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Folklore Traditions and Paleontology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 3355 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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The scientific process frames information using empirical reason, a system that extracts valuable and seemingly unbiased facts of nature while often affording less room for sources of knowledge that defy its exacting methodology. As a result, information coming from oral histories, myth and ritual is not always regarded as valuable, or at least not as valuable as that which can be tested in a laboratory setting. Even so, traditions of folklore and so-called pure science have interacted across time, and the focus of this paper will be to question in what ways folklore has informed research in the field of paleontology. How did traditions of myth affect early impressions of dinosaur fossils, has folklore ever aided paleontologists’ work, and how have dinosaurs shaped myth itself – these are all questions I intend to answer, focusing mostly on fossils and folklore indigenous to North America and East Asia.

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Like any other field, science reflects the changing perspectives of people through different time periods. By examining the role folklore plays in paleontology, I am also interested in tracking larger themes of skepticism toward non-Western sources, conflicts between scientific and cultural beliefs, and how scientists’ understanding of what constitutes valid information changes. It would be shortsighted to state the case simply as one pitting European viewpoints against those of Native American and Asian cultures. Beginning with Georges Cuvier and the theory of extinction, then later with Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution, Western ideas themselves have long had to contend with the Christian narrative of intelligent design. As scientist and historian Adrienne Mayor points out, even some Western folklore owe their beginnings to dinosaur fossils. I will be drawing much of my material from Mayor’s 2013 book Fossil Legends and the First Americans which discusses the additional obstacles encountered in accessing and publishing information from indigenous sources. All of this is to show how multiple perspectives often shape scientific studies and how the cut and dry methodology we often associate with Western research is often more nuanced than it appears.

Dinosaur fossil finds have occurred as long as people have walked the Earth, and it is not surprising to see how myths from around the world take shape from encounters with dinosaur remains. Robert Plot in 1677 was likely the first to put a fossil discovery in scientific terms, though not without mythical overtones. Part of a femur later described as belonging to Megalosaurus was called Scrotus Humanum by Robert Plot who included it in his book “The Natural History of Oxfordshire.” Coming long before dinosaurs were understood with any accuracy, Plot discusses multiple sources for the bone, which he does recognize as a thigh bone. He starts by suggesting it belonged to a Roman war elephant, then compares it to myths of giants, both in the Bible and in more modern history. Goliath features as evidence in Plot’s analysis along with a giant believed to have been in the Tartar army that invaded Eastern Europe in 1575: “a Man of ordinary stature might go upright between his legs when he did stride” (Plot). He concludes that the bone is very likely a man or woman’s, one whose kind was perhaps wiped out by the Flood because the skeletons of modern humans have not shrunken by any remarkable degree.

Apart from Robert Plot’s biblical references, his other observations are a blend of history and hearsay. Biblical references themselves are myths of their own kind, not so much in the sense of being fantastical, but insofar as they are stories used to explain reality. Taken in that light, they are equivalent to the myths about dinosaurs arising in Native American and Chinese folklore traditions. Given his time and place, myths naturally informed his judgement, even in a scientific study. The other notable feature of Plot’s observation is the idea that a catastrophe, such as the biblical Flood, was responsible for the disappearance of whatever could have had such a huge femur. Georges Cuvier, who made a huge contribution to the study of paleontology about a century after Plot, also appealed to the idea of catastrophes wiping out species, a view known as catastrophism. He used catastrophism to reason the phenomenon of extinction, an idea that at first conflicted with Cuvier’s own sense of the world as created perfectly by God. Why would a species go extinct if it was part of the divine creation, or why would God make it go extinct? The discovery of dinosaurs and the resulting theories about life did much in reshaping Western notions of natural history.

