Dragon Hoaxes: Piltdown Men of Creationism

Philip J. Senter

A little over a hundred years ago, an unscrupulous individual planted an orangutan’s jaw and part of a human skull in the Piltdown gravel pit in East Sussex, England, in an attempt to fool scientists into believing that excavators had found an evolutionary intermediate between apes and humans. Some authorities immediately recognized the bones as exactly what they were, but enough scientists fell for the hoax for the new “species” to be given a scientific name (Eoanthropus dawsoni) and a nickname (Piltdown Man) and to be touted as a link between ape and human until it was definitively discredited in 1953 (Weiner 2003). Fossil-based hoaxes continue; in 1999, an article in National Geographic gave the name Archaeoraptor to a specimen that seemed to be an evolutionary intermediate between dinosaurs and birds.

A subsequent study showed that it was composed of at least two—and possibly as many as five—fossil skeletons, representing at least two species (the ancient bird Yanornis martini and the dinosaur Microraptor zhaoianus) that had been attached to make a composite that looked like the skeleton of a single animal (Xu et al. 2000; Rowe et al. 2001; Zhou et al. 2002). Unsurprisingly, the exposure of the two hoaxes has provided much literary fodder for young-earth creationist (YEC) authors, who claim that the biblical account in Genesis is an accurate record of events. Important corollaries of that claim are that dinosaurs, humans, and all other kinds of organisms were created during the same week about 6,000 years ago, and that no “kind” of organism has evolved into any other “kind.” In their arguments for the latter corollary, YEC authors make frequent use of the Piltdown and Archaeoraptor forgeries as poster children for “evolutionary intermediates” that aren’t.

Despite the pair of forgeries, a plethora of genuine fossil intermediates demonstrate that humans evolved from apes and that birds evolved from dinosaurs (Stein and Rowe 2013; Xu et al. 2014). But even so, the large number of scientists who fell for the two forgeries is embarrassing, and the YEC community has never let us forget it. In publication after publication (e.g., Comninellis 2001; Bergman 2004; Sharp 2010; Gilmer 2011; Gilmer 2013; Lee 2013; Clarey 2015), YEC authors slam scientists for having believed those two ruses. Such criticism is understandable. But it is also somewhat hypocritical, for the YEC literature is replete with cases in which its own authors have fallen for taxidermic “dragon” hoaxes. To make matters more embarrassing for the YEC movement, the fake animals in question are obvious fakes that don’t even resemble the real animals that the YEC authors claim that they are: dinosaurs and pterosaurs that recently coexisted with humans.

Fish-Finned Fakes from Egypt

The practice of selling fake animals in the form of taxidermic composites to gullible buyers has had a long and amusing history. The stuffed jackalopes (rabbits to which a taxidermist has attached deer antlers or pronghorn horns) sold in American gift shops represent but the latest chapter in a centuries-old saga that also includes fake mermaids, fur-bearing fish, and animals sprouting from plants (Dance 1976). In the sixteenth century, artisans in Egypt made fake “dragons” by adding a covering of snake skin to specimens that included mammalian heads and paws with “wings” composed of the pectoral fins of the fish called flying gurnards (Dactylopterus volitans) (Senter and Klein 2014). The French naturalist Pierre Belon illustrated one of those fakes in a book of drawings that he made during travel in Egypt and Arabia (Belon 1557) (Figure 1a). He described and again illustrated it in a subsequent book that recounted his travels around the Mediterranean (Belon 1588). The Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi mentioned Belon’s account in a posthumous book on snakes (Aldrovandi 1640). In that book, he illustrated Belon’s specimen and also described and illustrated a second, similar Egyptian fake that was made from an identical assortment of animal parts (Senter and Klein 2014) (Figure 1b). Neither Belon nor Aldrovandi gave any indication that they were aware that the two Egyptian “dragons” were anything but genuine. German naturalist Conrad Gessner also mentioned Belon’s account and reproduced Belon’s drawing in an encyclopedia of snakes (Gessner 1589), as did the English author Edward Topsell (1608).

Hundreds of years later, people are still fooled by the Egyptian fakes, but the hoaxing has taken bizarre turns that reveal deep ignorance and gullibility. In a 1992 article in the YEC journal Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal, Bill Cooper reproduced Topsell’s (1608) illustration of Belon’s “dragon” and suggested that the artist had drawn a Tyrannosaurus that had been seen at such a distance that its armor plating had been mistaken for wings. In support of the notion that a tyrannosaur’s armor plating could be mistaken for wings, he cited a medieval carving of an animal that he interpreted as a predatory dinosaur with wing-like armor plating. Two things make Cooper’s interpretation not only wrong but laughable: The first is that tyrannosaurs and other predatory dinosaurs lacked armor plating. The other is that the “predatory dinosaur” and its “armor” in the medieval carving are merely a lion and its mane (Jewell 1986; Senter 2018).

