- Dinosaur

Darwinism & Dragons – The Bristol Dinosaur Mission

Visitor Creator – Sophie Pollard
Present Palaeobiology MSc Pupil

Regardless of how a lot or how little about mythology, about dragons. They’re just about all over the place. From the feathered Quetzalcoatl of Aztec tradition to the many-headed Mesopotamian deity Tiamat, supernatural serpents have been inflicting floods, kidnapping ladies, and making a basic nuisance of themselves to the heroes of our favorite tales for so long as anybody can keep in mind.

An illustration of the Lambton Worm, my private favorite dragon, who was tossed down in addition to a bit of eel-like creature and grew to terrorise county Durham (Illustrated by C. E. Brook for the 1890 guide, “English Fairy tales and Different Folks Tales”).

However the place did these lumbering lizards come from within the first place? How did they get to be so widespread? And what does any of this must do with palaeontology?

Properly, when scientists took a take a look at the dragon fantasy from the angle of evolutionary biology, they discovered some surprisingly acquainted patterns.  Myths have a tendency to vary progressively. Tales are inclined to get misremembered and adjusted in little methods with every telling, inflicting them to float over time.

Perhaps a fossil is found, and never realizing what to make of it, individuals assume it should be a dragon, adapting their myths to their new discover, or maybe accounts of bizarre and terrifying animals get combined up with mythology, or possibly the storyteller merely decides that the huge, serpentine predator simply isn’t scary sufficient and provides an additional head or two for good measure.

You’ll be able to take a look at these little modifications in the identical method you’d take a look at mutations in an organism, and the long-term drift of story parts in the identical method as evolution. Adaptation within the face of a altering cultural setting. Survival of the best heroes, the scariest monsters, and probably the most satisfying endings.

And we are able to see real-life examples of this within the tales we nonetheless have as we speak. Sure patterns and concepts, like an apocalyptic flood, cosmic hunt throughout the night time sky and naturally a scary, supersized snake are shared by many cultures internationally and have a tendency to maneuver round with human populations as they migrate all through historical past.

A 16-Seventeenth century engraving of the story of Callisto, which is a well-known instance of a cosmic hunt story, an historic style during which giant mammals are pursued by hunters throughout the night time sky. Seems dragons aren’t the one ones who can’t appear to catch a break from offended males with pointy sticks.

To be taught extra about these patterns, mathematical strategies might be borrowed from evolutionary biology. If we swap genetic or bodily attributes of animals for the weather of a narrative, corresponding to whether or not the dragon has mammalian options, or a style for human flesh, we are able to use phylogenetic evaluation to work out which patterns of improvement had been the most definitely, and even work out the place a narrative might need come from within the first place.

To be able to get so extensively unfold, you’d assume the dragon fantasy would have needed to seem fairly early in human historical past earlier than we began emigrate around the globe, or else it could have needed to spring up by itself a number of instances.

A bunch of scientists, led by Julien d’Huy, got down to decide the origin of the dragon utilizing phylogenetic strategies in 2013. They used information from 23 areas around the globe to create quite a few “phylogenetic” bushes, which could possibly be mixed to indicate which of the bushes was the most definitely.

The exams confirmed a really excessive chance that there was a single origin of the dragon fantasy. In reality, the traits proven within the analysis had been stronger than these produced by most organic information, partially as a result of they match so effectively with patterns of migration in people.

So, we might be fairly certain that the dragon has one single level of origin, and that it adopted humanity because it dispersed across the globe. Moreover, we now have an thought of what the parable regarded like because it dispersed.

Based on d’Huy and his analysis group, the primary dragon story was seemingly being informed so long as 75,000 years in the past in South Africa. This dragon was a chimaera whose physique was half snake and was linked with water not directly.

Interpretations of rock artwork from Lesotho, in southern Africa, appear to corroborate this story. One portray, particularly, termed the “Rain Snake Panel”, depicts males catching a huge, mythic snake in an underwater setting.

A rock artwork panel from a website generally known as the “rain snake shelter”, in Lesotho, Southern Africa (Challis et al., 2013).

Human migrations out of Africa through the close to east and into the far east would have carried the dragon fantasy with them, round 80,000 to 60,000 years in the past.

At this level, the dragon was an enormous snake, normally possessing the pinnacle of a second species, with ears, horns, scales, and typically human hair. It was nonetheless strongly related to water, typically bringing storms, rain and floods, and will typically fly.

These concepts will seemingly appear fairly acquainted in the event you’ve heard any tales of japanese dragons. And you may even spot one thing comparable in some early archaeological finds, such because the dragon depicted on the neolithic Xishuipo website in Henan, China, which dates again round 6,000 years.

