Around the year 1335, a mysterious skull was
recovered from a local quarry near the town of Klagenfurt, Austria…and it looked downright
monstrous. For one thing, it was way larger than a human
skull. And it had big teeth, a long snout, and some
major-league nasal openings. This odd skull went on display at Klagenfurt’s
Town Hall, where it remained for hundreds of years. And then, in the late sixteenth century, the
skull was immortalized. Artist Urlich Vogelsang used this specimen
as reference for a colossal sculpture of a dragon. The stone beast was completed in 1590, and
is estimated to weigh six metric tons! But the cranium that had captured the artist’s
imagination didn’t come from a fire-breathing reptile. It came from a rhino. A woolly rhino, to be precise. That’s right, in 1840, a paleontologist
confirmed that the fossilized skull belonged to an ice age mammal named Coelodonta antiquitatis,
also known as the woolly rhinoceros, which we’ve talked about before. A big herbivore with a thick furry coat, the
woolly rhino lived around Eurasia as recently as 12,000 years ago. And even though Vogelsang got the anatomical
details wrong, his sculpture is historically significant. Because it’s an early attempt at reconstructing
the appearance of a long-extinct animal — a kind of visual storytelling. Today, we’d call that “paleoart.” People have been discovering the traces and
remains of prehistoric creatures for thousands of years. And they’ve also probably been telling stories
about fantastic beasts since language became a thing. So, is it possible that the monsters that
populate our myths and legends were influenced by the fossil record? Today, we’re tackling that question with
a little help from Dr. Emily Zarka at our fellow PBS Digital series, Monstrum. Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be afraid
of. It’s just science. And monsters. Now, we should point out, that dragon statue
that was inspired by the rhino skull is pretty rare Not only are historians confident that it
was based on a specific fossil, but scientists still have access to that fossil. Usually, we lack that kind of evidence. Stories and works of art tend to have complicated
origins–and multiple sources of inspiration. So more often than not, when we try to figure
out how fossils might have influenced mythical monsters, all we can do is speculate. But that didn’t stop Francis Buckland, whose
father William described the dinosaur Megalosaurus in 1824. A bipedal predator, Megalosaurus stalked England
about 165 million years ago. Today’s scientists think it measured about
6 meters long, but back in the Victorian era, some naturalists thought it was more than
twice that in length. And in 1858, Francis Buckland asked, “May
not the idea of the dragons, curious stories of which are chronicled in various parts of
England, owe their origin–in some way or other–to the veritable existence of these
large lizards in former ages?” Today we know that dinosaurs weren’t really
lizards, but Buckland’s point is still worth considering: Could their bones have been the
inspiration for dragons in other parts of the world, too? Our friend and colleague Dr. Emily Zarka,
a professor at Arizona State University and the host of Monstrum, is here to weigh in. Take it away, Dr. Z! Dragons are an integral part of mythology
and philosophy in Asia, and look quite different from Western legends. The benevolent, shape-shifting dragons of
China have the physical features of nine different creatures  and look very different from the
winged, fire-breathing dragons of Northern Europe. Wang Fu of the Han Dynasty wrote that each
element of the dragon’s appearance came from the camel, cow, stag, snake, clam, tiger,
eagle, carp, annnndd…a demon. Some scholars theorize that each of these
are meant to represent the totems of several main tribes of Ancient China that integrated
into one. The dragon appeared in China at least 6,000
years ago and continues to play an important role in religion, mythology, literature, and
culture. Clouds are said to be made from their breath. They can fly through the air and turn invisible. For the Chinese, dragons symbolize divine
power, controlling the rain, rivers, sea, and all other bodies of water. They’re part of the fundamental Chinese
philosophical concept of balance—Yin and Yang. Dragons represent yang, the masculine force. Dragons are also a part of its imperial history. During the Han to Qing dynasty period,
the great and powerful dragon became associated with emperors as a way to show they were divinely
chosen. Myths from other parts of eastern Asia also
associate dragons with water and imperial power. In Japan, dragons were believed to control
rainfall, although in these myths, the dragons were crueler and more likely to act in anger
than their Chinese counterparts. The Dragon King of Vietnamese mythology was
said to be the ruler of the waters, gifting his subjects with fresh water while he dwelled
in the salty oceans. But why are dragon myths so prevalent in east
Asia? Fossils probably have something to do with
it. Thanks, Dr. Z! And you’re right–some paleontologists think
fossilized bones could have influenced Asia’s dragon tales. One fourth-century text dating back to China’s
Jin Dynasty mentioned that lots of dragon bones had been found in what’s now Sichuan
Province. Many sediments in this area date back to the
middle and late Jurassic period. And those beds are teeming with fossils, including
a variety of dinosaurs — Meat-eating theropods, spiky-tailed stegosaurids, and colossal sauropods
with clubs on the ends of their tails have all been found there. Given all this, paleontologist Dong Zhiming
once suggested that the alleged “dragon bones” discovered back in the 4th century
were probably dinosaur remains. And speaking of dinos, let’s talk about
Protoceratops. A hornless, sheep-sized relative of Triceratops,
this critter lived in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia some 75 million years ago in the late Cretaceous
Period. And it was really common. Some dinosaurs are only known from one or
two specimens, but we’ve found literally hundreds of Protoceratops skulls and skeletons–representing
every stage of the animal’s life. And dinosaur eggs are also really common in
the Gobi. Some of the first fossilized dino eggs known
to modern science were found there in the 1920s. We’re still finding them today, sometimes
in clusters which suggest that certain dinosaurs nested colonially. But fossil-hunters aren’t the only prospectors
with an interest in the Gobi. Nomads started hunting for gold in the western
part of this desert almost 3,000 years ago. The Ancient Greeks began trading with these
