In the beginning

Western tradition usually identifies the beginning of dinosaur paleontology as 1822, when Mary Ann Mantell, wife of English physician Gideon Mantell, found large teeth along a Sussex country lane while her husband was busily tending patients (Figure 14.1). Gideon was something of a fossil collector, and the discovery baffled him, because the teeth looked very much like those of the living herbivorous lizard Iguana, but were ominously much, much bigger (Figure 14.2).

But of course the Mantells weren't the first humans to see dinosaur fossils; however, they may have been the first to interpret them meaningfully in a Western scientific context. Fossils of all types must have been remarked upon for as long as there have been humans.

For example, Adrienne Mayor, classical folklorist and historian of science, has reconstructed the origin of the legend of griffins, sharp-beaked, winged, four-legged creatures whose mythology was known across all of Europe and Asia (Figure 14.3). Her idea is that traders along ancient gold-trading caravan routes stretching from Europe through central Asia encountered abundant, beautifully preserved fossils of Protoceratops (see Chapter 6), whose strange (to them) combination of beak, frill, and limbs were explained as the mythical griffin's beak, wings, and legs. The richness of the Asian deposits was revealed more than a thousand years later in the American Museum of Natural History's Central Asiatic fossil Expeditions of the 1920s (Box 14.1) and ancient traders, Mayor suggests, could hardly have failed to notice the bones of strange, articulated, bird-like creatures emerging from weathering desert sands. Mayor hypothesizes that the griffin legend spread from central Asia along trade routes to Europe.

Figure 14.1. Gideon Mantell (1790-1852), the man who first recognized non-avian dinosaurs for what they were.

1. Nobel prize-winning New Zealand physicist, 1871-1937; pioneer in radiation and radioactivity.

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