YEC author John Goertzen partially corrected Cooper’s mistake in a subsequent letter to the editor of Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal, then added mistakes of his own. He correctly noted that Topsell’s illustration was a copy of Belon’s drawing and that it was drawn from a specimen that was seen up close, not from a distance (Goertzen 1993). He then suggested that the specimen’s wings were genuine but shriveled and implied that it was a pterosaur. In a subsequent publication he identified the specimen as the pterosaur Dimorphodon macronyx (Goertzen 1998). Following suit, YEC authors David Woetzel and Brian Thomas listed Belon’s account as a historical reference to pterosaurs (Woetzel 2006; Thomas 2013).

YEC author James Gilmer published a different view of Belon’s specimen in his provocatively titled 2011 book 100 Year Cover-up Revealed: We Lived with Dinosaurs! and a later book (Gilmer 2013). He reproduced Aldrovandi’s illustration of Belon’s specimen and identified it as a “land dinosaur.” He proposed that its wings were appendages that were used like the Australian frilled lizard (Chlamydosaurus kingii) uses its frill: for defensive or aggressive displays. As an alternate proposal, he suggested that a bipedal dinosaur with such appendages “moved [them] like wings to lighten the creature’s body for faster running.”

YEC authors have not specifically mentioned Aldrovandi’s second Egyptian fake. However, Woetzel (2006) cited Aldrovandi as someone who had written about pterosaurs, in apparent reference to the book in which Aldrovandi had described both Belon’s specimen and the second Egyptian fake (Aldrovandi 1640).

Figure 2. Pterosaurs, showing the dramatic differences between their anatomy and those of the fake dragons from Figure 1: A. Fossil of the pterosaur Rhamphorhynchus muensteri with wing imprints; B. Anachronistic painting of the pterosaur Pteranodon longiceps (above) and Pterodactylus antiquus (below), which were not contemporaries, by A. Astori and A. Brown (1942) on a wall of the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

 

The Egyptian fakes are so dissimilar to pterosaurs that it is baffling that anyone would mistake them for such animals. The wing of a pterosaur has but one strut: the forelimb, including the elongated fourth finger, which runs down the leading edge of the wing (Figure 2). In contrast, the Egyptian fakes have multiple struts within each “wing.” A pterosaur wing is broad where it meets the body and tapers to a narrow point at the tip, whereas the “wings” of the fakes are narrow at the base, widening toward the tips. The “wings” of the fakes have scalloped edges, whereas those of pterosaurs do not (Figures 1a and 1b). While the “wings” of the fakes look nothing like the wings of pterosaurs, they are dead ringers for the pectoral fins of flying gurnards, which is exactly what they are (Senter and Klein 2014). In addition, the “legs” of the fakes conspicuously have an elbow (pointing backward) where a knee (pointing forward) should be. This reveals that they are forelimbs, not legs. In a pterosaur, the forelimb and the wing are one and the same, not two separate appendages. The tails of the fakes are coiled, whereas the tails of long-tailed pterosaurs were held stiff and straight by bony rods that prevented coiling (Wellnhofer 1991). As if that weren’t enough, the skin of pterosaurs was covered in fur-like filaments (Bakhurina and Unwin 1995; Lü 2002), not scales. In contrast, the skins of the fakes are scaly, and their bellies are adorned with the enlarged ventral scutes that only snakes possess. To anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of comparative anatomy, it is obvious at a glance that the Egyptian specimens are taxidermic composites. The identification of such hoaxes as genuine dinosaurs or pterosaurs is therefore an excellent example of what I have previously dubbed apnotheriopia, or dead varmint vision: the tendency of YEC authors to see dinosaurs and pterosaurs (dead varmints) where there are none (Senter 2013).

Aldrovandi’s Wingless ‘Dragon’: Forelimbs, Not Four Limbs

Aldrovandi (1640) described another dragon hoax that continues to fool YEC authors (Figure 1c). In this case, the hoax originated in Italy and came with a back story: a herdsman had supposedly come across the dragon near Bologna in 1572 and killed it when it startled his oxen (Aldrovandi 1640). The specimen consisted of a European grass snake (Natrix natrix), to which an artisan had attached the forelimbs of a toad and the midsection of a fish (Senter et al. 2013).

