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Early Paleoart: Of Prehistoric Monsters and Men

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to understand plants and animals there is no better way than to depict them from life
Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605)

Maybe the first depiction of bones of an extinct animal can be attributed to an unknown Greek artist living some 2.600 years ago. The historian and mythographer Adrienne Mayor argues that the image of the monstrous Ceto on an ancient krater was based on the fossil skulls of the extinct species Giraffokeryx, emerging from the Miocene sediments covering large areas on the Greek peninsula and islands.
Giant bones were not rare discoveries in ancient times, as many historians and naturalists refer to them as the bones of giants. However a more systematic search for such bones started only during the medieval period in Europe, as the soft sediments of the ice ages often contain bones of mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and other large and extinct animals.  The bones, believed to be the mortal remains of dragons, giants, unicorns or the victims of the biblical flood, were displayed in public places or incorporated in private collections – especially in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. In 1663 the German naturalist Otto Von Guericke (1602-1686) tried to reconstruct the “unicornum verum” – the true unicorn – from bones of various Pleistocene mammals. The teeth of the unicorn are the molars of a mammoth and the skull and the other bones were those of the woolly rhinoceros.

Fig.1. Reconstruction of the “unicornum verum” by Otto von Guericke (1678), and later used by German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in his “Protogaea” (1749) (image in public domain).

Possibly also the “soft tissue” of the dragon-head of the “Lindwurmbrunnen” of the Austrian city of Klagenfurt, created in 1590 by sculptor Ulrich Vogelsang, is based on the skull of a woolly rhinoceros discovered in 1335 in the quarry “of the dragon” in the region of Zollfeld.

A more scientific approach to the reconstruction of extinct animals was adopted by naturalists at the end of the 18th century. The French naturalist Cuvier (1769-1832) is today considered one of the pioneers of the field of “comparative anatomy”, which purpose can be summarized in Cuvier’s words (from CUVIER 1798 “Extract from a memoir on an animal of which the bones are found in the plaster stone around Paris, and which appears no longer to exist alive today“):

For example: if an animal ´s teeth are such as they must be, in order for it to nourish itself with flesh, we can be sure without further examination that the whole system of its digestive organs is appropriate for that kind of food; and that its whole skeleton and locomotive organs, and even its sense organs, are arranged in such a way to make it skillful at pursuing and catching its prey. For these relations are the necessary conditions of existence of the animal; if things were not so, it would not be able to subsist.

Applying these principles to paleontology, Cuvier produced the first scientific accurate reconstructions of extinct animals. In his acclaimed work “Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes …[]” (1812) he introduces this method  and illustrates the work with various plates showing assembled skeletons. However in his private notes he even attempted to “breathe life” in old bones – covering them with muscles, skin and fur – a procedure that seems obvious today, but was a sensation at Cuvier’s time. In fact Cuvier hesitated to publish these drawings, as he considered them too speculative and shared them probably only with students and friends.
Only in later editions of his work he included the sketches of two fossil mammals – the Palaeotherium and the Anoplotherium, discovered in the sediments of the basin of Paris – and presented them to a larger public. For the first time anyone, not only the dedicated scholar, could see and admire with own eyes the creatures of the past. Although the first reconstructions were simple sketches of the supposed contours of the depicted skeletons, they have been widely reproduced over the years.

Fig.3. Cuvier´s reconstruction of the Anoplotherium commune, shown in lifelike pose with its skeleton, musculature, and body form, and even its eyes, ears, and snout; the ground beneath its feet hints a habitat (image in public domain).

Fig.4. Palaeotherium and Anoplotherium as brought back to life by assistant Charles Leopold Laurillard and published in the second edition of Cuvier´s “Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles de quadrupèdes …[]” (1822) (image in public domain).

It was the German physician and naturalist Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring (1755-1830) who published the first (even only partially) soft-tissue reconstruction of a prehistoric organism. In 1784 the naturalist and curator of the Cabinet of Curiosities of the princedom of Pfalz – Cosimo Alessandro Collini (1727-1806) – described a strange fossil found in a limestone quarry near the town of Eichstätt. The French-German naturalist Johann Hermann (1738-1800), observing the copper-plate engraving of the fossil published by Collini, speculated about a membrane supported by the elongated fourth finger of the animal and identified it as a sort of bat-like creature. In March 1800 he contacted Cuvier with a letter in which he included next to the description of the fossil the reconstruction of the entire animal. However, like Cuvier, also Hermann didn’t publish the drawings, as he died in October of the same year.
Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring had also studied Collini´s fossil and published in 1817 the description, as he named it, of Ornithocephalus – the bird headed. Sömmerring agreed that the animal used a membrane to fly and to support his conclusion he depicted the outlines of the membranous wings on the drawing of the skeleton.

