dinosaur skeleton is almost palpable
The fact that dinosaurs were extinct denizens of hitherto unsuspected earlier worlds, and were the literal embodiment of the dragons of myth and legend, probably guaranteed their adoption by society at large; they even appeared in the works of Charles Dickens, who was a personal acquaintance of Richard Owen. From such evocative beginnings public interest in dinosaurs has been nurtured and maintained ever since. Quite why the appeal should have been so persistent has been much speculated upon; it may have much to do with the importance of story-telling as a means of stimulating human imaginative and creative abilities. It strikes me as no coincidence that in humans the most formative years of intellectual growth and cultural development, between the ages of about 3 and 10 years, are often those when the enthusiasm for dinosaurs is greatest – as many parents can testify. The buzz of excitement created when children glimpse their first dinosaur skeleton is almost palpable. Dinosaurs, as the late Stephen Jay Gould – arguably our greatest popularizer of scientific natural history – memorably remarked, are popular because they are ‘big, scary and [fortunately for us] dead’, and it is true that their gaunt skeletons exert a gravitational pull on the imaginative landscape of youngsters.
A remarkable piece of evidence in support of the notion that there is a relationship between the latent appeal of dinosaurs and the human psyche can be found in mythology and folklore. Adrienne Mayor has shown that as early as the 7th century bc the Greeks had contact with nomadic cultures in central Asia. Written accounts at this time include descriptions of the Griffin (or Gryphon): a creature that reputedly hoarded and jealously guarded gold; it was wolf-sized with a beak, four legs, and sharp claws on its feet. Furthermore, Near East art of at least 3000 bc depicts Griffin-like creatures, as does that of the Mycenaean. The Griffin myth arose in Mongolia/north-west China, in association with the ancient caravan routes and gold prospecting in the Tienshan and Altai Mountains. This part of the world (we now know) has a very rich fossil heritage and is notable for the abundance of well-preserved dinosaur skeletons; they are remarkably easy to find because their white fossil bones stand out clearly against the soft, red sandstones in which they are buried. Of even greater interest is the fact that the most abundant of the dinosaurs preserved in these sandstones is Protoceratops, which are approximately wolf-sized, and have a prominent hooked beak and four legs terminated by sharp-clawed toes. Their skulls also bear strikingly upswept bony frills, which might easily be the origin of the wing-like structures that are often depicted in Griffin imagery (compare the images in Figure 3). Griffins were reported and figured very consistently for more than a millennium, but beyond the 3rd century ad they became defined increasingly by allegorical traits. On this basis it would appear to be highly probable that Griffins owe their origin to genuine observations of dinosaur skeletons made by nomadic travellers through Mongolia; they demonstrate an uncanny link between exotic mythological beasts and the real world of dinosaurs.