Several YEC authors (Taylor 1979; Ham et al. 1991; Niermann 1994; Ham 1998; Ham 2006; Perloff 1999; Comninellis 2001; Gilmer 2011) have identified the specimen as an example of Tanystropheus, a long-necked aquatic reptile from the Triassic period. Other YEC authors have identified the “dragon” simply as a match for “ancient reptile-like creatures” (Taylor 1987; Phillips 1994) or as a bipedal dinosaur (Gilmer 2013). This underscores how little attention such authors pay to the animals that they identify as Mesozoic reptiles, because the “dragon” had only two limbs (with elbows), whereas Tanystropheus was a quadruped (Wild 1973). Even bipedal dinosaurs had four limbs, unlike the “dragon’s” mere two. It is not plausible that Aldrovandi’s artist omitted a pair of limbs that were present on the specimen, for the specimen was in Aldrovandi’s possession (Findlen 1996), and he insisted that his artists illustrate what they saw in front of them without taking artistic liberties (Olmi 2007).

Cardinal Barberini’s ‘Dragon’: Weasel-Headed Wonder

Another taxidermic dragon hoax was acquired by King Louis XIII of France, who gave it to Cardinal Francesco Barberini in the seventeenth century (Bartholin 1678). It was subsequently illustrated by the anatomists Giovanni Faber (1651) and Thomas Bartholin (1678) and the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1664) (Figure 1d). The specimen included the skull of a weasel, scaly reptile skin on the torso, the tail skeleton of an eel, the forelimbs of a small mammal or lizard, and scaly wings of unknown origin (Senter and Klein 2014).

Woetzel (2012; 2017b) listed the specimen as an example of a pterosaur that had survived into historical times, despite that it resembles a pterosaur about as much as a walrus resembles a gorilla. The specimen has several of the non-pterosaurian traits of Belon’s and Aldrovandi’s Egyptian fakes: scaly skin, elbows where knees should be, scalloped edges on “wings” with narrow bases, and a tail that is both long and coiled. In addition, it has other non-pterosaurian traits: wings that arise from the lumbar region instead of the shoulders, five “toes” (pterosaurs have only four) on each elbow-bearing “hindlimb,” a jawbone with a diagnostically mammalian coronoid process (an upward-jutting prong near the jaw joint), and a diagnostically mammalian division of the teeth into incisors, canines, and cheek teeth (premolars and molars) (Senter and Klein 2014). This weasel-headed specimen resembles a pterosaur only through the pterosaur-colored glasses of dead varmint vision.

Cornelius Meijere’s ‘Dragon’: Still Dogging the Gullible

A fifth dragon hoax that continues to fool YEC authors was displayed in Rome in the late seventeenth century. The Dutch civil engineer Cornelius Meijere published a detailed drawing of it in 1696 (Figure 1e). The specimen included the skull of a domestic dog, the forelimb bones of a bear, the ribs of a large fish, and fake wings, all with “skin” covering the junctions between the parts of the different animals (Senter and Wilkins 2013). A prominent horn was added to the roof of the skull. As with the other fake dragons, several non-pterosaurian traits are present: five-toed “hindlimbs” with elbows, scalloped wings with narrow bases arising from the lumbar region, multiple struts within the wings, a tail that is both long and coiled, a coronoid process on the jaw, and division of the teeth into incisors, canines, and cheek teeth. Nevertheless, Goertzen (1998) and Woetzel (2006; 2012; 2017b) identified the dog-skulled specimen as a pterosaur, an error as incongruous as the mistaking of an ostrich for a vampire bat.

The specimen is so obviously unlike a pterosaur that one does not have to be a paleontologist to see the difference. This is exemplified by the reaction of Pondanesa Wilkins, my coauthor on the article in which we exposed the hoax (Senter and Wilkins 2013). She was but an undergraduate student at the time, and after one glance at Meijere’s drawing of the “dragon,” she was so floored that Goertzen had thought it was a pterosaur that she exclaimed “Did he even look at [the drawing]?” Indeed, he did, for he published a copy of the drawing, along with his assertion that it was a recently killed specimen of the pterosaur Scaphognathus crassirostris (Goertzen 1998). He based that identification on its having both a long tail and a crest (the horn), despite that S. crassirostris is a crestless species (Senter and Wilkins 2013). Dead varmint vision, like hope, springs eternal.

In British slang, an extreme example of something “takes the biscuit.” In this case, YEC dead varmint vision takes the dog biscuit. To seek evidence of human-pterosaur coexistence in Meijere’s dog-headed “dragon” is truly to bark up the wrong tree.

