Darwinism & Dragons – The Bristol Dinosaur Mission

Visitor Writer – Sophie Pollard
Present Palaeobiology MSc Scholar

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

An illustration of the Lambton Worm, my private favorite dragon, who was tossed down in addition to slightly eel-like creature and grew to terrorise county Durham (Illustrated by C. E. Brook for the 1890 ebook, “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?

Effectively, when scientists took a take a look at the dragon delusion from the attitude of evolutionary biology, they discovered some surprisingly acquainted patterns.  Myths have a tendency to alter progressively. Tales are likely to get misremembered and altered in little methods with every telling, inflicting them to float over time.

Perhaps a fossil is found, and never figuring out what to make of it, individuals assume it have to be a dragon, adapting their myths to their new discover, or maybe accounts of bizarre and terrifying animals get combined up with mythology, or perhaps 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 possibly can take a look at these little modifications in the identical approach you’d take a look at mutations in an organism, and the long-term drift of story parts in the identical approach as evolution. Adaptation within the face of a altering cultural setting. Survival of the good heroes, the scariest monsters, and essentially the most satisfying endings.

And we are able to see real-life examples of this within the tales we nonetheless have at present. 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 the world over 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 massive 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 indignant males with pointy sticks.

To study extra about these patterns, mathematical strategies could be borrowed from evolutionary biology. If we swap genetic or bodily attributes of animals for the weather of a narrative, comparable 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 have been the more than likely, and even work out the place a narrative might need come from within the first place.

As a way to get so broadly unfold, you’d suppose the dragon delusion would have needed to seem fairly early in human historical past earlier than we began emigrate all over the world, or else it might 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 methods in 2013. They used information from 23 areas all over the world to create various “phylogenetic” bushes, which may very well be mixed to indicate which of the bushes was the more than likely.

The assessments confirmed a really excessive probability that there was a single origin of the dragon delusion. Actually, the developments proven within the analysis have been stronger than these produced by most organic information, partially as a result of they match so nicely with patterns of migration in people.

So, we could 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 concept of what the parable seemed like because it dispersed.

In accordance with d’Huy and his analysis staff, the primary dragon story was doubtless being instructed 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 in a roundabout way.

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

A rock artwork panel from a website referred to 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 delusion 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 generally human hair. It was nonetheless strongly related to water, generally bringing storms, rain and floods, and will typically fly.

These concepts will doubtless appear fairly acquainted when you’ve heard any tales of japanese dragons. And you’ll 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 suitable. The burial is on show on the Nationwide Museum of Beijing.

From right here, the dragon made its approach again in the direction of the close to east and up into Siberia shedding a lot of its options and turning 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 delusion to maneuver slightly methods south into elements 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 throughout the Yukon area of Canada.

This large, crocodile-like monster is claimed to have had six legs and lived in lakes, streams, and swamps, the place it might lie in look ahead to 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 delusion 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 could 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 delusion 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 probably essentially 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 at the moment, however they’re not the European dragons we see at present. As a substitute, we see an enormous serpent, normally with a number of heads, and the flexibility to talk in addition to different human attributes. It lives in or close to water, or generally underground, and is aggressive and harmful, typically with a style for human sacrifice, however can also be susceptible to trickery.

Round 8,000 years in the past, we see the Proto-Indo-European growth, influencing Europe, India, western Asia, and North Africa (notably 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 precious to the individuals of the time.

Apparently, and slightly disappointingly, this style for cattle could also be liable for the fashionable European dragon’s love of kidnapping girls, on account of a mistranslation of an outdated 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 now have an concept of how the dragon delusion discovered its approach all over the world, however that doesn’t clarify why this concept stayed so standard for such a very long time. In spite of everything, it’s uncommon to see any delusion so widespread or so outdated.

The reply may lie within the easy indisputable fact that snakes are scary. Love them or hate them, all of us bounce slightly 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 are able to by no means be fully certain the place people received the concept for dragons within the first place, or what drove it to take up so many kinds everywhere in the world, though we are able to make educated guesses. Both approach, it’s good to take a position 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, make sure to 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 mild 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 Finding out Mythology: three Peer Reviewed Papers and a Quick Historical past of the Dragon Motif. The Retrospective Strategies Community Publication, Winter 2014-2015. 9: 125-127.

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

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