3 Mythological Creatures That Were Actually Inspired by Real Fossils

We've told you about the guy who discovered the first dinosaur fossil. But bones of long-dead giants have been buried underground for as long as human beings have walked the Earth (and we've spent a fair amount of that time digging, too). So how is it that it took until 1815 to first discover them? The fact is, it didn't — but earlier people who came across prehistoric bones might have wedged them into their myth-ridden understanding of the world. And some of those bones might have even inspired some legends of their own.

1. Cyclops

Picture yourself newly arrived on an island in the ancient Mediterranean. You set up camp beside a bubbling river in anticipation of a thunderstorm. You weather the night, but the next morning you find that the flooded river washed away a great deal of dirt, revealing a giant human skull with a single hole smack in the middle of the forehead. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the dwarf elephant — better known as the cyclops.

Dwarf elephants have been found on islands across the Mediterranean, from Malta to Cyprus. Their skulls really are oddly human-like, but smack in the middle of them is a massive hole for the nose. A hole that looks a bit eye-sockety. Along with the elephant ancestor Deinotherium, the dwarf elephants almost certainly started the legend of the cyclops. And can you really blame an ancient Greek for making the mistake?

Polyphemus, by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1802.

2. Giants

Elephants aren't the only creatures to get mistaken for something a little more fantastical — but they are one of the most popular. In 1443, a massive thighbone was unearthed in Vienna during the construction of St. Stephen's Cathedral. Obviously, this was the thigh of one of the giants killed in the Great Flood, so the faithful carved it into a decorative pattern and hung it above the cathedral's doorway.

3. Dragons

Many paleontologists and historians today believe that dragon myths can be chalked up to dinosaur fossils, which would explain why they are so widespread in so many far-flung cultures. In China, it may have been a long-necked sauropod whose legs had been lost that inspired the classic flying snake-style dragon, while in England, the teeth of Megalosaurus suggested a ferocious predator.

But there's one fossil-backed story that stars both giants and dragons and spotlights the dangers of reinterpreting bones to fit the story you already think you know. Wilten, a town in Austria, had a legend of a giant named Aimon who slew a local dragon. The dragon's tongue hung in a monastery for a couple of centuries — it was actually the nose of a swordfish. When the church ordered an excavation to find the body of Aimon himself, they collapsed their own building.

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Can't get enough monsters? Check out "Mythic Creatures: And the Impossibly Real Animals Who Inspired Them" by Dr. Mark A. Norell, Laurel Kendall, and Richard Ellis, which was inspired by an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 1, 2017

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