A burial website from Xishuipo, Henan, that includes a person and two shell mosaics, depicting a dragon on the left of the picture and a horse on the proper. The burial is on show on the Nationwide Museum of Beijing.

From right here, the dragon made its method again in the direction of the close to east and up into Siberia dropping a lot of its options and changing into extra snake-like by round 50,000 years in the past. By this time, the dragon had additionally turn out to be more and more extra antagonistic and aggressive.

We then see the ice-age glacial most, permitting the Chinese language fantasy to maneuver a bit of methods south into components of Oceania, and for the Siberian dragon to maneuver into North America over the Bering land bridge, the place we see the Palraijuq from Inuit oral custom inside the Yukon area of Canada.

This huge, crocodile-like monster is claimed to have had six legs and lived in lakes, streams, and swamps, the place it could lie in anticipate unsuspecting prey, dragging its victims into the icy waters to be drowned.

Australian Aboriginal Rock artwork, depicting “The Rainbow Serpent”.

In the meantime, the Chinese language dragon fantasy headed down into Oceania however not fairly all the way in which to Australia till the Youthful Dryas occasion solely 12, 000 years in the past. Tales of the fabulously named Rainbow Serpent might be discovered throughout Australia to at the present time, the place it’s typically hailed as a creator deity in Aboriginal folklore.

Not lengthy after, round 10,000 years in the past, the dragon fantasy crossed the Pacific Ocean to succeed in Mesoamerica.  Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent and Aztec deity, which occurs to have its personal pterosaur, Quetzalcoatlus, named after it, is maybe probably the most well-known instance of an American dragon.

The feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl (depicted within the Sixteenth-century codex Telleriano-Remensis) and its palaeontological namesake, Quetzalcoatlus (Witton and Naish, 2008), each having fun with a pleasant, tasty lunch.

We additionally see dragons throughout Europe presently, however they’re not the European dragons we see as we speak. As a substitute, we see an enormous serpent, normally with a number of heads, and the power to talk in addition to different human attributes. It lives in or close to water, or typically underground, and is aggressive and harmful, typically with a style for human sacrifice, however can be liable to trickery.

Round 8,000 years in the past, we see the Proto-Indo-European growth, influencing Europe, India, western Asia, and North Africa (significantly the Nile area). The proto-Indo-Europeans spoke of NgWhi, who was a three-headed serpent who stole cattle, a useful resource which might have been extraordinarily useful to the individuals of the time.

Apparently, and a bit of disappointingly, this style for cattle could also be accountable for the trendy European dragon’s love of kidnapping ladies, as a result of a mistranslation of an previous phrase for cow.

One of many extra well-known and funny-looking woman-eating dragons from the story of St. George and the dragon.

So, we have now an thought of how the dragon fantasy discovered its method around the globe, however that doesn’t clarify why this concept stayed so common for such a very long time. In any case, it’s uncommon to see any fantasy so widespread or so previous.

The reply would possibly lie within the easy indisputable fact that snakes are scary. Love them or hate them, all of us bounce a bit of after we see a suspiciously formed stick out of the nook of our eyes. People have nice snake-detecting capabilities, with brains designed to recognise visible patterns and three-dimensional, colored imaginative and prescient. As a species, we’re designed to hate snakes, so what higher topic to scare one another with over a campfire?

We will by no means be utterly certain the place people received the concept for dragons within the first place, or what drove it to take up so many varieties everywhere in the world, though we are able to make educated guesses. Both method, it’s good to invest on a topic so well-known and well-loved because the dragons of our childhood tales.

Sophie Pollard is a present Palaeobiology MSc pupil on the College of Bristol.

Article edited by Vicky Coules.

This text was a joint-feature with the Bristol PalaeoMedia Group, you should definitely try their website for extra tales on the place Palaeontology and Pop Tradition combine. (@Brispalmedia)


Challis, S., Hollmann, J., & McGranaghan, M. (2013) ‘Rain snakes’ from the Senqu River: new gentle on Qing’s commentary on San rock artwork from Sehonghong, Lesotho. Azania: Archaeological Analysis in Africa. 48: 331-354

d’Huy, J. (2014) Statistical Strategies for Learning Mythology: three Peer Reviewed Papers and a Brief Historical past of the Dragon Motif. The Retrospective Strategies Community E-newsletter, Winter 2014-2015. 9: 125-127.

Witton, M.P., & Naish, D. (2008) A Reappraisal of Azhdarchid Pterosaur Useful Morphology and Paleoecology. PLoS ONE. 3: e2271

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