Though some beliefs were upset by these large fossils, others were stabilized and encouraged. Cuvier, presumably after reconciling with the reality of extinction, developed his views on catastrophism largely with the help of Native American sources. Having never traveled to North America, he relied on interpretations of indigenous folklore, journals and actual fossil specimens sent by natural scientists (Mayor). Mayor discusses how Cuvier had amassed a considerable trove of material, among which were fragments of mastodon tusks recovered from a branch of the Susquehanna River; as it so happened, the Delaware and Lenape name for that section of the river is chemung, which translates to “place of the horns” (Mayor). Though it is not clear to what extent paleontologists have been led to excavation sites by the help of indigenous folklore, or in this case a simple translation and interpretation, it seems fairly likely that corroborations such as these proved helpful in some regard.

Of course, what proved doubly helpful to Cuvier’s burgeoning theories was the existing Native American tales about the fossils they had found, which came to his attention through the work of Rembrandt Peale. Peale published a large amount of Native folklore, including the legend that the colossal creatures to whom the fossils belonged had once roamed the Earth, but were destroyed by a lighting bolt of the “good Spirit” in a brief but cataclysmic moment. Similar lore about the “grandfather buffalo” existed, no doubt because Natives had encountered the giant skeletons of Pleistocene bison which were widespread (Mayor). All this information reached Cuvier, who cited Peale in his own work and used Native myths of violent catastrophes to bolster his theories behind their extinction (Mayor). Again, though it is difficult to tell how much Native lore impacted Cuvier’s views, the very fact that he referenced their myths is what a skeptical scientist might deem an ad hoc hypothesis, convenient for how it upholds the perspective he already finds compelling.

While Mayor shows how myths were useful to Cuvier’s understanding of North American natural history, along with that of other figures like Thomas Jefferson, Phil Senter in a 2013 article discusses how myths have also been used more recently to debunk scientific theories. Senter’s piece titled “Dinosaurs and pterosaurs in Greek and Roman art and literature? An investigation of young-earth creationist claims”focuses on how fossil observations made during the ancient Greco-Roman civilizations have been re-interpreted by modern Christians looking to debunk the theory of evolution. Illustrations that Senter describes as reflecting encounters with Mesozoic reptile skeletons are claimed instead to be those of mammals and reptiles common today in an attempt to “cast doubt on the separation of humans and such animals by millions of years” (Senter). As this case clearly shows, mythology is a tool that can also be used to discredit science. Though this may, for some, be more incentive to steer clear from incorporating folklore into scientific narratives, Senter proves that it can be redeemed with a little research. If not to improve the general understanding of a subject by expanding the context in which it is studied, then folklore approached through science presents a way to overturn misconceptions at odds with commonly accepted scientific theories.

Folklore in paleontology, or what Mayor calls “fossil legends,” can also work the other way around, aiding our understanding of myth creation itself. For instance, the Western myth of griffins is possibly the result of traders along the silk route in Central Asia encountering skulls belonging to Protoceratops (Mayor & Heaney). Instead of myths informing the study of dinosaurs and the history of paleontology, as is the case with Native American folklore and fossils discovered in North America, this is an example of how paleontology can contribute to the study of myth and ancient cultural exchange. Though this particular connection between griffins and dinosaurs is disputed by some archeologists, it does not detract from the reality that mythology and science taken together can add the multiple fields of study, such as anthropology and history in general (Tartaron). Another example of fossils informing cultural myths can be found in the popular beliefs of dragons in China. According to paleontologist Dong Zhiming in his 1992 book “Dinosaur Faunas of China,” dinosaur remains from the Jurassic to Cretaceous Periods continue to be regarded as belonging to mythical dragons (Zhiming). In some parts of China, fossil remains are still extracted, crushed into powder, and consumed with the belief that they contain magical healing properties (AMNH).

