8 Types of Imaginary Creatures "Discovered" In Fossils

A protoceratops skeleton
A protoceratops skeleton
Karen, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 (cropped)

The wild and colorful mythological creatures that our ancestors dreamt up—dragons, unicorns, griffins—didn't all originate as mere flights of fancy. In some cases, ancient fossils protruding from the earth may have inspired the ideas behind these mythical monsters. In more recent years, showmen and the uninformed have deliberately displayed fossils as “evidence” of imaginary beasts—after all, monsters make great celebrities. Here are eight types of imaginary creatures once "found" in fossils.

1. Griffins

Ancient Greek authors reported that gold-seeking Scythians did battle with griffins deep in the Gobi desert, where the mythological creatures—with the bodies of lions but the beaks and wings of eagles—were said to protect the precious metal's mines. Folklorist Adrienne Mayor has convincingly argued that these Greek stories were inspired by fossils from Protoceratops dinosaurs, which once littered the Gobi desert and can still be found there in relative abundance. Like the griffin, the Protoceratops has four legs and a beak, and its elongated shoulder blades may have been interpreted as wings—although it’s not known to have been a gold-digger.

2. Cyclopes

The ancient Greeks also believed that the island of Sicily was crawling with mythical one-eyed giants known as the Cyclopes. As far back as the 1300s, scholars have pointed out that Sicily and other parts of the Mediterranean were once home to an ancient species of elephants whose enormous skulls look a lot like Cyclopes' heads. The elephant skulls, which can still be found around the area, include a large central nasal cavity where the trunk was once attached, and which could resemble a lone, large eye socket.

3. Tengu

In Japan, fossilized shark teeth have been interpreted as the long, sharp nails of the part-human, part-bird goblins known as Tengu. The fossils are called tengu-no-tsume, or “Tengu’s claw.” They are said to guard against evil spirits and to cure demoniacal possession, and are sometimes enshrined in temples as a treasure.

4. Giant Humans

Bill Faulkner, National Park Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In Greece, the discovery of massive bones from mammoths, mastodons, and woolly rhinoceroses was seen as confirming the existence of mighty giants and ancestral heroes. Even St. Augustine and the prolific Jesuit writer Athanasius Kircher misidentified enormous teeth and bones from ancient mammals as evidence of giants, and the practice still hasn’t entirely died out.

According to the scholar James L. Hayward, one of the most remarkable cases of such misidentification came from eminent Swiss physician Johann Jacob Scheuchzer, who in 1726 published the 24-page treatise Homo diluvii testis ("The man who witnessed the flood"). The treatise included descriptions of fossil skeletons found in lakebeds near Oeningen, Switzerland, which were presented as if they were the remains of ancient humans who lived in the time before Noah and his ark. The treatise was cited as “evidence” of pre-flood man until 1787. Later, paleontologist Georges Cuvier correctly identified the fossils in question as belonging to a giant salamander.

5. Unicorns

iStock.com/SergeyMikhaylov

In the Middle Ages, Danish sailors brought the pointy, pale, spiraled horns of the narwhal to Europe, where people believed they were the remains of magical unicorns and possessed valuable healing powers. In fact, narwhals contributed to the idea of the unicorn horn being long and white; earlier tales had described them in a variety of shapes and colors, but the myths and legends solidified around the look we know today once narwhal horns came on the scene.

But narwhals aren’t the only animals passed off as unicorns: In 1663, German naturalist Otto von Güericke made the first-known reconstruction of Pleistocene mammals, labeling his awkward creation a two-legged “unicorn.” (His unicorn “horn” is said to be a mammoth tusk, although some sources say he used a narwhal horn atop mammoth and woolly rhinoceros bones). A reconstruction of his creation is on display near the zoo in Osnabrück, Germany.

