Dinosaurs in History

Readers of The Long Guest have noticed that it features some “dragons.”

These are not the kind that breathe fire, collect treasure, talk in riddles, and sail through the sky on golden wings. Lord knows, I’ve got nothing against that kind. But The Long Guest is not that sort of story. It’s a speculative novel about what life might have been like in the very ancient world. Its “dragons” are basically animals, part of the milieu through which the characters move as they leave Babel.

They are, of course, dinosaurs. Below is some of the research that prompted me to include them.

Wait, ‘Dragons’ Are Dinosaurs?

The evidence from paleontology is complex, incomplete, hotly debated and far, far beyond the scope of this article. But there is plenty of historical evidence that human beings occasionally saw, and even might have interacted with, various kinds of dinosaur. Often they called them “dragons.”

Dragon ‘legends’ exist all over the world. For example, when my husband and I lived in Borneo, there were stories of a long, skinny water dragon (‘naga’) that lived in the rivers. This dragon was part of the local mythology, but it was also believed to be an actual animal. After all, the other prominent animal in the local mythology was the hornbill (a bird similar to a toucan), which still lives in the interior of Borneo in great numbers.

Dinosaurs in Premodern Art

Let’s start with depictions of dinosaurs in premodern art. All the examples I am going to give below appear in the context of art that features many other animals found in the natural world.

On Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia, there is an image that appears to be a stegosaurus alongside depictions of a monkey, deer, and parrots. On Kachina Bridge in Utah, the Anasazi petroglyphs include an animal that looks like an Apatosaurus. Among the petroglyphs at Havai Supai Canyon, near the Grand Canyon, is an image that appears to be a dinosaur with a long neck, standing upright and balancing on its tail.

Then there are the tens of thousands of small handmade clay sculptures that have been dug out of the ground near the foot of El Toro mountain in Acambaro, Mexico. Besides sculptures of people, musical instruments, idols, and so on, there are – you guessed it – hundreds of recognizable dinosaurs.

Finally, we have the Ica burial stones of Peru. These have images incised on them, including lots of dinosaur images. Interestingly, they show sauropod-like creatures with spikes on their backs. When I was a kid, sauropods were shown as large, grey, slow, and reptilian, with smooth backs. But apparently, in 1992 we moderns figured out that sauropods had “dermal spines.”

Visual images, especially petroglyphs, can be hard to interpret. As you might expect, the sculptures and images above are beloved of creation scientists and have been the subject of debunking by those who hold that dinosaurs did not survive to overlap with people. Sometimes the debunking takes the form of “That’s not really a dinosaur”; other times, as in the case of the Acambaro sculptures, the refrain is, “It must be a recent hoax.”

In the links above, I have tried to include a mix of both sympathetic and skeptical sources. I wanted you to be able to see the images; when possible, I took you to a skeptical source so that you can verify that the image in fact exists. Using the links above, the curious can find out more about the controversies (and with prehistory, the controversies never end).

But now we turn from visual images to less ambiguous accounts in the form of writing.

Historical Evidence for Dinosaurs

Once we start taking dragon ‘legends’ seriously as possible historical accounts of dinosaurs, we start seeing that there are a lot of accounts to consider. Here are just four:

The ancient Chinese, of course, had a whole cosmology built around different kinds of dragons. So much could be said, but I just want to note two things here. First, Chinese dragons are strongly associated with the Emperor because, among other reasons, of a legend of an early emperor, Xia Yu, who was helped by a wise dragon. (Note in the link above that Xia Yu’s story has other features common to the early chapters of Genesis. He lives hundreds of years; he is a founder and a culture bringer; he helps tame the dangerous floods. He is also an ancestor and founder who is later worshiped as a deity, as seems to have been the case with Nimrod.)

Secondly, Chinese dragons differ from Western dragons because they tend to be bearded. Some depictions even have a mane similar to a lion’s. This could be a case of combining characteristics of different animals, which is explicitly done in Chinese dragon mythology, but — just a thought — it could also be a depiction of hair-like feathers. “Hairy” dragons made no sense as dinosaurs until a few years ago, when we started discovering that many dinosaurs had quills or even feathers. See the following links: First Dinosaur Tail Found Preserved in Amber; Top 10 Dinosaurs that Aren’t What They Were; Fossils found in Siberia suggest all Dinosaurs had feathers.

