Fake Italian dragon, pterosaur or dog?


Engraving from Meyer's book of the fake Italian dragon

From World Science:

Killed twice in 1600s, hoax “dragon” slain again—in creationism dispute

May 8, 2013
Special to World Science

A “drag­on” thought to have turned up out­side Rome in the 1600s was killed once, or even twice, in the lo­cal lo­re of its day.

It then lay for­got­ten for three cen­turies—be­fore tak­ing on yet a new life, in the minds of some crea­t­ion­ists who saw in the tale com­pel­ling ev­i­dence for their be­liefs.

Two bi­ol­o­gists from Fay­ette­ville State Uni­vers­ity in North Car­o­li­na have now de­cid­ed to slay the beast once and for all, by do­ing some sleuthing to con­firm what many Ital­ians al­ready sus­pected way back then.

The drag­on was a hoax, they con­clude. Such ex­ist­ence as it had, they add, was based on a forgery com­posed of var­i­ous an­i­mal bones. In that sense it was not too un­like the fa­mous Pilt­down Man, a fake “early hu­man” con­sist­ing of the low­er jaw­bone of an orang­u­tan com­bined with a hu­man skull. That scheme was ex­posed in 1953.

The drag­on sto­ry as trans­mit­ted through old doc­u­ments has de­light­ed some crea­t­ion­ists be­cause they cite the mon­ster—en­grav­ings from the time in­clude a de­tailed skele­tal view—as proof that con­tra­ry to main­stream sci­ence, a fly­ing, rep­til­i­an cous­in of the di­no­saurs lived just re­cent­ly.

But the tale cap­ti­vat­ed Ital­ians long be­fore ar­gu­ments over ev­o­lu­tion. The sto­ry brings us back to about the time when the great sculp­tor-ar­chi­tect Gian Lo­ren­zo Ber­ni­ni re­built the fa­mous square in front of St. Pe­ter’s Ba­sil­i­ca in Rome, erect­ing its cel­e­brat­ed col­on­nade.

A cou­ple of dec­ades af­ter that proj­ect, ru­mors of the drag­on cropped up in con­nec­tion with an­oth­er, less fa­mous con­struc­tion near­by.

Ac­tu­al­ly, one pub­lished ver­sion of the drag­on tale ac­tu­ally dat­ed its “death” to the mid­dle of the St. Pe­ter’s Square proj­ect, in 1660. Yet ma­te­ri­al in an­oth­er book sug­gests that ru­mors of its sight­ing cir­cu­lat­ed about 1691, in the swamps out­side Rome where a di­ke was un­der con­struc­tion. Which­ev­er ver­sion might ac­cu­rately re­flect the “real” ru­mor, the lat­ter book is the one with the en­grav­ings.

This book, by an en­gi­neer in­volved with the di­ke, states that the drag­on was killed and pro­vides three de­light­ful en­graved il­lustra­t­ions. But it says lit­tle else on the sub­ject, ex­cept to men­tion that the beast was “was reco­vered in the hands of the en­gi­neer” him­self, one Cor­ne­li­us Mey­er. The book is mostly about di­ke con­struc­tion proj­ects around Rome.

De­tails on the bi­zarre rep­til­i­an tale are thus fog­gy. But the two bi­ol­o­gists, Pon­danesa D. Wil­kins and Phil Sen­ter, spec­u­late, based on the doc­u­ments, that a drag­on ru­mor be­came an ob­sta­cle to a di­ke con­struc­tion in 1691. Lo­cals or work­ers might have balked at the proj­ect, be­liev­ing a drag­on was on the loose in the ar­ea, per­haps one that was an­gry over the dis­turb­ance of its home. The beast was per­haps viewed as a res­ur­rec­tion of the same mon­ster writ­ten else­where to have died in 1660, al­so in the Rome ar­ea.

In any case, the bi­ol­o­gists pro­pose that Mey­er’s pub­lished “ev­i­dence” of the death in­clud­ing the en­grav­ings might have been part of an effort to fi­nally quell the ru­mors and keep the proj­ect afloat. A pa­per with their findings ap­pears in the May-August is­sue of the on­line re­search jour­nal Pa­lae­on­tolo­gia Elec­tron­ica.

The explanation for the engravings is that “Meyer chose not to invite op­position by ex­press­ing skepticism about the lo­cal rumor,” they argue. “In­stead, he wisely chose to avoid re­sist­ance by hu­moring the lo­cals… em­bracing the lo­cal rumor and pro­viding vi­sual evid­ence that their source of con­cern had been van­quished.”

