Dragons of the Past

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Dinosaurs as depicted in museums, movies and art today are sleek, brightly-colored and often feathered. This was not always the case. When dinosaurs were first recognized by science at the beginning of the 19th century, naturalists like Gideon Mantell and William Buckland thought they looked like enormous lizards and crocodiles. Iguanodon, as its name might suggest, was thought to be a gigantic version of the tropical lizards, and Megalosaurus was envisioned as a more crocodile-like beast.

Buckland, in particular, was enthralled by these ancient creatures. They were the petrified evidence of a past world that had flourished and been destroyed during a past beyond memory, and (as later recounted by his son Francis) Buckland once described the great Megalosaurus this way:

During this period of monsters there floated in the neighborhood of what is now the lake of Blenheim - huge lizards, their jaws like crocodiles, their bodies as big as elephants, their legs like gate-posts and mile-stones, and their tails as long and as large as the steeple of Kidlington or Long Habro'. Take off the steeple of either church, lay it in a horizontal position, and place legs on it, and you will have some notion of the animal's bulk. These stories look like fables, but I ask not your indulgence to believe them. There the monsters are, and I challenge your incredulity in the face of the specimens before your eyes; - disbelieve them if you can.

It was impossible not to be fascinated by such creatures, and they were so spectacular that Buckland thought the fossils of these dinosaurs may have inspired myths and legends:

May not the idea of the dragons, curious stories of which are chronicles in various parts of England, owe their origin, in some way or other, to the veritable existence of these large lizards in former ages? To point out the train of ideas or circumstances which led to these ancient dragon stories is of course impossible, particularly as man was not coexistant with Megalosaurus and Co. - still there is a certain shadow of connexion between them.

Buckland left this question open, but over a century and a half later the historian Adrienne Mayor would illustrate that he was on the right track. The mythology of many cultures, from Native American tribes to the Greeks, was heavily affected by the discovery of fossil bones. The Thunderbird, the Cyclops, Griffins, dragons and more were not just figments of our imagination, but early attempts to make sense of strange fossil bones found throughout the world.

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