people at some point in the seventh century BCE. And when cultures interact, they swap monster
stories. In this case, Greek travelers were entertained
with tales of a winged creature that jealously guarded gold mines: The griffin. Dr. Z, what can you tell us about those beasties? In classical mythology, the griffin has the
body of a lion with the head and wings of an eagle. Griffins have appeared in decorative arts
and heraldry from Europe to Asia going back thousands of years. Different from other chimera-type monsters
of myth, these creatures have no supposed supernatural powers. Although they do guard hidden treasure, an
association that began in ancient Greek legends that might be explained by the existence of
gold mines in Asia where the creatures were said to live. Also unlike other hybrid creatures in mythology,
the griffin isn’t associated with any gods or heroes but were seen as living animals. Stories depict them with real animal-like
behaviors like roaming in packs, nesting on the ground, and hunting for animals and humans
alike. So in 1993, Adrienne Mayor–a research scholar
at Stanford University who studies classics and the history of science–proposed that
myths about griffins may owe a lot to Protoceratops skeletons. Like the griffin, Protoceratops was a quadruped
with a large, curved beak and triangular projections on the sides of its face that could’ve been
mistaken for mammal-like ears. And maybe the abundant dinosaur eggs and nests
reinforced the idea that large, half-bird-half-mammal creatures were hanging out in the Gobi. But not everyone accepts these ideas. Paleontologist Mark Witton has argued that
griffins might have nothing to do with Protoceratops or prehistoric eggs. Perhaps the legends come from ancient encounters
with living beasts, with no influence from the fossil record. or maybe they were just creative storytellers And the sites where modern scientists find
Protoceratops remains don’t really match up with gold deposits or trade routes. Still, we know that some ancient peoples did
find fossils. Remember our buddy, the woolly rhino? Well, in 1978, a team of archaeologists announced
they’d discovered a partial leg bone from this species in an unlikely place: The Acropolis
of Nichoria Thousands of years ago, the residents of this
Bronze Age town in southwestern Greece placed this fossil inside their citadel sanctuary. And some different fossilized bones — those
from ancient elephants — from other sites around the Mediterranean Sea might be tied
to one of this region’s most iconic monsters: The one-eyed cyclops. Dr. Z, what makes the cyclops so special? Well, cyclops monsters are distinguished by
the same thing that gives them their name—one, round-eye. The most famous one comes from the classical
text The Odyssey by Homer when the hero of the book, Odysseus, encounters an island inhabited
by a race of giant people who spend all their time tending sheep. Odysseus and some other men wind up stuck
in a cave with one of these giants, Polyphemus, who starts eating them. Obviously, the men want to get out of there,
so they carve a spear, heat it in the fire and stab the sleeping giant in the eye, blinding
him. Another famous Greek poet, Hesiod, writes
in his Theogony of a trio of “smiths.” These three brothers were the sons of gods,
and each was born with a single eye in their middle of their foreheads. Known for their metalworking skills and great
strength, they are said to be the ones who gifted Zeus his lightning bolt. While they each have names, they are commonly
referred to as Cyclopes. These Greek myths are likely where the modern
idea of the one-eyed cyclops comes from. But they are definitely not the only ones—there
are actually stories of one-eyed giants in the histories of many cultures around the
globe! Which makes sense when you think about the
range in which elephant fossils have been found. Thanks for all the mythology knowledge,Dr. Z. Now, about those old elephant bones… In 1914, an Austrian paleontologist named
Othenio Abel proposed that cyclops legends weren’t inspired by rhinos
or giant people. Instead, he thought they were rooted in dwarf
elephant fossils. Specifically, in their skulls. Elephants and their extinct kin belong to
a group called the Proboscidea. And the skulls of these animals have really
large nasal openings high up on their foreheads. I mean, the trunk has to go somewhere. So Abel suspected that ancient travelers mistook
those cavities for giant eye sockets. It’s a pretty understandable mistake… I mean… I can see where he was coming from. And although, wild proboscideans have been
extinct in Europe for around 10,000 years – people would’ve encountered their fossils
later. Plus with an almost 20 million year evolutionary
history in Europe, that included giants like Deinotherium and Zygolophodon, well, there
might’ve been a lot of strange fossils to be found. Oh…and then there were the dwarfs. Like I explained in our episode about shrinking
mammoths, a miniature version of the extinct elephant Palaeoloxodon lived on the Island
of Cyprus. And other pint-sized elephants and mammoths–some
measuring less than two meters tall at the shoulder–resided on Crete, Sicily and other
islands in the Mediterranean. So dwarf elephants, club-tailed sauropods,
and shaggy rhinos are just some of the amazing – real –  animals that we know from the fossil
record. And although cyclopes, dragons, and griffins
are mythological, planet earth has seen much stranger creatures in its 4.5 billion-year
history. But it’s not always clear how their fossils
were interpreted by ancient people. Still, by speculating about the connection
between dinosaurs and dragons, it reminds us that fossil-hunting is as old as humanity
itself. And digging into the past, whether it’s
through mythology or paleontology, can help us see how fossils might have inspired monsters. Are there other mythical beasts that you think
might’ve had fossil origins? Let us know the fossil and myth in the comments! And if you like all of the mythology that Dr. Z was talking about be sure to check out Monstrum, another PBS Digital Studios channel Monster-sized thanks to this month’s Eontologists:
Patrick Seifert, Jake Hart, Jon Davison Ng, and Steve! Also we want to let you know that we now have
a Discord connected with our Patreon! All our patrons have access to exclusive channels
where we can chat about Eons, paleontology, and anything else! Our whole team is in there, and we’re really
excited to get to know the Eonites better. You can join us by heading over to
and selecting any membership level. See you there! And as always…thank you for joining me
in the Konstantin Haase Studio. Subscribe at to view more
creature features!

