A widely accepted idea that dinosaur fossils inspired the myth of the griffin, a creature with the head and wings of an eagle on a lion’s body, has been challenged by a new study.

For over 30 years, this link has been popularized, starting with articles and books by Adrienne Mayor, such as her 1989 article in Cryptozoology and her 2000 book The First Fossil Hunters.

This theory suggested that the fossils of an early horned dinosaur from Mongolia and China, called Protoceratops, were discovered by ancient nomads searching for gold. These nomads supposedly shared their discoveries, which traveled along trade routes, inspiring griffin stories and art.

Griffins are one of the oldest mythological creatures, first appearing in Egyptian and Middle Eastern art around the fourth millennium BCE and becoming popular in ancient Greece by the 8th century BCE.

Overview of the history of griffin art and chronology of Protoceratops-griffin geomythology.
Overview of the history of griffin art and chronology of Protoceratops-griffin geomythology. Credit: Mark Witton et al.

Protoceratops was a small dinosaur, about two meters long, that lived in Mongolia and northern China during the Cretaceous period, around 75 to 71 million years ago. This dinosaur belonged to the group of horned dinosaurs, like the well-known Triceratops, though Protoceratops lacked facial horns.

Like griffins, it walked on four legs and had a beak and skull extensions resembling frills, which some thought could be interpreted as wings.

However, Dr. Mark Witton and Richard Hing, paleontologists from the University of Portsmouth, conducted the first detailed evaluation of these claims and found significant issues. They reviewed historical fossil records, the distribution and nature of Protoceratops fossils, and classical sources linking the griffin to Protoceratops.

They also consulted historians and archaeologists to understand the traditional, non-fossil-based views on the griffin’s origins.

Comparisons between the skeleton of Protoceratops and ancient griffin art. Griffins are very obviously based on the big cats, from their musculature and long, flexible tails to the manes (indicated by the "hair" coiled on the neck), and on birds, and differ from Protoceratops in virtually every measure of proportion and shape
Comparisons between the skeleton of Protoceratops and ancient griffin art. Griffins are very obviously based on the big cats, from their musculature and long, flexible tails to the manes (indicated by the “hair” coiled on the neck), and on birds, and differ from Protoceratops in virtually every measure of proportion and shape. Credit: Mark Witton et al.

One key problem with the original theory is that Protoceratops fossils are found hundreds of kilometers away from ancient gold sites, making it unlikely that gold-seeking nomads discovered them. In the century since Protoceratops fossils were first discovered, no gold has been found near them.

Additionally, even if nomads were in areas where these fossils are found, they likely wouldn’t have seen much of the skeletons, as only small parts of dinosaur fossils are usually visible on the surface.

Dr. Witton explained that discovering dinosaur skeletons is not as straightforward as it might seem. Generally, only a fraction of a skeleton is visible without excavation, which is a challenging task requiring modern tools and techniques. Therefore, it is improbable that ancient peoples noticed Protoceratops remains in a way that would inspire myths.

Moreover, the geographical distribution of griffin art does not align with the idea that the legend started with Central Asian fossils and then spread westward. Ancient literature does not have clear references to Protoceratops fossils.

Photographs of discoveries of Protoceratops andrewsi made during several seasons of the Central Asian Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History.
Photographs of discoveries of Protoceratops andrewsi made during several seasons of the Central Asian Expedition of the American Museum of Natural History. Credit: American Museum of Natural History Library

The resemblance between Protoceratops and griffins is minimal; both are four-legged animals with beaks, but griffin art shows no specific features linking them to these fossils. Instead, griffins were likely imagined as combinations of large cats and birds of prey.

Dr. Witton emphasized that the traditional interpretation of griffins as imaginary creatures, blending traits of real animals, makes more sense. Introducing dinosaurs into the legend adds unnecessary complexity and inconsistency.

Although there are many cases where fossils have inspired folklore, known as ‘geomyths’, this does not apply to all myths. Speculative connections, like those between Protoceratops and griffins, often lack solid evidence.

Richard Hing pointed out the importance of distinguishing between fact-based fossil folklore and speculative ideas. While it’s plausible that ancient people found dinosaur bones and incorporated them into myths, these ideas need to be grounded in historical and geographical realities.

Dr. Witton concluded that not all mythical creatures require fossil explanations. Many popular geomyths, such as the links between Protoceratops and griffins or fossil elephants and cyclopes, lack evidence and are purely speculative. These stories, although exciting, often overshadow the more fact-based and equally fascinating fossil geomyths.


SOURCES

University of Portsmouth

Witton MP, Hing RA. Did the horned dinosaur Protoceratops inspire the griffin? Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. 2024;0(0). doi:10.1177/03080188241255543


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