Similar beliefs were present in Lakota Native American culture. Beginning around the time of Cope and Marsh’s infamous Bone Wars, contact between indigenous figures and paleontologists was renewed. James Cook, a hunter who was friendly with the Lakota Sioux and who was shown a giant jawbone fossil by a man named Afraid of His Horses, introduced Othniel Marsh to famous Lakota Chief Red Cloud and persuaded the Sioux that Marsh was interested in bones, not gold. Marsh became good friends with Red Cloud, and incorporated the Lakota view that large fossils belong to extinct Thunder Beasts in his naming of Brontosaurus: “Thunder Reptile” (Mayor). Mayor also discusses Cook’s ranch in Nebraska where Native Americans and paleontologists regularly interacted, but from which there is a frustrating lack of evidence directly linking Native folklore and knowledge to major excavation sites. In spite of that, the friendship of Marsh and Red Cloud is also testament to the role Native Americans personally helped in paleontological efforts. Though their myths did not accord with the scientists’ views, which by this time had outgrown Cuvier’s speculations, they show a clear awareness of fossils.

Without getting into larger questions of “discovery” and what defines a paleontologist, I cannot help but underscore, as Mayor does in her book, the highly contrasting views that many Western scientists showed toward indigenous history. George Rogers Clark of the Lewis and Clark exhibition once wrote, “I see no reason why [indigenous tradition] should not be received as good History, at least as good as a great part of ours,” but the same broadmindedness was not forthcoming in other authorities. George Gaylord Simpson, professor at Columbia and Curator at the American Museum of Natural History, could not have been more dismissive of Native American claims to fossil discovery: “Indians certainly found and occasionally collected fossil bones… but these discoveries are no real part of paleontological history” (Mayor). This quote is one of Simpson’s many showing his blatant disregard for work done outside the framework of traditional scientific methodology. It is not an overstatement to suggest that he was simply racist. Yet this is equally a part of the history of fossil discoveries, and it is worth discussing to see how much naturalists and paleontologists across time may have deliberately limited their own knowledge by abandoning non-conforming sources of information. Many of paleontology’s major steps forward were, and still are, occasioned by untraditional methods of accessing information.

Folklore is hard pressed on its own to describe where fossil remains may be found, but the example of Marsh, as well as his nemesis Edward Drinker Cope, proves that it was at the very least a tool of communication between Western scientists and Native guides. Cope was not as intrepid as Othniel Marsh, but he did travel to the Badlands in South Dakota where he arranged to have a Sioux scout lead him to where the remains of “Thunder Birds” and “Water Monsters” could be found. At one spot, he recovered the skull of a duck-billed dinosaur as well as fossils from 21 other dinosaur species (Mayor). By accepting folklore as a means of communication, Cope and Marsh were able to receive help in finding these bones, not to mention persuade understandably hostile Natives that they were not interested in appropriating their land. Suffice it to say that someone who disregarded the possibility that Natives had any knowledge of fossils would not have been so lucky as to be led to major excavation sites, or at least not on friendly terms.

As the Sioux tradition regards monsters from the ancient past as having been killed by divine lightning, they avoid touching the bones lest they incur a similar fate. This type of special, even sacred approach to the unknown is paralleled by the Chinese belief in the magical properties of dinosaur (dragon) bones. It is the argument of a less enlightened scientist to denigrate these cultural understandings of the deep past simply because they lack the same framework as Western scientific inquiry. Even within the sterile and precise parameters of paleontology, is there not some deep-seated awe of dinosaurs and the world they occupied? Is this not comparable to that of people who relate to it in terms of myth and lore? Yet another larger point to be gleaned from this comparative study of folklore and paleontology is how certainty can exist in multiple forms. The legend of “Thunder Birds” is as real to Native Americans as the efforts of geologic dating and excavation are to Western minds. To prioritize one over the other is to overlook the unique and intrinsic value of each as a system of knowledge in itself.

