The wild and colorful mythological creatures that our ancestors dreamt up—dragons, unicorns, griffins—didn't all originate as mere flights of fancy. In some cases, ancient fossils protruding from the earth may have inspired the ideas behind these mythical monsters. In more recent years, showmen and the uninformed have deliberately displayed fossils as “evidence” of imaginary beasts—after all, monsters make great celebrities. Here are eight types of imaginary creatures once “found” in fossils.
Ancient Greek authors reported that gold-seeking Scythians did battle with griffins deep in the Gobi Desert, where the mythological creatures—with the bodies of lions but the beaks and wings of eagles—were said to protect the precious metal's mines. Folklorist Adrienne Mayor has convincingly argued that these Greek stories were inspired by fossils from Protoceratops dinosaurs, which once littered the Gobi Desert and can still be found there in relative abundance. Like the griffin, the Protoceratops has four legs and a beak, and its elongated shoulder blades may have been interpreted as wings—although it’s not known to have been a gold-digger.
The ancient Greeks also believed that the island of Sicily was crawling with mythical one-eyed giants known as the Cyclopes. As far back as the 1300s, scholars have pointed out that Sicily and other parts of the Mediterranean were once home to an ancient species of elephants whose enormous skulls look a lot like Cyclopes' heads. The elephant skulls, which can still be found around the area, include a large central nasal cavity where the trunk was once attached, and which could resemble a lone, large eye socket.
In Japan, fossilized shark teeth have been interpreted as the long, sharp nails of the part-human, part-bird goblins known as Tengu. The fossils are called tengu-no-tsume, or “Tengu’s claw.” They are said to guard against evil spirits and to cure demoniacal possession, and are sometimes enshrined in temples as a treasure.
4. Giant Humans
In Greece, the discovery of massive bones from mammoths, mastodons, and woolly rhinoceroses was seen as confirming the existence of mighty giants and ancestral heroes. Even St. Augustine and the prolific Jesuit writer Athanasius Kircher misidentified enormous teeth and bones from ancient mammals as evidence of giants, and the practice still hasn’t entirely died out.
According to the scholar James L. Hayward, one of the most remarkable cases of such misidentification came from eminent Swiss physician Johann Jacob Scheuchzer, who in 1726 published the 24-page treatise Homo diluvii testis (“The man who witnessed the flood”). The treatise included descriptions of fossil skeletons found in lakebeds near Oeningen, Switzerland, which were presented as if they were the remains of ancient humans who lived in the time before Noah and his ark. The treatise was cited as “evidence” of pre-flood man until 1787. Later, paleontologist Georges Cuvier correctly identified the fossils in question as belonging to a giant salamander.
In the Middle Ages, Danish sailors brought the pointy, pale, spiraled horns of the narwhal to Europe, where people believed they were the remains of magical unicorns and possessed valuable healing powers. In fact, narwhals contributed to the idea of the unicorn horn being long and white; earlier tales had described them in a variety of shapes and colors, but the myths and legends solidified around the look we know today once narwhal horns came on the scene.
But narwhals aren’t the only animals passed off as unicorns: In 1663, German naturalist Otto von Güericke made the first-known reconstruction of Pleistocene mammals, labeling his awkward creation a two-legged “unicorn.” (His unicorn “horn” is said to be a mammoth tusk, although some sources say he used a narwhal horn atop mammoth and woolly rhinoceros bones).
A variety of creatures' remains have been said to belong to dragons, including the woolly rhinoceros. In fact, the town hall of Klagenfurt, Austria, once exhibited a woolly rhinoceros skull as the remains of the Lindwurm, a serpent-like dragon that terrorized the area before being slain by knights. The town’s Lindwurmbrunnen (dragon fountain), constructed in the 16th century and still on view, is based on that skull.
Fossils of lepidodendron (an ancient tree-like plant) have also been exhibited as dragon skins, and not all that long ago. Some were presented in Wales in 1851 as pieces of the body of a gigantic fossil serpent. (If you squint and don’t know any better, the leaf bases on the trunk of the plant look a little like scales.)
In Asia, dinosaur fossils have long been mistaken for dragon bones and teeth. “Dragon bones” are still sold as such by practitioners of traditional medicine in eastern and southeastern Asia, where they are said to cure madness, diarrhea, and other ailments. The medicine is actually formed from the fossils of dinosaurs and other extinct animals found in China’s fossil beds.
7. Vishnu’s Wheel
In medieval Europe, people believed that fossilized ammonites—an extinct group of marine invertebrate animals—were petrified coiled snakes, and saw them as the evidence of the work of divine figures like St. Hilda, who turned snakes into stone.
But in the Himalayas, fossil ammonites are considered sacred and thought to be the discs or wheels belonging to the Hindu god Vishnu (the four-armed god holds a disc or wheel in one of his hands). The fossils are still held in high regard by Hindus throughout India, while in Nepal and Tibet, they are seen as representing the 8-spoked wheel of the law, dharmachakra.
8. Sea Serpents
Specimens from “sea serpents” have been identified as partially decayed basking sharks, deformed snakes, and masses of floating seaweed. But in the 1840s, conman Albert Koch went across the clay fields of Clarke County, Alabama, looking for bones from Basilosaurus, a 40-million-year-old genus of a newly discovered, giant, reptilian-like whale. Koch assembled the bones he discovered into a 114-foot-long creature he labeled Hydroarchos, the “water king.” The abomination was twice the size of the real Basilosaurus and an obvious composite rather than one complete skeleton, but that didn't stop King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia from buying the thing for his Royal Anatomical Museum. (Koch later created another one for a museum owner in Chicago.) In 1845, Koch exhibited the “great sea serpent” at the Apollo Saloon in New York City for an entry fee of 25 cents.
This article originally ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.