Speaking of feathered dinosaurs: myths about, and worship of, a feathered serpent go way back in a variety of Mesoamerican cultures. This feathered serpent is called Kukulkan in Mayan, but is better known by his Nahuatl name of Quetzalcoatl. He even has a pterosaur named after him, though in reconstructions it looks more like a big bird than like a winged snake. (But compare this myth to the Hebrew “seraph serpents.”)

Continuing with the ancient Hebrew, here is a passage from the book of Job: “Look at the behemoth, which I [God] made along with you [Job] and which feeds on grass like an ox. What strength he has in his loins, what power in the muscles of his belly! His tail sways like a cedar (!); the sinews of his thighs are close-knit. His bones are tubes of bronze, his limbs like rods of iron. … Under the lotus plants he lies, hidden among the reeds in the marsh. … When the river rages, he is not alarmed …” (Job 40:15-23)

This description, particularly the tail swaying like a cedar, sounds like some kind of sauropod. For comparison, in the chapter before this God has given some poetic, but accurate, descriptions of the behavior of mountain goats; does; wild donkeys; wild oxen; ostriches; war horses, hawks, and eagles.

Job, by the way, apparently lived in the Ancient Near East not too long after Babel, if we go by his lifespan. According to the book of Job, he lived another 140 years after the events he is famous for. In Genesis 11, we see life spans of roughly 200 years becoming commonplace some time between Babel and Abraham. This is also the time period in which my book is set.

And now, we come to my favorite: dinosaurs in Beowulf. For this analysis, I owe Bill Cooper, author of After the Flood (1995).   His book has an entire chapter devoted to zoological terms in Beowulf. Among many other rich ethnological and linguistic details, Cooper points out that in the original Anglo-Saxon, Grendel is nowhere referred to as a “troll.” In fact, ‘Grendel’ appears to be not a personal name but a name for a species: there are place-names in England such as “Grendeles Mere” (Grendel’s Lake), Grindles Bec, and Grendeles Pyt. There is even Grindelwald (“Grendelwood”) in Switzerland. (!)

Looking at the characteristics of Grendel as described in Beowulf:

  • He is in “the shape of a man, though twisted” and “more huge than any human being.” In other words, large and bipedal.
  • He is a “mearcstapa” (a marsh-stepper), who stalks the marshes.
  • He is a nocturnal predator (a “sceadugenga” — shadow-goer).
  • He is a “muthbona,” one who slays with his mouth. He is able quickly to devour human beings (once, 15 in one night). This would be difficult if he had a humanoid type of head and jaw.
  • Hrothgar’s warriors have been unable to kill Grendel for 12 years, and he is said to be invulnerable to ordinary weapons.
  • The way Beowulf kills him is to grip him by his “claws,” at which point Grendel, realizing he is in trouble, tries to get away. But Beowulf twists Grendel’s arm off at the shoulder and Grendel runs off to bleed to death.
  • Later, when Beowulf beheads Grendel’s corpse, it takes four men to carry the head home on a spear (this is my own observation, not Cooper’s).
  • And another of my own: Grendel and his mother are both referred to as having “locks,” but see the discussion above about feathers or spines.

After offering all this evidence, Cooper doesn’t even bother to name the dinosaur. “Is there a predatory animal from the fossil record known to us, who had two massive hindlegs and two comparatively puny forelimbs? There are several such species.” (page 159)

Thus, four different streams of historical record that I think may be more than myth.

I am not suggesting that every story of a dragon is to be taken seriously as a sober historical record of a dinosaur encounter. Fables have been invented about dragons, just as fables have been invented about other animals that have captured the human imagination (i.e., nearly all of them). But this does not invalidate every historical account. No one thinks that foxes do not exist because of Aesop’s story of the fox and the grapes. No one thinks that whales do not exist because of Moby Dick or Pinocchio.

But Do They Breathe Fire?

The “dragons” in my books do not breathe fire. However, I have nothing in principle against the idea of an animal that could. After all, this world of ours contains the electric eel, the bombardier beetle, bat radar, bio-luminescent beaches, and the platypus, which apparently is able with its bill to detect electric fields put off by living things and so home in on its prey. Since all these things are possible, surely an animal could have existed that could expel superheated liquid, gas, or even – who knows? – actual fire. The process that allowed it to do this would likely be chemically based and so perhaps not visible in a fossil.

