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The Complete Dinosaur
By M. K. Brett-Surman, Thomas R. Holtz Jr., James O. Farlow
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2012 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
Dinosaurs: The Earliest Discoveries
David A. E. Spalding and William A. S. Sarjeant (1935–2002)
The first trackers of dinosaurs were probably other dinosaurs, as tracks have been found apparently showing carnivorous species following herbivores (Lockley 1991, 184). More recently, there is evidence that some early people, whose livelihood came partly from tracking, killing, and dismembering animals, sometimes observed and found significance in tracks, bones, and eggs of long-extinct species of no culinary value.
Traditional knowledge of large fossils has been found to persist among aboriginal peoples on several continents. Pertinent observations have been documented, but often in sources that have not generally received the attention of paleontologists until recent decades. Dinosaur trackways in situ have apparently been marked by petroglyphs and pictographs of uncertain age, so that they can be seen to have been of some significance to their finders. Other specimens have been collected in ancient times and are now found in archaeological contexts. The surviving oral and published record is widely scattered through ancient, medieval, and later literature and appears in the forms of folklore, the tales of travelers, visual records of legendary events, and oral data collected and documented by anthropologists, dinosaur researchers, and aboriginal people. Prescientific cultures have offered a variety of explanations for the remains they observed ranging from mythological to protoscientific.
In this chapter we summarize what is known of early observations of dinosaurs, in approximately chronological sequence before the rise of modern paleontology, discuss the scientific discoveries which led to the naming of the first two genera, and mention the other genera named before Owen recognized a common identity among the remains in 1841.
Simpson's classic paper (1942, 131) presents a framework for the history of fossil vertebrate discoveries. He recognizes a number of periods in North American vertebrate paleontology, of which we are here concerned with the first three. Simpson's prescientific period includes early discoveries and removal of some specimens to Europe, but "no truly scientific study ... had been made." This period extends in North America "from the earliest times to about 1762." Simpson's protoscientific period extends from about 1762 to 1799, in which "vertebrate paleontology was not yet a true science but basic methods were being invented and sporadically applied." In the pioneer scientific period (1799–ca. 1842), Cuvier established the subject "as a true and defined science," while others adopted Cuvier's methods. While there is room for discussion of the appropriate dates of application of the periods outside North America, Simpson's structure provides a useful framework.
Other writers have extended and elaborated on Simpson's approach, paying particular attention to the early beginnings of science in the Western world. Numerous classic dinosaur texts have been pulled together in Weishampel and White (2003). Surveys of early dinosaur discoveries have been published by Buffetaut and Le Loeuff (1993), Delair and Sarjeant (1975, 2002), and Sarjeant (1987, 1997, 2003). Recent books by Adrienne Mayor (2000, 2005) and Jose Sanz (1999), and papers by Mayor (2007) and Mayor and Sarjeant (2001) have addressed discoveries of fossils in ancient civilizations and ethnographic contexts, shedding much light on the beginnings of discovery and interpretation of fossil remains.
It is now clear that many dinosaur and other fossil discoveries have been made by prescientific societies. Some fossil discoveries are commemorated in place-names (Mayor 2007). Some are found only in archaeological contexts, for which no explanations are recorded. The record of the Mediterranean and Chinese civilizations documents ancient fossil discoveries, for some of which there is a written or even visual record offering contemporary interpretations. Ethnographic data from many cultures around the world show different interpretations of vertebrate fossil remains. Some myths of monsters may have roots in fossil discoveries, what Mayor (following Dodson) calls "fossil legends" for traditional tales that specifically refer to physical evidence (Mayor 2005, xxix). In some instances, logical explanations reflecting awareness of geological change, deep time, and ancestral relationships show the development of protoscientific ideas in nonscientific cultures. Medieval societies in Europe begin with the same variety of types of explanations for fossils. Through the Renaissance, more or less fanciful explanations are offered until the emergence of truly scientific methods and explanations came in the last two centuries.
Although history shows a broad evolution of interpretations of vertebrate fossils from legendary to protoscientific to scientific, the progression of ideas appears to be linear only when the most scientific are considered. For instance, less than four decades separate "Noah's Raven" from Hitchcock's Ornithoidichnites, but it is likely that the traditional views continued in folk belief in the area. Even in our own day, legendary and scientific explanations may be offered of the same occurrence by different segments of society. Thus the tracks (supported by associated forgeries) at the Paluxy River site of Dinosaur State Park, Texas, are viewed by "creation scientists" as proof of the contemporaneity of dinosaurs and humans before Noah's flood (Morris 1980), while the same site is interpreted by paleontologists as showing Cretaceous sauropod and theropod tracks (Jacobs 1995). Forged human tracks from this site are documented as far back as 1939 and discussed in a context of other fossil-related puzzles by Mayor (2005, 302) as "frauds and specious legends."
