNamara has argued, prehistoric people may have even picked up fossils and fashioned them into tools or decorations, imbuing them with special significance. Fossilized dinosaur eggshell fragments have even been used in necklaces, although who made the jewelry and why is unknown. The point is, we have a long, deep history with dinosaur bones.
Strangely, prehistoric and ancient people with a pre-scientific understanding of nature had a better handle on what fossils represented than western scholars and naturalists of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries who considered fossils to simply be an attempt by rock to imitate life. While many ancient and aboriginal cultures considered dinosaur bones to be the remains or real creatures, western savants often passed off fossils as weird “sports of nature” that were created by supernatural forces within the earth. After all, religious dogma dictated that the world was only a few thousands of years old, and that the whole earth was created as is within that compressed timeframe. There was no room in biblical chronologies for fossils, so, therefore, the shark teeth, clam shells, mammal skeletons, and dinosaur bones had to be intricate fakes that could too-easily trick the unwary. It took decades of research, discovery, and re-discovery of older ideas before naturalists realized that fossils were true vestiges of prehistoric life, and that extinction was a reality. By 1800, at the latest, a scientific understanding of prehistory was finally forming.
Although giant ground sloths, mammoths, and mosasaurs were among the first fossil celebrities, European naturalists started to pick up the trail of dinosaurs around the same time. They just didn’t know what they were looking at. Remember that it wasn’t until 1842 that the British anatomist Richard Owen even coined the word “dinosaur”, so, prior to that time, dinosaur bones were often thought to be the remains of reptiles and other large creatures. The fragmentary nature of the earliest dinosaur finds further obscured the true identity of the fossils.
Science historians David Spalding and William Sarjeant cataloged some of the earliest recorded dinosaur finds in their contribution to The Complete Dinosaur. These were cryptic fossils – we can recognize them as dinosaurs now, but researchers at the time only had the slightest idea of what they were looking at. The most famous example is the end of a fossil femur described by the British naturalist Robert Plot in 1677. In a listing of geological curiosities – including what he believed to be petrified eyes and other oddities – Plot mentioned the end of the thigh bone as “a real Bone, now petrified”, and the fossil’s size led him to suggest that the bone had come from an elephant brought to Britain by the Romans some centuries earlier. By looking back to illustrations of the bone – sadly lost a long time ago – paleontologists suspect that the femur fragment belonged to Megalosaurus, or a similar dinosaur.
Plot wasn’t the only one to figure and describe dinosaur fossils. In 1699, naturalist Edward Lhuyd misidentified several dinosaur teeth for fossil fish teeth, and other naturalists continued to write about the strange bones and teeth that they acquired for their museums and personal collections. Spalding and Sarjeant provide the full listing in their account, but the accumulated, misapprehended dinosauriana included a theropod limb collected by John Woodward in the early 1700s, vertebrae and a femur found in France, a large dinosaur limb bone found in southwestern New Jersey in 1787, so-called “turkey tracks” found in the Connecticut Valley during the early 1800s, and a spinosaur tooth mistaken for a crocodile fossil and called Suchosaurus by Richard Owen in 1824. And I have to make a special mention of one of my favorite examples. In 1806, Meriwether Lewis – of the legendary Lewis and Clark expedition through the Louisiana Purchase – noticed a large bone in a cliff near what is now Billings, Montana. He thought the bone belonged to an enormous fish, but, based upon his notes and description, paleontologists are confident that Lewis had actually spotted a dinosaur rib in Montana’s fossil-rich Hell Creek Formation.
Naturalists in Europe and North America most certainly cataloged and collected dinosaur bones, but the rare, fragmentary nature of the fossils led researchers to attribute the bones to familiar animals, albeit of giant size. Even William Buckland, who described Megalosaurus, thought his animal was akin to a giant monitor lizard, and it wasn’t until Owen coined the word “dinosaur” that the various, scattered, enigmatic remains started to come together within a peculiar group of hitherto unknown animals. (And it was several more decades, still, before discoveries of partial skeletons began to reveal the true form of dinosaurs.) Despite some hiccups caused by reliance on religious authority about the history of the world, our species has been wondering about the lives of the animals we now call dinosaurs for centuries. Dinosaurs have been with us, in one form or another, far longer than the word dinosaur itself.