The Real Story Behind Dinosaurs and Dragons

Untangling the Dragon Myth From Prehistory to Modern Era

A Chinese sculpture of a dragon
A Chinese sculpture of a dragon.

 Shizhao / Wikimedia Commons

In the 10,000 or so years since human beings became civilized, virtually every culture in the world has referenced supernatural monsters in its folk tales—and some of these monsters take the form of scaly, winged, fire-breathing reptiles. Dragons, as they're known in the West, are usually depicted as huge, dangerous, and fiercely antisocial, and they almost always wind up being killed by the proverbial knight in shining armor at the end of a backbreaking quest.

Before we explore the link between dragons and dinosaurs, it's important to establish exactly what a dragon is. The word "dragon" comes from the Greek drákōn, which means "serpent" or "water-snake"—and, in fact, the earliest mythological dragons resemble snakes more than they do dinosaurs or pterosaurs (flying reptiles). It's also important to recognize that dragons aren't unique to the Western tradition. These monsters feature heavily in Asian mythology, where they go by the Chinese name lóng.

What Inspired the Dragon Myth?

Identifying the precise source of the dragon myth for any particular culture is a near-impossible task; after all, we weren't around 5,000 years ago to eavesdrop on conversations or listen to folk tales passed down through countless generations. That said, there are three likely possibilities.

  1. Dragons were mixed-and-matched from the most frightening predators of the day. Until only a few hundred years ago, human life was nasty, brutish, and short, and many adults and children met their end at the teeth (and claws) of vicious wildlife. Since the details of dragon anatomy vary from culture to culture, it may be that these monsters were assembled piecemeal from familiar, fearsome predators: for example, the head of a crocodile, the scales of a snake, the pelt of a tiger, and the wings of an eagle.
  2. Dragons were inspired by the discovery of giant fossils. Ancient civilizations could easily have stumbled across the bones of long-extinct dinosaurs or the mammalian megafauna of the Cenozoic Era. Just like modern paleontologists, these accidental fossil-hunters may have been inspired to visually reconstruct "dragons" by piecing together bleached skulls and backbones. As with the above theory, this would explain why so many dragons are chimeras that seem to have been assembled from the body parts of various animals.
  3. Dragons were loosely based on recently extinct mammals and reptiles. This is the shakiest, but the most romantic, of all dragon theories. If the very earliest humans had an oral tradition, they may well have passed down accounts of creatures that went extinct 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. If this theory is true, the dragon legend could have been inspired by dozens of creatures, such as the giant ground sloth and the saber-tooth tiger in the Americas to the giant monitor lizard Megalania in Australia, which at 25 feet long and two tons certainly attained dragon-like sizes.

Dinosaurs and Dragons in the Modern Era

There aren't many (let's be honest, "any") paleontologists who believe that the dragon legend was invented by ancient human beings who glimpsed a living, breathing dinosaur and passed the story down through countless generations. However, that hasn't prevented scientists from having a little fun with the dragon myth, which explains recent dinosaur names like Dracorex and Dracopelta and (further east) Dilong and Guanlong, which incorporate the "lóng" root corresponding to the Chinese word for "dragon." Dragons may never have existed, but they can still be resurrected, at least partway, in dinosaur form.