Perhaps the oldest evidence of human connection with dinosaurs comes from the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, where in a site ranging in age from late Paleolithic to early Neolithic Roy Chapman Andrews found "bits of dinosaur egg shell, drilled with neat round holes – evidently used in necklaces by primitive peoples" (Andrews 1943, 238; Carpenter et al. 1994, 1).
Dragons played an important part in Chinese lore as far back as the protohistoric period; two emperors are reputedly immediate descendents of dragons, and two azure-colored dragons are reported to have presided over the birth of Confucius. Dragons have been figured in Chinese art as far back as 1100 bc (Andersson 1934).
A possible connection between Chinese dragons and the fossil remains of dinosaurs was noted as early as 1886, when British/Tasmanian geologist and folklorist Charles Gould (1834–1895) drew attention to the Chinese "dragon bones" and figured an Iguanodon skeleton in his gathering of dragon myths (Gould 1886, 199).
Mayor (2000, 39) documents that the I Ching, a compilation drawing on older traditions going back to 1000 bc, includes as a good omen "Dragons encountered in the fields" and suggests that these refer to bones plowed up during agriculture. In the second century bc, bones (possibly of dinosaurs) found during digging of a canal in northern China led to it being called the Dragon-Head Waterway (Mayor 2007). A later report of dragon bones from Wucheng (now Santain County, Sichuan province) is documented by Cheng Qu during the period of the western Jin dynasty, ad 265–317, in a work entitled Hua Yang Goo Zhi (Needham 1959). Although "dragon bones" are generally from fossil mammals, Dong (in Dong and Milner 1988) considered it highly probable that these particular examples represented dinosaurs.
Large fossilized bones were found near Jabalpur in what is now Madhya Pradesh in India by W. H. Sleeman and reported by G. G. Spilsbury in the 1830s. These were not described until 1868 in Hugh Falconer's posthumous memoirs or named until Richard Lydekker included some of the material in Titanosaurus indicus in 1877 (Barrett et al. 2008).
In the 1930s, in what was then Indochina, French geologist Josué Heilmann Hoffet reported a dinosaur caudal vertebra from near Phalane. "Alerted by this discovery, the natives, who had often seen similar bones but had thought they came from buffaloes, told me about places where they thought such remains were to be found.... The bones belonged to genies, and evil would befall anyone who removed them" (Taquet 1994, 148). The "bones" proved to be only "limestones sculpted into bizarre shapes," though there were dinosaur bones in the vicinity. It was not until 1990 that new work was done in the area by Philippe Taquet, who located one of Hoffet's local assistants. The near-scientific explanation – water buffalo was the largest mammal known to the locals – proved to be firmly intermingled with folkloric traditions, for the elders remembered that "they filled forty-three baskets of bones of an ox called ... the magnificent ox.... When they began to dig, there was a lightning storm ... this was a ... warning" (155–156). Taquet found it necessary to buy a pig from the local priest and sacrifice it before he was able to proceed with his fieldwork (156).
Mayor (2000, 5) notes that Cuvier was well aware of fossil finds in classical times, but that such records have largely escaped the attention of scientists (and classicists) in more recent years. She has documented many references to discoveries of large fossil bones in the ancient world, from the Mediterranean east to India and China, in areas now known for their remains of fossil vertebrates. She shows that fossil bones were well known to inhabitants of many countries, were gathered in temples and other public places, and were often interpreted as remains of giants, monsters, legendary heroes, and other fantastic creatures.
While many of these finds are undoubtedly attributable to proboscideans, cetaceans, and other mammals, some may reflect dinosaur discoveries. A remarkable trail of documentation points to the possibility that Gobi dinosaurs may have given rise to the legendary griffin (Fig. 1.1), which became a popular motif in Greece around 700 bc (This suggestion has, however, been criticized by specialists in Gobi dinosaurs; see, for instance, Novacek 1996, 140ff.), though the same author warms slightly to the idea later (2002, 296).
