At first they tried to scare us (and succeeded) into believing that the government would swoop down on us and confiscate our findings if we didn’t use their personal resources and let them film it for their DVD series they both have. [..] Quayle and Marzulli won't share [our story] because we turned down their less than generous offer to film everything and sell it without giving us a dime.
I was also quite disappointed by a new “scientific” report about the origin of dragons that turned up in my inbox yesterday. I get 50 or more press releases every day, but this one stood out because it claimed that scientists have identified the fossils that inspired the myth of the dragon. Sadly, I have to dissent because, in my judgment, the scientists started with an observation and then tried to work backward to “prove” their speculation true. Let’s take a look at the claim and where it went wrong.
The story starts at a quarry in West Virginia where Roanoke College paleobotanist DorothyBelle Poli thought she saw the outline of a fire-breathing dragon in some impressions on the quarry wall. After describing the illusion, Lisa Stoneman, a folklorist, suggested that Poli had made an important discovery. Fossils of the Carboniferous plant Lepidodendron resemble snake scales, and its fossils can sometimes reach up to fifteen feet in length. The fossils are quite impressive, and appear almost geometric. But in their larger sizes, they are quite clearly fossils of plants.
Poli and Stoneman charged their students with examining where Lepidodendron fossils are located to see if they correlate to locations where dragons were alleged to live, and they believe that the two maps are absolutely identical.
“We began with the United Kingdom and China and quickly branched out to the world,” Stoneman said in the press release. “Some locations were saturated with overlapping information. In some regions of the UK, the tales and the fossils were located within just a few miles of each other. And in places like Japan, where there is a lack of fossils, there is a lack of primary dragon lore.”
Primary dragon lore? I hope that the problems with Stoneman’s idea immediately jumped out at you.
Japan is soaked with dragon legends! Japanese dragon stories are innumerable, but Stoneman wants to attribute them to China to force them to fit the fossil distribution pattern. It is certainly true that Japanese dragon stories derive from China and Korea (and India, for that matter), but many believe that they sit atop a native strata of serpent lore. At any rate, though, the written accounts of dragons in Japan go back at least to the seventh century CE, with an oral version obviously much older, raising an important and complicated question of what counts as a “native” dragon myth. The trouble is that the British dragon myths aren’t indigenous either, at least not in the sense that they arose in the land where they are told. They come from Celtic and Greco-Roman dragon stories, both reflexes of the Indo-European dragon-slaying myth, and both brought to Britain in identifiable historical periods. At this remove, it is impossible to determine whether there were preexisting dragon stories before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans.
Beyond this, there is also a lack of literary or physical evidence that ancient people recognized these fossils as belonging to dragons. We read, for example, frequently of the bones of dragons, but not samples of their skin. We also find ancient and medieval sites where “dragon” bones displayed, and these were typically elephant or whale bones. We do not hear of samples of dragon skin being displayed, and there is no evidence that ancient or medieval people believed that animals’ skin could turn to stone. Those quarrymen who named the Lepidodendron “dragon’s skin” weren’t building on an earlier tradition, but were assigning fanciful names, as they did to other fossils, whose popular names ranged from “fairy loaves” to “Cupid’s wings.”
In fact, we have some fairly good evidence that the Chinese, one of Stoneman’s most important dragon believers, did not specifically identify the plants’ fossils as dragon’s scales. Travelers who visited China in the nineteenth century reported that small fossil teeth were sold in apothecaries there as the scales of dragons. Similarly, according to Adrienne Mayor, the dragon (Ko-nea-rau-neh-neh) scales worn by the Iroquois as protective amulets were really flat, sheet-like pieces of mica. The Navajo identified dragon scales with the bony plates on dinosaurs called scutes.
In a classic example of begging the question, the researchers formed a Dragon Research Collaborative and described their mission this way: “This group started with a central question about the connection of Carboniferous plant fossils to dragon lore the rest evolved naturally as the data progressed,” the group’s website reads. In other words, they started with the conclusion they wanted to reach, based on their own fields of interest (fossil plants and folklore), and worked backward to find the data to support it, regardless of better or parsimonious explanations. To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
It gives me no pleasure to criticize the conclusions of what seems to be a very earnest group of undergraduate students and their teachers, but it just doesn’t add up.