6. Dragons

Jstuby, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A variety of creatures' remains have been said to belong to dragons, including the woolly rhinoceros. In fact, the town hall of Klagenfurt, Austria once exhibited a woolly rhinoceros skull as the remains of the Lindwurm, a serpent-like dragon that terrorized the area before being slain by knights. The town’s Lindwurmbrunnen (dragon fountain), constructed in the 16th century and still on view, is based on that skull.

Fossils of lepidodendron (an ancient tree-like plant) have also been exhibited as dragon skins, and not all that long ago. Some were presented in Wales in 1851 as pieces of the body of a gigantic fossil serpent. (If you squint and don’t know any better, the leaf bases on the trunk of the plant look a little like scales.)

In Asia, dinosaur fossils have long been mistaken for dragon bones and teeth. “Dragon bones” are still sold as such by practitioners of traditional medicine in eastern and southeastern Asia, where they are said to cure madness, diarrhea, and other ailments. The medicine is actually formed from the fossils of dinosaurs and other extinct animals found in China’s fossil beds.

7. Vishnu’s Wheel

In medieval Europe, people believed that fossilized ammonites—an extinct group of marine invertebrate animals—were petrified coiled snakes, and saw them as the evidence of the work of divine figures like St. Hilda, who turned snakes into stone.

But in the Himalayas, fossil ammonites are considered sacred and thought to be the discs or wheels belonging to the Hindu god Vishnu (the four-armed god holds a disc or wheel in one of his hands). The fossils are still held in high regard by Hindus throughout India, while in Nepal and Tibet, they are seen as representing the 8-spoked wheel of the law, dharmachakra.

8. Sea Serpents

Ellis, R. Monsters of the Sea, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Specimens from “sea serpents” have been identified as partially decayed basking sharks, deformed snakes, and masses of floating seaweed. But in the 1840s, conman Albert Koch went across the clay fields of Clarke County, Alabama, looking for bones from Basilosaurus, a 40-million-year old genus of a newly-discovered, giant, reptilian-like whale. Koch assembled the bones he discovered into a 114-foot-long creature he labeled Hydroarchos, the "water king." The abomination was twice the size of the real Basilosaurus and an obvious composite rather than one complete skeleton, but that didn't stop King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia from buying the thing for his Royal Anatomical Museum. (Koch later created another one for a museum owner in Chicago.) In 1845, Koch exhibited the “great sea serpent” at the Apollo Saloon in New York City for an entry fee of 25 cents.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Visit Any National Park for Free on September 28—or Volunteer to Help Maintain Them

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park
Nick Hanauer/iStock via Getty Images

By the end of September—which always seems especially busy, even if you’re not a student anymore—you might be ready for a small break from the hustle and bustle. On Saturday, September 28, you can bask in the tranquility of any national park for free, as part of National Public Lands Day.

According to the National Park Service, the holiday has been held on the fourth Saturday of every September since 1994, and it’s also the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort. It’s up to you whether you’d like to partake in the service side or simply go for a stroll, but there is an added incentive to volunteer: You’ll get a one-day park pass that you can use for free park entry on a different day. Opportunities for volunteering include trail restoration, invasive plant removal, park cleanups, and more; you can see the details and filter by park, state, and/or type of event here.

If you’re not sure how you should celebrate National Public Lands Day, the National Park Service has created a handy flowchart to help you choose the best course of action for you—which might be as simple as sharing your favorite outdoor activity on social media with the hashtag #NPLD.

National public lands day celebration flowchart
National Park Service

There are more than 400 areas run by the National Park Service across the U.S., and many of them aren’t parks in the traditional sense of the word; the Statue of Liberty, Alcatraz Island, and countless other monuments and historical sites are also run by the NPS. Wondering if there might be one closer than you thought? Explore parks in your area on this interactive map.

For those of you who can’t take advantage of the free admission on September 28, the National Park Service will also waive all entrance fees for Veteran’s Day on November 11.

And, if you’re wishing a free-admission day existed for museums, you’re in luck—more than 1500 museums will be free to visit on Museum Day, which happens to be this Saturday.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER