Dragons occupy a special place in the world of mythical beasts. They started out as snakes, then evolved into fire-breathing, flying monsters that both terrorize and fascinate us. But where did the idea for dragons even come from? How these magnificent creatures twisted and soared in ours imagination and mythology?

No one knows, of course, but the origins of dragons may be more scientific than they seem. But let’s start with the legend.

Dragon without wings

According to the medieval legend, the city Klagenfurt in Austria was founded on a swamp that was home to a lindworm, or wingless dragon. Those who wanted to settle in the area had to deal with the dragon first before founding Klagenfurt. As is traditional with dragons, this one devoured anyone who tried to cross the swamp. Fortunately, a local voivode financed the construction of a stone tower in the swamp. (Local legend is not specific about how the builders avoided becoming dragon food.)

After the building was completed, the locals hunted the dragon from the safety of the tower, using a fishing line, a bull for bait, and possibly a heavy hook. Eventually they captured the beast.

At this point in history, the dragon seems to have been more than just a huge and fearsome water serpent. But in the way of creatures, both biological and mythical, he evolved. By 1287, the city’s coat of arms showed the monster with the head of a wolf, the body of a bird and the tail of a snake. Within a few centuries, it grew legs, evolving into what we would recognize today as a typical flying fire-breathing dragon.

Read more: The science behind mythical dragons

Fossils and dragons

In the sixteenth century, some people discovered a fossilized skull that they thought belonged to a dragon—proving that lindworm a legend. As it turned out, the skull belonged to a woolly mammoth instead. This kind of confusion may be at the root of all dragon myths, as well as stories surrounding other mythical creatures.

As a scientific discipline, paleontology was born in the 18th and early 19th centuries due to the work of scientists such as Charles Lyell and Georges Cuvier. But people have been finding fossils for as long as humans have existed on earth. The ancient one The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about fossils and concluded from them that Egypt was once underwater (and described some of the bones he examined as belonging to winged serpents).

Adrienne Major, a classical folklorist and historian of ancient science at Stanford University, argues that ancient people conceived dragons and other mythical creatures after discovering fossils of even more ancient creatures. In her book The first fossil hunters, Major shows how fossils influenced Greek and Roman stories of past creatures—and not just dragons. She also says that the idea of human giants and larger-than-life characters may have come from the discovery of huge bones of prehistoric mammals.

Read more: It turns out that a variety of mammals thrived among the dinosaurs

If Major is right, dragons are not entirely fictional creatures. The people who imagined them and told stories about them imagined and told stories about animals that once lived on Earth. They got the details wrong – just as we often do when we study ancient fossils. (Remember when we thought Stegosaurus had a second brain in the ass?)

But even when they weren’t accurate, the stories our ancestors told about dragons and their mythical relatives enriched culture and undoubtedly inspired much science as well.

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