Later, around 430 bc, Herodotus, in pursuit of tales of flying reptiles in Egypt, made a special trip to see "bones and spines in incalculable numbers, piled in heaps, some big and some small." Mayor (2000, 135) suggests these might have been spinosaurs, known from Egypt.
Mythical Monsters in Medieval Europe
In Europe, fossil footprints of dinosaurs and their progenitors were also linked to legends. While it is known that some dragon tales were inspired by bones of Pleistocene rhinoceros and bear (Buffetaut 1987, 13–14), it is also possible that footprints exposed in the Rhine Valley, Western Germany, may have inspired the story of the slaying of the dragon by the hero Siegfried (Kirchner 1941). When a footprint in Triassic sandstone of Chirotherium – the track maker was a nondinosaurian early archosaur – was incorporated into the stonework of Christ Church, Higher Bebington, Cheshire, England, it came to be known locally as the Devil's Toenail. Many other dragon tales from Britain may ultimately derive from tracks or bones, including a report by J. Trundle (1614) of a "Strange and Monstrous Serpent or Dragon lately discovered and yet living" in Sussex. This dragon was said to be 9 feet (almost 3 m) long, and poor woodcuts of its limb bones were given.
In France, it is probably not coincidental that there is a concentration of dinosaur legends in Provence, where dinosaur eggs are abundant. One dragon at Aix is reputed to have been burst asunder by St. Margaret; another at Tarascon was first vanquished by Hercules, then (in a remarkable show of ecumenical spirit) by St. Martha. At Draguignan, the mayor has the right to have any of his godchildren christened "Drac" (Huxley 1979).
Further south, in Portugal, dinosaur tracks at Cabo Espichel are plainly visible (though not readily accessible) in the cliffs. Perched on the cliff edge is a small chapel, Capela da Memoria (memory chapel), which celebrates the legend of Nossa Senhora da Pedra da Mua (our lady of the mule tracks), commemorating the arrival of the Virgin at this location to evangelize Portugal. Inside the building, an eighteenth-century mural of painted tiles shows the event, with the Virgin riding a mule on the cliff top, escorted by angels and welcomed by residents. In the mural, the "mule's" tracks ascending the cliff are clearly shown, inadvertently providing the first illustration that certainly figures dinosaur tracks (Sanz 2000, 269, 2003, 18–19; Santos and Rodrigues 2008).
Archaeological and Ethnographic Data from the New World
Adrienne Mayor's Fossil Legends of the First Americans (2005) has shown unequivocally that "Native Americans observed, collected, and attempted to explain the remains of extinct ... vertebrate species long before contact with Europeans" (297). Cuvier's documentation of early records of fossils included North American native discoveries, which helped to confirm his theory of worldwide extinctions. But earlier theorizers were at work, as surveys of myth in relation to fossils still apparent show native awareness of many earth science concepts. Douglas Wolfe (leader of the Zuni Basin Paleontology Project) is quoted as saying, "It's all there in one elegant myth, evolution, extinction, climate change, deep time, geology and fossils" (Mayor 2005, 116).
A number of dinosaur track sites are marked by pictographs or petroglyphs of generally unknown age and significance. In Paraiba, Brazil, footprints of carnivorous dinosaurs exposed on a bedding-plane surface of Lower Cretaceous sandstone are "incorporated into a design involving other symbols of unknown significance, carved beside the footprints into the rock surface" (Sarjeant 1997; G. Leonardi in Ligabue 1984). Lockley (1991, 185) cites two similar instances in Utah and also notices use of dinosaur track images on "snake priest's aprons" worn by Hopi dancers in an area where tracks are well known. Mayor records that "the dancers ... weave these designs into their costumes because large, three-toed fossil tracks impressed in rocks were believed to have been made by the Kachina spirit who sends the rain" (2005, 142) (Fig. 1.2). A pictograph appearing to represent a tridactyl footprint appears close to Eubrontes tracks at Flag Point track site in Utah, and has been dated to between ad 1000 and 1200 (Mayor and Sarjeant 2001, 151). Mayor also documents track sites in Arizona known to the Navajos as "The Place with Bird Tracks" (2005, 139) and "Big Lizard Tracks" (2007, 256). A geological feature is explained by the Lakota tradition of the "Big Racetrack" in South Dakota, when in the "first sunrise of time," all the strange creatures were summoned for a great race during which the animals became buried (Mayor 2007, 258).
Excerpted from The Complete Dinosaur by M. K. Brett-Surman, Thomas R. Holtz Jr., James O. Farlow. Copyright © 2012 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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