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.”