Dragons have never failed to capture our imaginations. This past year in my house, the friendly dragon of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, the tragic dragon of Iron Hearted Violet, the playful dragons of the How to Tame Your Dragon franchise, and the ferocious dragons faced by Bilbo Baggins and Harry Potter, have played prominent roles in the literature and entertainment I have enjoyed with my kids.
Dragons are also a topic of fascination for creation ministries. If you search for them on the websites of Answers in Genesis (AIG), or the Institute of Creation Research (ICR) you will find plenty of articles. And there is a whole exhibit dedicated to dragons at AIG’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY. Promotional material for the exhibit notes the similarities between dragons and dinosaurs in ancient art and architecture and asks, “Could it be that the artists behind these depictions were drawing a real-life animal they’d seen with their own eyes?”
Along the same lines, the host of AIG’s video Dinosaurs and Dragon Legends asks, “What could have inspired all these stories? Is the dragon simply the creation of inventive minds? Or could dragon stories be based in reality—possibly related to dinosaurs, or other amazing reptiles that we find in the fossil record?”
Creationist organizations claim that the existence of dragon lore in so many cultures and time periods is compelling evidence that humans coexisted with the creatures that inspired the legends. Since we know from the fossil record that dragon-like dinosaurs walked the earth at some point, they contend that humans must have observed these dinosaurs alive before they allegedly died out after Noah’s flood.
However, the scientific consensus is that dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago, long before the earliest human ancestors arrived on the scene. Does science have anything to say about why so many cultures have dragon legends? Is there another explanation that fits the observations better than the conclusion that humans and dinosaurs must have coexisted? What about other mythical creatures like cyclops, griffins, and thunderbirds? Are those legends based on experience with real creatures who once lived on earth?
Adrienne Mayor is a professor at Stanford University, and she has spent her career investigating the relationship between fossils and legends. Her work has inspired multiple museum exhibits such as the traveling exhibit “Mythic Creatures,” and the Indianapolis Children’s Museum’s “Dragons Unearthed.” Her work has also been featured in documentaries such as the A&E’s Quest for Dragons, the History Channel’s Ancient Monster Hunters, and the BBC’s Dinosaurs, Myths, and Monsters.
The story of how she began looking for fossils that inspired ancient stories is told in an accessible illustrated children’s book (5th-8th grade) called The Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science. The book tells how an observant, curious, and nature-loving child grew up to be a self-taught expert in geomythology, a field that didn’t really exist until Mayor started asking questions, making connections, and gathering evidence.
In the book The Griffin and the Dinosaur, we get to follow along as Mayor’s curiosity and fascination with ancient literature propels her on a quest around the world to confirm her hunch that the stories people tell about fantastic creatures can be linked to fossils that were discovered by people who lived in the region where the stories originated.
The book focuses on her pursuit of the fossil that inspired the Greek myths of griffins, creatures that were described as half lion, half bird. Mayor traces the literature back to the origin of the legends with Scythian gold miners. Sure enough, in the Gobi Desert where the Scythians dug for gold, Protoceratops fossils are plentiful and even include nests, eggs, and hatchlings that match the depictions of griffins in ancient art and legends.
After exploring the links between Greek mythology and fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, Mayor went on to research the connections between local fossils and Native American mythical creatures. She concluded that ancient cultures were very attuned to the natural world around them and made careful observations of the fossils in their environment. Based on their understanding of how the world works, they came up with imaginative explanations for the histories they saw in the bones and rocks they found. Their stories convincingly speak of the fossilized creatures as real because they knew only real creatures leave bones behind! But their vivid depictions do not prove humans actually coexisted with the prehistoric creatures.
The work of Adrienne Mayor is a great example of the detective work of science; how researchers turn questions about their observations into a testable hypothesis, how they use the hypothesis to make predictions about what they will find and then set out to gather more evidence to see if their hypothesis and predictions will be right. She is an inspiring role model for children who love exploring the world around them and relentlessly asking questions about what they notice. Her explanation of why we have so many great dragon legends to fuel our imaginations even today harmonizes a lot better with what we know from science than creationist claims about dinosaurs and humans coexisting.