Wil­kins and Sen­ter ar­gue that some­one likely cob­bled to­geth­er a fake skel­e­ton. This nat­u­rally found its way in­to some of those closely ob­served de­pic­tions for which Ital­ians had such a flair. In one of these en­grav­ings, the ske­l­e­ton ap­pears, prop­erly perched on a charm­ing ba­roque ped­es­tal.

All that re­mained was for Wil­kins and Sen­ter to fig­ure out just what went in­to this “skel­e­ton.” In­ter­est­ingly “the en­grav­ing is de­tailed enough to test” the view that it’s a real pter­o­saur, the re­search­ers wrote.

The con­clu­sions from their analysis are cut­ting.

“The skull of Mey­er’s drag­on is that of a do­mes­tic dog,” they write. “The man­di­ble is that of a sec­ond, smaller do­mes­tic dog. The ‘hindlimb’ is the fore­limb of a bear. The ribs are from a large fish. Os­ten­si­ble skin hides the junc­tions be­tween the parts of dif­fer­ent an­i­mals. The tail is a sculpted fake. The wings are fake and lack di­ag­nos­tic traits of bat wings and pter­o­saur wings. No part of the ske­l­e­ton re­sem­bles its coun­ter­part in pter­o­saurs.”

“This piece of young-Earth crea­t­ion­ist ‘ev­i­dence’ there­fore now joins the ranks of oth­er dis­cred­ited ‘ev­i­dence’ for hu­man-pter­o­saur coex­ist­ence and against the ex­ist­ence of the pas­sage of mil­lions of years,” Wil­kins and Sen­ter add. “Also, a three-century-old hoax is fi­nally un­veiled, the mys­tery of its con­struc­tion is solved, and an in­ter­est­ing and bi­zarre ep­i­sode in Ren­ais­sance Ital­ian histo­ry is elucidat­ed.”

Skep­ti­cism over the drag­on yarn is far from new. The con­tem­po­rary Ger­man au­thor George Kirch­meyer re­counts that the “fly­ing ser­pent” was sup­posedly “killed by a hunt­er af­ter a se­vere and dan­ger­ous strug­gle”; but “this sto­ry, which ap­peared more like some fa­ble than real truth, was a sub­ject of dis­cus­sion among the learn­ed. The cir­cum­stance was de­nied by many, be­lieved by oth­ers, and left in doubt by sev­er­al.”

Two crea­t­ion­ists who have cho­sen to join the be­liev­ers are the au­thors John Go­ertzen and Da­vid Woet­zel, who penned 1998 and 2006 pa­pers on the sub­ject, re­spec­tive­ly.

“This study helps to es­tab­lish the re­cent ex­ist­ence of rham­phorhyn­choid pter­o­saurs; an­i­mals that main­stream sci­ence be­lieves be­came ex­tinct about 140 mil­lion years ago,” Go­ertzen wrote in his pa­per, which ap­peared in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Fourth In­terna­t­ional Con­fer­ence on Crea­t­ion.

Crea­t­ion­ists claim that the Bi­ble proves Earth is only a few thou­sand years old. Thus things like di­no­saurs, which died out 65 mil­lion years ago, pose a prob­lem for crea­t­ion­ists.

Woet­zel did not re­spond to an e­mail sent through his web­site re­quest­ing com­ment.

Go­ertzen could not be lo­cat­ed via e­mail or tel­e­phone, with none of his sev­er­al pa­pers on­line pro­vid­ing con­tact in­forma­t­ion. How­ev­er, his 1998 pa­per on the drag­on ar­gued that the Ital­ian drag­on tale was not the only piece of ev­i­dence for its re­cent ex­ist­ence.

“The re­mark­a­ble thing about this an­i­mal is that it was de­picted in sev­er­al cul­tures of an­ti­qu­ity. Ar­ti­facts iden­ti­fied with this in­ter­est­ing pter­o­saur spe­cies in­clude Roman-Alex­and­rian coins, an Ara­bia-Phil­istia coin, a French wood carv­ing, a Ger­man stat­ue and coin, sev­er­al Mid­dle Ages pic­ture maps, and an en­light­en­ing sketch of a mount­ed an­i­mal in Rome.”

See also here.

6 thoughts on “Fake Italian dragon, pterosaur or dog?

  1. Pingback: Bird book exhibition in The Hague, the Netherlands | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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