Yesterday I discussed a polemical text being used as the standard American history book in one Texas charter school. In doing so, I mentioned that according to media reports Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) had been teaching its private religious school students that the Loch Ness Monster was real in an attempt to discredit evolution. When that text was removed from international editions of the school materials (while apparently remaining in the U.S. version, according to Alternet), the replacement text is equally awful.
ACE’s biology packet for overseas use begins by stating that “perhaps” the biblical figure Job had personally seen a plesiosaur or met someone who had, reporting it as the leviathan. (Remember: God hates plesiosaurs [Psalm 74:14]!) The text then continues:
Pictures of dinosaurs have been discovered in ancient rock carvings and paintings. A reptile that could be an allosaur or a tyrannosaur is etched on the walls of Rattlesnake Canyon in Colorado. African bushmen painted pictures of other dinosaur-like creatures with pictures of a hippopotamus, giraffe, and elephant on the walls of a cave near Harare, Zimbabwe. These drawings made by man are an indication of the possibility that dinosaurs coexisted with man.
These claims, or nearly identical ones, also appeared on Ancient Aliens in the episode “Aliens and Dinosaurs,” where Giorgio Tsoukalos famously claimed that aliens made a peace treaty with the coelacanth to guarantee its safety during the Cretaceous extinction.
The claim about Rattlesnake Canyon seems to come from William S. Pinkston’s Biology for Christian Schools (1986), but neither source provides a picture of this alleged piece of rock art. I have no idea which of the canyon’s innumerable petroglyphs is supposedly the dinosaur. I wonder how they missed the shamanic images that look like Bigfoot.
The story of the Zimbabwean cave is slightly more interesting. ACE took it from creationist literature, which in turn says it draws on a report in the Bible-Science Newsletter of April 15, 1970 (unread by me), in turn citing newspaper accounts that cave painting made sometime between 1500 BCE and 1500 CE had been found at Goromonzi in what is now Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and among the images of African fauna was an Apatosaurus. According to creationist accounts, African people were only able to produce images “from life” and therefore could not draw imaginary creatures. Interestingly, no images of these cave paintings circulated in creationist literature in the 1970s or 1980s, so far as I can find.
When it came time to provide proof that these images of dinosaurs really existed, creationist cryptozoologist Dave Woetzel offered a digitally altered photograph (apparently no longer online at its original location) of actual cave art from the area, among images made by the San Bushmen as long ago as 6,000 BCE (denied by creationists for being un-biblically old). An image with three bows and a spear became transformed through digital manipulation into three long-necked dinosaurs, according to Sherry Konkus in her debunking of creationist dinosaur claims. Who exactly created the false image isn’t known.
The idea that dragons were folk memories of dinosaurs is another relatively modern myth. William D. Matthew summed it up nicely in Science-History of the Universe in 1909: “It is a tempting explanation to suppose that some tradition of these real monsters, handed down from primitive ancestors, was the basis of the dragon legends so widely scattered among all races of men. But this theory must be regretfully abandoned when the perspective of the geologic record is examined.” Dinosaurs, he said, had been extinct for millions of years before anyone spoke of dragons. Nearly every other science book I consulted from the early 1800s through World War II said almost exactly the same thing, even those relying on the source that came closest to making the claim, Georges Cuvier, who around 1809 named the pterodactyl and declared that there had once been an age of dragon-like reptiles. But even he, at this early date, recognized that the flying dragons had come and gone before the rise of mammals.
Reading that was actually a bit of a disappointment for me because I had heard the claim that Victorians thought dinosaurs inspired dragons so often that I assumed it to be true; with scant exception—only a few early anti-evolution advocates—early writers did not see a literal connection between dinosaurs and dragons. In fact, the bigger concern for Victorians is that many non-scientists simply refused to accept the existence of dinosaurs. W. D. Matthew, writing for the American Museum of Natural History in 1915, reported the most frequent question museum docents were asked at the Dinosaur Hall: “they make these out of plaster, don’t they?” The question came from incredulous visitors who suspected the museum of fabricating dinosaurs. Novels and Hollywood movies like The Lost World, ironically, helped to make dinosaurs “real” by telling fictional stories about them, but in so doing sowed the seeds of the idea that dinosaurs and humans might have coexisted.
Creationists, largely after World War II, began promoting the idea that dinosaurs survived the Flood and co-existed with humans, possibly down to the present. This question did not trouble pre-war creationists as much, and indeed very few references to dinosaurs show up in the Noah’s Ark literature before World War II. Elmer Boyd Smith, writing in The Story of Noah’s Ark (1905), said in his comic but “respectful” account that that the dinosaurs had to be left behind because they were too big to make it through the Ark’s door. For him, extinct animals were simply the species that for various reasons lacked safe passage on the Ark.
I find it interesting that the ACE creationist authors chose Chinese, Irish, and Egyptian dragons to use in their curriculum, but not, say, Greek and Roman dragons, which were explicitly giant snakes. The Irish dragons were clearly chosen because modern Celtic dragon images show four-footed reptiles formally similar to early reconstructions of dinosaurs. Chinese dragons are similarly obvious: Today Chinese traditional medicine still grinds up dinosaur fossils as “dragon” bones, suggesting that the two could be equated beyond the conceit that Chinese fossil hunters interpreted the bones through the lens of myth. But Egyptian dragons? Ancient Egyptians depicted giant serpents (such as Apep), crocodiles, and occasionally serpents with human heads and four feet, but I am at a loss to find anything that looks like a dinosaur or a traditional dragon. This seems to be a remnant of the King James Bible (e.g. Ezekiel 29:3), where words for “monster” or “monster crocodile” associated with Egypt were translated as “dragon.”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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