Dino-Era Fossils Inspired Monster Myths, Author Says

John Roach
National Geographic News
June 17, 2005
According to the Lakota, or Sioux, Indians' "Water Monsters of the Badlands" legend,
the rugged and eroded lands of southwestern South Dakota were the stage
for an epic battle between water spirits and thunder and lightning spirits.

The water sprits were embodied by giant water monsters known as the Unktehi. Thunder and lighting spirits took the form of thunderbirds known as Wakinyan.

In the battle myth the Wakinyan torched the Badlands forest and plains with thunderbolts. An inland sea boiled and dried, and the Unktehi burned. Only the dried bones of the Unktehi and Wakinyan remained.

Today paleontologists know the Badlands are full of bones of mosasaurs (giant marine reptiles that plied an inland sea there during the Cretaceous period) and pterosaurs (giant flying reptiles). The Cretaceous is the geologic period spanning from 144 to 65 million years ago.

Adrienne Mayor is an author and independent scholar in Princeton, New Jersey. She says the "Water Monsters of the Badlands" legend was inspired in part by these fossils, which the Lakota undoubtedly encountered in their travels.

"It would have been logical and very rational to imagine these great sky and water creatures might have been enemies, and the reason they're all dead is they had battled," Mayor said.

Mayor tells the legend of this battle—and the science behind it—in her book, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, which was published in May.

The book builds on her theory that the fossils influenced, contributed to, and inspired many of the greatest myths and legends ever told.

"Granted, not all legends are based on fossils, but I'm pretty convinced some are," said Peter Dodson, a vertebrate paleontologist and professor of veterinary anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Dodson encouraged Mayor to develop her theory.

Classical Folklorist

Mayor describes herself as a folklorist who studies the earliest inklings of scientific inquiry. She focuses on legends and myths largely because the scientific knowledge embedded in them is often overlooked by the academic community.

"Oral traditions contain natural knowledge but couched in mythological terms," Mayor said. "So those myths and stories are seen as products of imaginative storytelling rather than actually conveying real knowledge."

Mayor's research suggests myths and legends about giants and monsters served ancient people as a way to remember and explain the bones that the people undoubtedly encountered in their daily lives.

A visit to a fossil museum in the village of Mytilini on the Greek island of Samos inspired Mayor to develop her theory on the connections between myths, legends, and fossils. There, she saw freshly dug-up limb bones from an extinct creature, still encrusted with dirt.

"Of course people must have come across these fossils as they were plowing up their fields in antiquity. It's not something they would ignore. Such huge bones demand an explanation," Mayor said.

Mayor went digging through classical Greek and Latin texts and crisscrossed the Mediterranean for evidence to support her theory. The result, 15 years later, was her book The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, published in 2000.

Guardians of Gold

Among the mythological creatures Mayor connects with fossil inspiration is the griffin, a beast with the body of a lion and the beak and claws of an eagle. According to mythology, griffins lived in the arid Asian region known as the Gobi and were guardians of gold.

Mayor researched paleontological finds in the Gobi and discovered that some of the most abundant fossils there belong to Protocerotops, a beaked dinosaur. She suggests that legends of griffins were inspired by Protocerotops bones that nomads encountered while prospecting for gold.

"It's one of the most convincing cases. We can't prove it, but everything seems to come together in a coherent way," she said.

The same forces of erosion that exposed gold in the hills of the Gobi would also have exposed the fossils. To get gold from the fields, the nomads would have had to pass through territory that was "guarded" by the fossils, Mayor said.

Dodson, the University of Pennsylvania vertebrate paleontologist, added that in the Gobi, the Protocerotops skeletons are unusually white and show up well against the red sandstone cliffs. Protocerotops fossils would have been nearly impossible to miss.

"To me, it just adds up," he said.

Academic Respect

Mayor is careful to say that not all myths were inspired by fossils. And she does not intend to reduce any myth to just fossils. To her, only stories that directly refer to physical remains, such as bones and footprints, qualify as fossil legends.

Her studious approach has earned her the respect of the academic community. Many academics, Mayor said, are fascinated by the evidence that ancient cultures paid attention to fossils and attempted to explain them in a rational manner.

Dodson said that he is uncertain how much Mayor's work has affected the academic community. But he said Mayor is probably opening up minds to the historical context of fossils.

"I've very much appreciated what she's done, but I can't say I've followed up on it myself, other than having chosen an Indian name for a dinosaur I discovered last year [in Montana], Suuwassea emilieae, which means 'ancient thunder' in the Crow Indian language," he said.

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