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Where Do Dragon Legends Come From?

In the Tuesday, April 29 New York Times, Donald G. McNeil asks why images of dragons have been so common all over the world and throughout history, when no dragon-like creature has every lived at the same time as humans. Dinosaurs died out millions of years before we came along. Although dinosaur skeletons weren't identified until modern times, dragons were part of legend thousands of years ago.

He says, "Dragon images have been found on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, on scrolls from China, in Egyptian hieroglyphs and Ethiopian sketches, on the prows of Viking ships, in bas relief on Aztec temples, on cliffs above the Mississippi River and even on bones carved by Inuits in climates where no reptile could live."

Scholars haven't been able to figure out how cultures that had no contact with one another created such similar legends. Anthropologist David E. Jones thinks dragons come from race memories of carnivores who fed our humans ancestors when they were tree-dwelling primates, such as pythons and big birds and cats.

It could have been a case of misidentification: The Greek writer Pliny said that "dracos" lived in India, where they were large enough to eat elephants by dropping out of trees and strangling them. Scientists now think he passed on exaggerated descriptions of pythons. Marco Polo described Chinese dragons, but it's now assumed he was talking about Nile crocodiles, which can grow to be 20 feet long.

The most likely explanation is that earlier cultures found skeletons of giant creatures, such as beached whales, and transformed them into dragons. They could have also discovered some bones of extinct animals such as dinosaurs and mammoths. Folklorist Dr. Adrienne Mayor says the myth of griffins came from dinosaur bones found in the Gobi desert. Protoceratops, which was found there, has bones that look like parrot beaks and bony neck frills. In 1914, paleontologist Othenio Abel speculated that central nasal cavities in prehistoric dwarf elephants led to the legend of Homer's Cyclops. He also thought skulls of cave bears could have started dragon legends.

A "dragon skull" found in 1335 has been identified as a woolly rhinoceros. An area in Switzerland that has many pterodactyl (flying reptile) fossils also has legends of small, winged dragons.

There are also living giant reptiles that could have inspired the tales, such as the ten-foot carnivorous Komodo Dragon. But these weren't discovered by the West until 1912. One place where dragon legends are rare is Africa, which has myths about lions and hyenas, which are still a threat.

What's behind the legends? It could be conversations with amazing mentors like Whitley wrote about in The Key?or the one Von Braschler will talk about on Dreamland this week.

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