Even before we knew what they really were, dinosaurs inspired our imagination. Unidentifiable bones and tracks formed the basis of legend–they were the evidence of great battles, fearsome monsters and times when the world was new and hostile to human existence. Indeed, contrary to what John Noble Wilford wrote in The Riddle of the Dinosaur, fossilized bones were not just ignored or ground up for “dragon-bone medicine” in the centuries prior to the scientific discovery of dinosaurs. People have puzzled over dinosaurian fossils for centuries. Some of that folklore still persists today.
In a paper recently published in Ichnos, researchers Lida Xing, Adrienne Mayor, Yu Chen, Jerald Harris and Michael Burns focus on one particular source of dinosaur-inspired myths–trackways found in China. Just as dinosaur tracks in New England generated tales about primeval monsters, huge turkeys and ostrich-like birds, the tracks in China motivated the creation of different stories to explain just what left such imposing footprints.
According to the new study, Chinese folklore about dinosaur tracks can be divided into four categories–mythical birds, mammals, plants, and gods or heroes. In the case of three-toed theropod tracks discovered in Chabu, Inner Mongolia, for example, the footprints had been known to local farmers since the 1950s and were believed to be footprints of a “divine bird.” As explained by Xing and co-authors, “The herders believed that the tracks represented beautiful wishes for human happiness left by the sacred bird Shen Niao.” This is a common theme across sites where theropod tracks are found. Three-toed dinosaur footprints have often been interpreted as the steps of birds, and other sites in Heibei, Yunnan, Guizhou and Liaoning provinces have been attributed to other mythical birds, such as the golden and heavenly chickens.
Not all the dinosaur tracks are associated with supernatural avians. The fossil footprints of a sauropod dinosaur near Zigong City have traditionally been cast as the footprints of a rhinoceros–”The tradition of counting the footprints to pray for good fortune is popular,” the authors note–and hadrosaur tracks at Qijang County may have been interpreted as impressions of lotus flowers on stone. The size of the impressions and the fact that they were made on stone were often taken to mean that some supernatural agency was involved. What else could leave such detailed markings on rock?
One such powerful figure, according to myths about footprints found in Changdu County, Tibet, was the Mountain Deity. During the construction of a highway through the area in 1999, construction crews found several large footprints. Local villagers believed that all the noise had disturbed a god who dwelt in the mountains, and when the deity fled, it left the footprints in stone. Though not everyone agrees. Others think that the footprints represent King Gesar, a warrior featured in an epic poem about Tibet’s history. In reality, the tracks are the fore- and hindfoot impressions of a sauropod dinosaur. The shape of the tracks and their arrangement roughly resemble a large human footprint, and so the legendary explanation was born. Indeed, not all myths about dinosaur remains are ancient. In places where people don’t know about dinosaurs or paleontology, fantastic stories are still employed to explain the origin of fossils.
The nature of tracksites themselves may explain why they often find their way into folklore. Fossilized bone is often fragile and visible on the surface for a short time before eroding away. Exposed tracks, on the other hand, often remain in place for generations before fully succumbing to the wear of wind and water. The persistence of the tracks may allow them to become more readily established in cultural tradition–the stone footprints are visible for years and act as evidence of the stories.
And these legends have practical applications for paleontologists. By using rumors of “dragon bones” and stories about stone footprints, researchers can use local folklore to locate previously-unknown fossil localities. Folklore may tell tales too fantastic to believe, but they may be based on very real traces of prehistoric life.
Xing, L., Mayor, A., Chen, Y., Harris, J., & Burns, M. (2011). The Folklore of Dinosaur Trackways in China: Impact on Paleontology Ichnos, 18 (4), 213-220 DOI: 10.1080/10420940.2011.634038