Closing Thoughts

The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century hoaxers who constructed the composite “dragons” would doubtlessly be tickled to know that their creations are still fooling the gullible at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Sadly, such dragon hoaxes are not the only Piltdown Men of creationism. Advocates of the YEC view are routinely taken in by hoaxes. A newspaper article peppered with clues that it was a hoax (Kuban 2005) appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1856, claiming that a live pterosaur had been found encased in stone (Anonymous 1856). Over a century and a half later, the article continues to fool YEC authors, who claim that it demonstrates the recent existence of pterosaurs (Phillips 1994; Perloff 1999; Sharp 2010; McGlenn and McGlenn 2014). The Cardiff Giant, an oversized human sculpture that was buried as a joke and unearthed in 1869, fooled biblical literalists, some of whom were convinced that it was a genuine, fossilized example of one of the giants of Genesis (Rose 2005). The Granby Stone Idol, a stone with a carved dinosaur and incorrectly carved Chinese symbols that surfaced in Colorado in the 1920s (Brandon 1983), continues to fool YEC authors (Childress 2000; Woetzel 2017a). Alleged to be evidence of coexistence between dinosaurs and Chinese people in ancient America, it has long been known to be a hoax (Brandon 1983). The Silverbell artifacts, a collection of alleged evidence of a medieval Roman colony in Arizona, uncovered in the 1920s, include a sword with a carving of a dinosaur on it. YEC authors continue to cite the sword as evidence for human-dinosaur coexistence (Childress 2000; Helfinstine and Roth 2007; McGlenn and McGlenn 2014), despite the collection’s exposure decades ago as a hoax (Burgess and Marshall 2009). The Burdick track, a giant human footprint that was carved into Cretaceous limestone in the 1930s, was exposed as a hoax in 1970 (Kuban and Wilkerson 2010). Nevertheless, it continues to be cited by YEC authors as genuine evidence that giant humans coexisted with dinosaurs (Helfinstine and Roth 2007; Wilson et al. 2007) and is still displayed as a genuine giant footprint in the Creation Evidence Museum of Glen Rose, Texas. The Acámbaro figurines, a collection of clay figures from Mexico that were planted in an archaeological site in the 1940s, include small sculptures that resemble dinosaurs. Although the collection was exposed decades ago as a hoax (Di Peso 1953; Carriveau 1976), YEC authors continue to cite the collection as evidence of human-dinosaur coexistence (Childress 2000; Helfinstine and Roth 2007; Gilmer 2011; Gilmer 2013; Woetzel 2012; Woetzel 2017a; McGlenn and McGlenn 2014). The Ica Stones, a collection of engraved stones from Peru, include several with illustrations of dinosaurs that include the postural and anatomical mistakes of dinosaur reconstructions from the mid-twentieth century. YEC authors continue to cite the collection as evidence of human-dinosaur coexistence (Helfinstine and Roth 2007; Gilmer 2011; Gilmer 2013; Woetzel 2012; Woetzel 2017a; McGlenn and McGlenn 2014), despite the public confessions by some of the hoaxers who made the engravings in the 1960s (Polidoro 2002).

One of the major hallmarks of YEC literature is the tendency of its authors to be easily fooled by obvious forgeries such as the fake dragons reviewed here. Another major hallmark is the tendency of YEC authors to continue to proclaim that such hoaxes are genuine long after the hoaxes have been exposed. YEC pots would therefore do well to acknowledge their own charcoal hues before denouncing any sooty stains among of the kettles of science. How are we to take seriously the criticism of YEC authors toward scientists for having been fooled by a pair of forgeries in the past, when so many of those very YEC authors continue to be fooled by so many forgeries in the present? To be taken seriously, YEC authors must, at a minimum, acknowledge exposed hoaxes as hoaxes and start employing a healthy skepticism to prevent being hoodwinked by charlatans in the future. They also must learn to muzzle the inane barking of the mental voices of dead varmint vision, a blithering burble that has made many a YEC author’s writings an astoundingly silly circus of laughably misinformed blather.


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Philip J. Senter

Philip J. Senter is a vertebrate paleontologist with a specialty in dinosaur paleobiology. He earned a PhD in Biological Sciences from Northern Illinois University in 2003 and teaches biology courses at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. He has published more than sixty articles on dinosaur paleontology, reptile biology, and the creation-evolution debate. He can be contacted at psenter@uncfsu.edu


A little over a hundred years ago, an unscrupulous individual planted an orangutan’s jaw and part of a human skull in the Piltdown gravel pit in East Sussex, England, in an attempt to fool scientists into believing that excavators had found an evolutionary intermediate between apes and humans. Some authorities immediately recognized the bones as …

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