My oldest son is almost 6 and a half years and has been a great fan of dinosaurs. Their gigantic posture, sharp claws and teeth included, make a great impression on him. But it is not only impressive on little boys. If we look around, we find famous movies, computer games, books... on this magnificent creatures. 60 million years ago the last dinosaurs disappears, so it seems, so people didn’t live together with these creatures. This void gave birth to many legends and myths when strange bones of these large “beasts” were found in the soils.
Some historic facts about dinosaurs
At the beginning of dinosaur history, the Triassic Period, there was one supercontinent on Earth, the Pangea. Fossils found in the US state of New Mexico are providing strong evidence that dinosaurs originated in what is now South America, and had already evolved into three main groups before spreading around the world. As Pangea broke apart, dinosaurs became scattered across the globe on separate continents, and new types of dinosaurs evolved separately in each geographic area.
So worldwide, people found remains of different types of dinosaurs. People couldn’t trace the origins of the remains of these big impressive animals. The fact that nobody ever saw these animals and their sometimes incredible strange and big proportions of the fossils lead to even more amazing stories people made up in the past to get some kind of explanation.
Dragons might be creative explanations for fossils of dinosaurs
Some people tend to believe that dragons might be the creative misinterpretation of fossils of dinosaurs. But let’s be complete, also other animals such as nile crocodiles, whales and spitting cobras might be the source of dragon legends. China is well known for their many dragon legends. Last year, in the Liaoning Province in China, a strange skeleton was found, a dino, big as chicken, but with a long feathered tail and decent teeth. The velociraptor, Zhenyuanlong Suni or “feathered poodle from hell”, told Dr Brusatte, wasn’t probably able to fly, but this creature could have been seen as a dragon.
In that same year, construction workers found in the southern part of China a long serpent-like dinosaur, resembling a lot a traditional Chinese dragon. The 15 metres long dinosaur lived around 160 million years ago during the Late Jurassic period. Palaeontologists who have reconstructed the skeleton say that the enormous neck accounts for up to half of the length of the animal. They named the dinosaur Qijianglong, which means dragon of Qijiang, after the distinctive serpentine dragons depicted in Chinese legends. Scientists have speculated whether discoveries of other similar fossils in the past may have led to the legends of the serpent-like dragons that persist throughout China. Tetsuto Miyashita, one of the scientists at the University of Alberta who studied the fossil, declared that the 'Qijianglong is a cool animal. I wonder if the ancient Chinese stumbled upon a skeleton of a long-necked dinosaur like Qijianglong and pictured that mythical creature.'
Historic explanations for fossils of dinosaurs differs whether where you live: in the East or the West
No matter where you live in the world, you’ve heard probably about dragons. What’s more peculiar is that their behavior and symbolism is quite different in societies in the East and those in the West. In the East they value dragons for their magic and beauty. Dragons are highly respected and used in ceremonies and parades. Even if it would take the form of a monster, it symbolizes heroism and no so much danger or threat. The dragon is more of a protector, proves even the Chinese year of the dragon, where somebody born in that year will be healthy, wealthy and wise.
In the West dragons breathe fire and are seen as something unwanted, the hero has to get rid of it. These dragons try to kill people who get to nearby breathing out fire. They have big wings and sharp claws and live in deserts or even in fire whereas the Eastern dragon live more in damp places, such as a lake or an ocean.
Very little seems to be the same between the dragons of the East and those of the West. This might be because the fossils of dinosaurs were differently examined according to the place where they’re found. Culture interferes with the observation of unknown objects. A number of legends concerning the origin of the dragon emerged in the course of Chinese history, of which the Totem-Worship Theory is more popular than the others. A totem is an object (such as an animal or a plant) that serves as an emblem or protector of a tribe, reminding them of their ancestry, and the tribe firmly believes that they are related by blood to a certain animal.
Almost every tribe had its own unique totem in ancient times. It was said that Huangdi fought with Yandi for the throne after the demise of Chi You, which ended up with the victory of Huangdi who adopted an imaginary dragon for his coat of arms. Later, Huangdi launched a series of wars against the nine tribes on the Yellow River Valley, and incorporated the other tribes' totems into his own after defeating them (thus explaining why the dragon has attributes of nine other creatures), claiming himself to be monarch of the central plains of China after his great unification. The dragon totem has been popular throughout China ever since.
While this Eastern story is about the good of turning into a magical dragon, the West has a story of punishment that leaves a man a dragon. In this story a prince kills his father for his fame and fortune. Because of this the dying king puts a curse on his son that he will become a dragon. Later in life this dragon is killed by another of his greedy brothers, who then receives the curse and becomes a dragon as well.
Culture colors our perception: dinosaur myths in the present
When talking about dragons, we should decide which type we want to focus on. The culture of the author of the dragon stories will mostly be a key factor whether the dragon is a fearful monster or a magical animal. The same counts for the dinosaurs. We never lived with them and the culture we’re living in affects our perception, even nowadays.
Jurassic Parc did boost the popularity of dinosaurs a lot, but wasn’t always accurate with actual facts of dinosaurs, partly to not existing facts at that moment. Anyway, the public accepts in general what they’re seeing in the movie and calls fiction a “fact”. The Velociraptor in Jurassic Parc wasn’t the terrifying vicious predator, but was in reality barely half a metre high and had feathers. The spectacular fight in the third part of Jurassic Parc couldn’t be historically possible: the Spinosaurus has only been found in Egypt and possibly Morocco whereas T. rex specimens have only been found in North America. Moreover they even didn’t live at the same time, with a gap of around 40 million years.
The dino that Fred Flintstone used to drive to go to work, never really existed. The brontosaurus was a mixup of fossils because of the non-cooperation of the 2 paleontologists Edward Cope and Othneil Marsh, searching for fossils in the late 1800s. The Brontosaurus is based on the discovery of Marsh of an incomplete skeleton of a new type of dinosaur, the Apatosaurus. 2 years later, he found another nearly complete skeleton of what he thought another new species. The skull and some other bones were missing and to beat his competitor, he snatched the nearest skull he could find. The skull matched with another type of dinosaur, called the Camarasaurus. Anyway, the Brontosaurus was born.
Many other mistakes and myths are discovered and will still be in the future, with the further discoveries and investigations of fossils. Many myths will also stay myths, as we cannot be able to retrieve all facts from such a long time ago. Anyway, a last myth I cannot withhold you: in reality we still live with dinosaurs: the birds! The fossil record indicates that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs during the Jurassic Period and, consequently, they are considered to be modern feathered dinosaurs. Some birds survived the extinction event that occurred 66 million years ago, and their descendants continue the dinosaur lineage to the present day.