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.

5 Fast Facts About Muhammad Ali

Kent Gavin/Getty Images
Kent Gavin/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali is one of the most important athletes and cultural figures in American history. Though he passed away in 2016, the heavyweight boxing champ was larger than life in and outside of the ring. The man who coined the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” won 37 knockout victories. Here are five more fast facts about Muhammad Ali, a.k.a. The Greatest.

1. Cassius Clay was named for a white abolitionist.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and named after his father, who had in turn been named for a white abolitionist. The original Cassius Clay was a wealthy 19th-century planter and politician who not only published an anti-slavery newspaper, but also emancipated every slave he inherited from his father. Cassius Clay also served as a minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln.

2. Muhammad Ali's draft evasion case went to the Supreme Court.

In the early 1960s, Clay converted to Islam, joined the Nation of Islam, and took the name Muhammad Ali. According to his religious beliefs, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War when he was drafted in April 1967. He was arrested and stripped of his boxing license and heavyweight title. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion and banned from fighting while he remained free on appeal. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned his conviction in 1971.

3. He received a replacement gold medal.

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ali won the gold medal for boxing in the light heavyweight division. But, as he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (edited by Toni Morrison!), he supposedly threw his medal into the Ohio River in frustration over the racism he still experienced in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Some historians dispute this story and suggest that Ali just lost the medal. Either way, he was given a replacement when he lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

4. Muhammad Ali was an actual superhero.

In 1978, DC Comics published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali—an oversize comic in which Muhammad Ali defeats Superman and saves the world. In real life, Ali did save a man from suicide. In 1981, a man threatened to jump from the ninth story of a building in L.A.’s Miracle Mile neighborhood. Ali’s friend Howard Bingham witnessed the unfolding drama and called the boxer, who lived nearby. Ali rushed into the building and successfully talked the man down from the ledge.

5. Muhammad Ali starred in a Broadway show.

In Oscar Brown, Jr.'s 1969 musical adaptation of Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play Big Time Buck White, Ali played a militant black intellectual who speaks at a political meeting. The play ran for only five nights at the George Abbot Theatre in New York. His Playbill bio reported that Ali "is now appealing his five-year prison conviction and $10,000 fine for refusing to enter the armed services on religious grounds. The Big Time Buck White role that he has accepted is much like the life he lives off stage in reality.”

Why Do Brides Traditionally Wear White? You Can Thank Queen Victoria

The royal family has been setting fashion standards since long before Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle became household names. More than 175 years ago, the wedding dress Queen Victoria wore when she married Prince Albert in 1840 made a major statement. Victoria's off-the-shoulder satin gown was covered in delicate lace, but most impressively of all, it was the color of snow.

Wedding dress styles have changed a great deal since the Victorian era, but the light color palette has more or less remained a constant, according to Vanity Fair. White wasn’t always the obvious choice, though.

Prior to Queen Victoria’s royal wedding, red and other bright hues were the go-to colors for would-be brides. While Queen Victoria is largely credited with being the person who popularized the white wedding dress tradition as we know it today, she wasn’t the first woman to wear white on her wedding day—or even the first royal bride to don the the color (Mary, Queen of Scots opted for white when she married the Dauphin of France in 1558).

While some accounts have suggested that Queen Victoria wore white as a symbol of her sexual purity, historians have pointed out that wearing white was more of a status symbol. Wealthy brides wore the color to flaunt the fact that they could afford to have the dress cleaned—a task that was notoriously difficult in those days.

"Before bleaching techniques were mastered, white was a rare and expensive color, more a symbol of wealth than purity,” biographer Julia Baird wrote in Victoria: The Queen. “Victoria was not the first to wear it, but she made it popular by example. Lace makers across England were thrilled by the sudden surge in the popularity of their handiwork."

Eventually, white weddings became the standard—particularly once synthetic fibers became widely available (and cheaper than satin). With that, the “definitive democratization of the white wedding gown” was complete, Carol Wallace wrote in All Dressed in White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding.

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