Dragons in The Long Guest

Dragons in my first book appear as part of the milieu, not as characters. Since they do not play a major role, I can mention them without spoilers.

Early in the book, two of the men go on a hunting/scouting trip. They observe a duckbill-type dragon with a crest with pink coloring. On the way back, they have an encounter with another dragon of the raptor type, which is hunting a wild boar that they are also hunting.

Much later in the book, the tribe has crossed Mongolia and has almost reached what is now the Liao River (home of the “pig dragon” artifacts). There they have a friendly encounter with a group of strangers who are capturing a dragon to take home to their king. The “dragon” in this scene is a Triceratops-like creature that sports dermal spines, blue-and-gold feathers on its crest (because why not?), and smooth feathers over the rest of its body. (My day was made, once about ten years ago, when I read in a newspaper that a Triceratops had been found covered in feathers. I now can’t track down the source … but it’s too late. Feathered triceratops/Chinese pig dragon has already made it into the book.)

Loosely Related Update

A long time ago, Antarctica had a temperate or tropical climate, lots of animal life, and this cute little reptile.

Sources

Butt, Kyle and Eric Lyons. Dinosaurs Unleashed: The True Story About Dinosaurs and Humans. Apologetics Press, Inc., 230 Landmark Drive, Montgomery, Alabama, 1st ed. 2004, 2nd ed. 2008.

Cooper, Bill. After the Flood: The early post-flood history of Europe traced back to Noah. New Wine Press, PO Box 17, Chichester, West Sussex, England, 1995. The creatures in Beowulf are discussed in Chapter 11, p.146 ff.

Kleeman, Terry & Barrett, Tracey.  The Ancient Chinese World.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

15 thoughts on “Dinosaurs in History

  1. Rachael McKeeth

    Interesting stuff and I loved exploring all your links! Who isn’t fascinated with dinosaurs and wouldn’t not want them to have lived alongside humans at one point? No one, that’s who. And the imagery that comes to mind when reading about the blue and gold feathers on the triceratops in the Long Guest is beautiful and striking. I wish I knew more about dinosaurs and then I could give some really intelligent comments, but your blog and links and your books make me want to learn more.
    I see you got the behemoth in there. Can I get your opinion on the Leviathan? Specifically on verses 18-20 of chapter 41 in Job, where it seems to indicate that it’s a fire-breathing thing. Thanks for the blog!

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    1. Hi Rachael. You are right, dinosaurs are pretty much universally popular. That’s why we love the Jurassic Park/World movies so much. (One thing I did like about that franchise was its guess that dinos would have features we hadn’t guessed at from their bones, such as bright colors, spitting venom, and camouflage. But even Crichton and Spielberg didn’t anticipate the feathers. They had to add those later.)

      About Leviathan, yes. It is described right after the behemoth. I didn’t bring up Leviathan because I didn’t want to throw too much at readers to whom these ideas were new, and on the face of it, the description of the Leviathan is even harder to swallow.

      So, it sounds like a very large, scaly, lake- or ocean-dwelling creature that also comes up on land sometimes (v. 30 – “he leaves a trail in the mud”). Its mouth is “ringed about with teeth,” which sounds sort of like certain ocean creatures such as the lamprey. Based on the descriptions, it sounds as if this animal was well enough known to people that they had interacted with him, finding out that fishhooks (v 1), harpoons (v 7), and even weapons of war (v 26) had no effect.

      Given all that, plus the fact that the descriptions of animals in chapters 39 and 40 have all been pretty literal, I’m inclined to take the “throwing out fire” thing literally too. As discussed above, I don’t think it would be physically impossible. That goes double because Leviathan is apparently an ocean creature, and some of the weirdest and wildest creatures we know of dwell in the ocean. (E.g. the angler fish, siphonophore, Spanish Dancer, cuttlefish, giant squid, and of course the electric eel)

      That said, even though I feel pretty strongly that the fire thing is meant to be literal, I’m not wedded to this interpretation. If it were somehow disproved, I wouldn’t lose my faith in the Bible … or my interest in dinosaurs. 🙂

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      1. Rachael McKeeth

        Did they finally add feathers to some of the dinosaurs in the later Jurassic Park films? Not that I’ve watched any recently though.

