Were dinosaur fossils the inspiration for the gryphon myth?

A new study challenges the theory that dinosaur fossils inspired the legend of the mythological creature, the gryphon.

Gryphons are said to have the head and wings of a bird of prey and the body of a lion. They are among the oldest mythological creatures, with the first mention of gryphons in Egyptian and Middle Eastern art more than 5,000 years ago. The creature was popularised in Ancient Greece during the 8th century BCE.

Like other mythological creatures – such as dragons – it has been suggested ancient people were inspired to consider their existence because of the discovery of dinosaur bones.

In 1989, folklorist Addrienne Mayor wrote the first paper suggesting a link between gryphons and dinosaur fossils. This was followed up with her 2000 book, The First Fossil Hunters.

Comparisons between the skeleton of protoceratops and ancient griffin art
Comparisons between the skeleton of Protoceratops and ancient griffin art. Credit: Dr Mark Witton.

Mayor’s theory includes the idea that the ‘dino inspo’ for the griffin is the horned dinosaur Protoceratops – a small relative from Mongolia and China of the three-horned Triceratops.

The story goes: Ancient nomads discovered Protoceratops while prospecting for gold. Tales of the prehistoric bones spread southwest on trade routes, inspiring the gryphon legend.

Like gryphons, Protoceratops walked on 4 legs and had a beak. It could be argued that the dinosaur’s frilled skull could have been interpreted as wings.

But a new study published in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews pokes holes in this theory.

For one, Protoceratops bones are found hundreds of kilometres from ancient gold sites.

“Generally speaking, just a fraction of an eroding dinosaur skeleton will be visible to the naked eye, unnoticed to all except for sharp-eyed fossil hunters,” says author Mark Witton, a palaeontologist at the University of Portsmouth, UK.

Uncovering dinosaur fossils it “no small task,” according to Witton, even with modern tools and techniques. Instead, the scientists say a much simpler explanation is likely.

“Everything about gryphon origins is consistent with their traditional interpretation as imaginary beasts, just as their appearance is entirely explained by them being chimaeras of big cats and raptorial birds,” says Witton. “Invoking a role for dinosaurs in gryphon lore, especially species from distant lands like Protoceratops, not only introduces unnecessary complexity and inconsistencies to their origins, but also relies on interpretations and proposals that don’t withstand scrutiny.”

“Not all mythological creatures demand explanations through fossils. Some of the most popular geomyths — Protoceratops and gryphons, fossil elephants and cyclopes, and dragons and dinosaurs — have no evidential basis and are entirely speculative.”

The authors stress that there is evidence for the cultural importance of dinosaur fossils in ancient human mythology – known as geomyths.

“There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea that ancient peoples found dinosaur bones and incorporated them into their mythology, but we need to root such proposals in realities of history, geography and palaeontology. Otherwise, they are just speculation,” says co-author Richard Hing, also from Portsmouth University.

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