Fig.5. Reconstruction of Pterodactylus antiquus by Johann Hermann in a letter send to George Cuvier (image in public domain).

Fig.6. The first published partial reconstruction of Pterodactylus antiquus by Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring in the article entitled “Über einen Ornithocephalus brevirostris der Vorwelt”, Denkschriften der königlichen bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (image in public domain).

The bat-like reconstruction of the Pterodactylus, as Cuvier called the fossil recognizing that in fact it was not a mammal, but a reptile, captured the imagination of other naturalists of the time. Based on the identification of a reptile, however using the anatomy of a bat, the reconstructions that populated soon the published prehistoric scenes remember more a strange dragon-like creature than a real animal.

Fig.7. “Duria Antiquior – A more Ancient Dorset”, a drawing produced by geologist Henry De la Beche and sold as prints to support fossilist Mary Anning, at the time in financial difficulties (image in public domain). This scene, with various swimming and flying reptiles, plants, mollusks, fishes and even feces produced by the activity of the animals, can be regarded as one of the first reconstructions of an ancient environment.

The tradition to present to the public reconstruction of prehistoric mammals and flying reptiles soon was adapted to a new kind of fossil animals recognized for the first time in 1841 – dinosaurs. The late 19th century and early 20th century is considered the golden age of dinosaur illustrations. Strangely this epoch was followed by a stagnation of dinosaur imaginary, dominated by few stereotypes of dinosaurs, from sluggish monsters based on Victorian concepts of oversized rhinoceros-dinosaurs to hyperactive kangaroo-rat-dinosaurs. However the last decades are sometimes referred as dinosaur-renaissance, as new scientific discoveries revolutionized our interpretation and consequently our view on prehistory.

Bibliography:

RUDWICK, M.J.S (2005): Bursting the limits of time – The reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London: 708
RUDWICK, M.J.S. (2008): Worlds before Adam – The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform. The University of Chicago Press: 614
TAQUET, P. & PADIAN, K. (2004): The earliest known restoration of a pterosaur and the philosophical origins of Cuvier’s Ossemens Fossiles. Comptes Rendus Palevol 3(2): 157-175

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. way2ec 1:35 am 10/16/2012

    Thanks for some great historical details David Bressan. I knew the “unicornum verum” by Otto von Guericke but most of the rest were new to me. I jumped to the Ceto and have to agree, sure looks like a fossil head to me. Are there other art historians and/or fossil hunters looking for other examples of possible fossil inspired art? The universality of dragons, our dark western ones, benign eastern ones, and the feathered serpent Quetzalcóatl in Mexico might have a common ancestor in the fossil record, or perhaps is a cultural archetype going back how far into our distant past. I know even less of African and Australian prehistoric art history and wonder if some of the mysterious unidentified petroglyphs might reflect our early ancestors’ attempts at understanding the fossil record. Hope you will keep “digging” for more examples.

    Link to this
  2. 2. MadScientist72 9:20 am 10/16/2012

    @ way2ec – There are certainly other examples out there. One that immediately comes to mind is the theory that Protoceratops skeletons gave rise to the mythical griffin:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protoceratops#Origin_of_griffin_myths

    This griffin in this fresco from Knossos (Crete) appears to have a very protoceratops-like frill on the back of its head:

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0a/Knossos_fresco_in_throne_palace.JPG

    Link to this
  3. 3. David_Bressan 10:42 am 11/1/2012

    Thanks for the suggestions – indeed…. Mayor investigates in great detail the connection between Asiatic fossils (found in regions with gold-bearing rocks) and the legends of supposed griffin as treasure hunter in the book “The first Fossil Hunters”, however I didn’t consider to much this aspect here as I think it remains a compelling, but speculative interpretation, as there are 2 possible approaches:

    1) fossils did in fact inspire directly the legends (as Mayor suggests)
    2) fossils confirmed already existing legends, or were incorporated into them – for example the gigantic bones were the remains of a past race of monsters as told often in old myths

    I would it consider more “Geomythology” (which I hope to dedicate an entire series of posts in near future) than paleontology or animal reconstruction.

    That the dragon of various societies is based on bones is indeed often suggested, however it is difficult to explain why people choose a reptilian & supposedly gigantic shape for these bones (maybe the size surpassed all the modern mammals known?) or reptiles are simply scary ??

    - We know of at least some examples of prehistoric jewellery made from fossil shells & one stone axe with a fossil sea urchin visible – so we know that prehistoric men found fossil and sometimes used them, but we don’t know if they interpretated them or used them as model for artwork (at least I know no examples were such thins was suggested)

    However I know of the idea the snake dance of some North-American tribes were based supposedly on fossil trackways of dinosaurs found on exposed clifs and considered of spiritual origin – so at least a sort of art derivated from fossils.

    Link to this

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