        I’m also inclined to take the “throwing out fire” literally. Not only because it’s awesome, but because of all the reasons you laid out and that there are 4 long detailed verses describing it. It’s not like it’s mentioned in passing ambiguously.

        If you ever decide to take a shot at sketching the Leviathan one day, feel free to post it on your blog or at least share with me so I can enjoy. 🙂

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      2. OK, blog readers … sketch the Leviathan and send me a picture!

        Yes, in the Jurassic World films the velociraptors, who have now become semi-likeable characters, have some head feathers subtly added.

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    2. Benjamin Ledford

      Leviathan seems to be the creature most closely associated with dragons in the Bible (or synonymous, even?).

      Check out Isaiah 27:1 (referring to Assyria, I think).
      “In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”

      Like

      1. Yes. Like a lot of animals, Leviathan had symbolic significance in Ancient Near East culture. It, and the sea in which it lived, were associated with the forces of chaos. So yes, references to God slaying the Leviathan or serpent in or of the sea refer to an ANE myth that God did this once long ago, creating order and driving back chaos. I don’t think it’s necessarily the same as the dragon that is used to symbolize Satan in Revelation, nor the same as the “seraph serpents,” which apparently lived not in the sea, but in the Arabian desert.

        So, sometimes, when we see Leviathan referred to, it’s primarily (perhaps only) being used symbolically. I don’t think that’s the case in Job, because of the context. It is mentioned after descriptions of a lot of other animals which are clearly actual animals. And the way it’s described is more like the description of an animal – leaving tracks in the mud, people trying unsuccessfully to harpoon it, etc.

        That’s just off the top of my head, not even looking in a commentary. Hope I’m not telling you something you already know. If you get inspired and do your own research, please send it to me. 🙂

        If we take dragons seriously as having been animals as well as symbols, then we’re looking at at least two, possibly three different types of dragons just in this discussion alone: Leviathan, seraph serpents, and a third (possibly composite/purely symbolic) kind that represents Satan.

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      2. Benjamin Ledford

        Oh, I agree about Job. Definitely not referring to a mythical creature there. Same in Psalm 104.

        I guess what I’m not sure about is whether dragon and leviathan are essentially synonymous, or if dragon is a larger category of big reptiles of which leviathan is one sea-dwelling variety, or if they are two different types of creatures that are both used to describe evil nations (like serpent and lion). If it’s the latter option, that they’re different creatures that are both used metaphorically, then “dragon” could still be quasi-mythical. If, on the other hand, there is one type of creature in mind that is both dragon and leviathan, then dragon would refer to an actual creature (related to the leviathan).

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      1. Benjamin Ledford

        His huge long tayle, wownd up in hundred foldes,
        Does overspred his long bras-scaly back,
        Whose wreathed boughtes when ever he unfoldes,
        And thick entangled knots adown does slack,
        Bespotted as with shields of red and blacke,
        It sweepeth all the land behind him farre,
        And of three furlongs does but litle lacke;
        And at the point two stinges in fixed arre,
        Both deadly sharp, that sharpest steele exceeden farre.

        But stinges and sharpest steele did far exceed
        The sharpnesse of his cruel rending clawes:
        Dead was it sure, as sure as death in deed,
        What ever thing does touch his ravenous pawes,
        Or what within his reach he ever drawes.
        But his most hideous head my tongue to tell
        Does tremble; for his deepe devouring jawes
        Wyde gaped, like the griesly mouth of hell,
        Through which into his darke abysse all ravin fell.

        And, that more wondrous was, in either jaw
        Three ranckes of yron teeth enraunged were,
        In which yett trickling blood, and goblets raw,
        Of late devoured bodies did appeare,
        That sight therof bredd cold congealed feare;
        Which to increase, and all atonce to kill,
        A cloud of smoothering smoke, and sulphure seare,
        Out of his stinking gorge forth steemed still,
        That all the ayre about with smoke and stench did fill.

        And there are four more stanzas…

        Liked by 1 person

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