The absurdity of disregarding non-Western fossil legends is increased all the more when one finds how the Greeks and Romans, the forbears of all Western civilization, also drew upon mythology in their own discoveries of fossils. In another book by Adrienne Mayor, “The First Fossil Hunters,” she discusses how the Greeks also drew upon the oral culture of Homer and Hesiod. Much like Robert Plot’s speculations, Greek myths of monsters, giants, and titans were well known and held a place closer to reality than any modern reader of the classics might understand (Mayor). As such, giant bones found around the Mediterranean Sea also came with convenient explanations. Or like the example of dragon myths in China, it is even more likely that their myths themselves came from fossil discoveries. Interestingly enough, the Greeks also were of the opinion that lightning smote the oversized monsters of the past; the modern consensus in the scientific community about the actual demise of the dinosaurs by asteroid collision is not very far off from this common myth. Yet again, the distinction between relied-upon science and the myths of world cultures come to remarkably similar conclusions despite accessing different knowledge sources in the process.

Coming, at last, back to the question of whether folklore has played a role in paleontology, the answer is yes. This role, however, is marked by a departure from traditional scientific method – what folklore adds to science instead comes via interpersonal relations, interpretive meanings and subjective experiences. In the case of Marsh, Cope and the Sioux, folklore itself may not have lead the naturalists to their excavation sites, but a respect for the tradition as it was, clearly did play a role. The overriding evidence presented in this paper shows that myths work indirectly, and indeed interdependently with paleontology. The examples of Chinese dragon lore and Western myths of griffins shows that working backward through paleontology can also explain myths. Incorporating myth and legend into the study of dinosaurs and their fossil remains creates a more interdisciplinary, and therefore deeper, study of dinosaurs and their histories. In the more nuanced paleontological discussions going on today about dinosaur appearance and primitive characteristics, it becomes clear how much scientists’ own subjectivity was formerly at play in the depiction of dinosaurs. Without evidence of feathers, for instance, scaly reptilian images become the norm, images that might have simply made the most sense to scientists rather than being empirically proven. Myth functions in much the same way.

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Robert Plot and Georges Cuvier, by making conclusions using biblical myth as well as Native American folklore, in Cuvier’s case, are excellent examples of how folklore influenced the early study of dinosaurs. Indeed, the founding fathers of paleontology are still extolled in spite of their now-ridiculous sounding evidence, which shows the racism lurking behind other naturalists’ work when they discredited on sight the knowledge of indigenous peoples. What I have especially tried to show is how folklore and fossil legends represent unique and equally valuable sources of information. Though their content might not be directly relatable to the study of a particular fossil in a specific period, there is ample evidence to show that having at least a respect for other traditions’ experiences with fossils can prove beneficial in unseen ways. We should never forget how ridiculous some formerly common beliefs about dinosaurs seem to us now, such as naked and sometimes anthropomorphic renderings made in the recent and distant past. Myth and folklore surround us and inform our thinking in more ways that we are aware of. Acknowledging this and respecting those traditions for what they are can only further our understanding.

Works Cited

AMNH. “Natural History of Dragons.” AMNH. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2017. .

“Asia-Pacific | Dinosaur Bones ‘used as Medicine’.” BBC News. BBC, 06 July 2007. Web. 23 Mar. 2017. .

Mayor, Adrienne. The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman times. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2000. Print.

Mayor, Adrienne. Fossil Legends of the First Americans. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2013. Print.

Mayor, A., & Heaney, M. (1993). Griffins and Arimaspeans. Folklore, 104(1-2), 40-66.

Plot, Robert. The Natural History of Oxford-shire. Newport Pagnell: Minet, 1677. Print.

Senter, Phil. “Dinosaurs in Greco-Roman Art?” Palaeontologia Electronica. N.p., 2013. Web. 23 Mar. 2017. .

Tartaron, T. F. (2014). Cross-Cultural Interaction in the Greek World: Culture Contact Issues and Theories. In Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology (pp. 1804-1821). Springer New York.

Zhiming, Dong. “Dinosaurian Faunas of China.” Chinese Ocean Press, 14 Mar. 2017. Web. 22 Mar. 2017. .


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