Early Recognition of Dinosaur Fossils

Dinosaur fossils are found in the Mesozoic rocks of every continent, which means that dinosaur fossils are in the geographic proximity of many human populations.

As people of indigenous societies have always been experienced in the identification of animals, their anatomical traits, and the signs that they leave, they would certainly recognize the animal origin of dinosaur bones and other fossils, such as tracks and eggs, since well before any recorded history. For example, among Native Americans, dinosaur track 3 motifs are evident in some of the Hopi clothing associated with a traditional snake-handling dance; the Hopi inhabit an area well known today for its Jurassic dinosaur tracksites. When Native Americans presented large bones to a nineteenth-century French-Canadian explorer, traveling through a part of Alberta that has abundant Late Cretaceous dinosaur remains, they referred to them as belonging to the "father of all buffaloes." Late nineteenth-century paleontologists reported that the Sioux tribe of the western USA had legends about dinosaur bones, explaining them as the remains of large serpents that burrowed their way into the ground to die after they had been hit by lightning. Near Mesozoic tracksites in southwestern Africa, dinosaur tracks and the animals interpreted as their makers are seen in cave paintings and were the subjects of native songs. In Brazil, early artwork was discovered that is directly associated with a Cretaceous dinosaur track. Additionally, Paleolithic or Neolithic people in Mongolia deliberately altered Cretaceous dinosaur eggshells, and may well have used them for ornamental purposes.

Probably the most intriguing potential reference to dinosaurs in folklore is the griffin, a legendary animal of central Asia. The griffin was said to have the body of a lion, a parrot-like beak, and a pair of wings, and its purpose was to protect its nests of gold. One scholar showed that the geographic range of this legend included the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, where abundant remains of Protoceratops, a lion-sized Late Cretaceous ceratopsian with a beak (Chapter 13), are near ancient gold mines. Of course, no wings have ever been found in association with a Protoceratops, indicating that, if these dinosaurs were their inspiration, the legend-makers embellished their story (a common practice even in modern societies).

Whether ancient texts actually refer to dinosaur bones is difficult to discern, as are references to dragons in European cultures that some authors have attempted to link to dinosaur fossils. The earliest known reports of "dragon bones" (in Mandarin, long gu tou) were written about 300 bce from the Sichuan province of China, an area well known today for its abundant dinosaur bones. These bones were valued for their purported medicinal value, and some doctors in China still prescribe ground-up dinosaur bones as a cure for some ailments.

Indeed, some anthropological examples suggest that dinosaur fossils influenced artwork, oral tradition, and other forms of expression well before written history.

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