Dinosaur Week

Dragons, Gryffins, and Other Monsters

Part of

Palaeontology is the study of the history of life. In ancient times, people found fossils of these long-dead organisms, but did not know what they were. Many of these fossils became the basis of many of the myths we have heard of today – like dragons and cyclopes.

In Asia, myths about mythical birds, gods, heroes, and animals have existed even today. In Mongolia, theropod tracks discovered in the 1950s were believed by local farmers to be a god-like bird that wished well for humans. Hadrosaur footprints had also been mistaken as ancient etchings in stone by divine beings. A fossilised stegosaurus was discovered in the 4th century BCE in present-day Sichuan Province, and it was understandably mislabeled a dinosaur because of its long neck and bony spikes for protection.

Where did dinosaurs come from? (Natural History Museum)

In Ancient Greece and Rome, many monsters and giants told in myths can be traced to fossils found in the area. For example, the Cyclopes in Homer’s epic tale The Odyssey may have come from fossilised skulls of dwarf elephants who had died out thousands of years before the Greek civilisation formed. The centre of the skull had a large hole for the elephant’s trunk, but without anything to tell them otherwise, it looked a lot like an eye socket! Griffins were also a mythological creature that the Ancient Greeks traced to nomads (people who wandered rather than staying in one place) from modern-day Ukraine. It was thought these monsters had the body of a lion and the head, talons, and wings of an eagle. Today, it is believed that this was the fossilised skeleton of a Protoceratops. Sea monsters, dragons, and giants can all be traced from the Greeks to various fossils of extinct animals – dinosaur or otherwise.

Even Native American legends are filled with beasts that, today, we can trace back to prehistoric animals. Mammoths, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and marine creatures were portrayed as Monster Bears, Giant Lizards, Thunder Birds, and Water Monsters in several different oral histories from varying tribes.

Even since the creation of modern palaeontology, scientists have revised their ideas about dinosaurs. For example, many Victorian palaeontologists would take modern-day reptiles and blow them up to fit the size of the bones found. This led to many fossils being put together incorrectly – for example, displaying the Megalosaurus as a four-legged rather than a two-legged dinosaur. Today, we even know that many raptors were covered in feathers!

The great thing about science is we are always learning something new. We add to what we know and make the best theories to fit the evidence we find. Who knows, maybe you’ll make the next great dinosaur discovery!

Griffen is a legendary creature with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and sometimes an eagle's talons as its front feet.
Dinosaur Park
Dinosaur Park - The world's first dinosaur park: what the Victorians got right and wrong

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