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. Of course. I believe that the Chinese considered fossilized dinosaur bones as dragon bones. Don't you think the woolly rhino is cute? And isn't Behemoth in the Godzilla titan clan a modified mammoth? Isn't Godzilla himself based on the old T Rex model of standing upright with a dragging tail?

  2. Eons is literally my favorite channel on all of the YouTube. I just have one complaint. "Prehistoric" is only applicable to human history. In terms of paleontology, it's about as meaningful as "pre-WWII"

  3. I don't call them „wooly rhinos” (Pol: „Nosorożec”), I call them „Unicorns” (Pol: „Jednorożec”)!
    And they were red-wooled, or in ancient language „rose – colour” which in many languages evolved into „pink” (like Polish „róż”/„różowy”). So: UNICORNS WERE REAL, AND WERE PINK!

  4. I know this has already been requested a lot (also by me) but can you please make a video about the Australian megafauna

  5. I have read Adrienne Mayor's book in this subject. I totally agree with this theory that monsters came mostly from fossils. Makes total sence in many cases.

  6. The roc probably came from Arab traiders hearing of some of the birds of Madagascar (such as the Elephan Bird) and seeing/being shown their feathers, coming to the conclusion of "there's a giant bird out there"

    A lot of creatures from Australian Aboriginal mythologies probably came from the extinct animals that their ancestors encountered when they initially arrived on Australia

  7. So I read that it may be possible to reverse engineer bird embryos to express primitive features from their evolutionary ancestry. So how close are we to a real Jurassic park?

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