Mythology Busters Debunk That Dinosaurs Inspired Ancient Griffin Folklore

Paleontologists challenge notion that the fantastical chimeric beast of ancient folklore was inspired by dinosaur fossils.

By Paul Smaglik
Jun 25, 2024 8:45 PMJun 25, 2024 8:50 PM
Griffin Myth Illustration
Painting of a griffin, a lion-raptor chimera, alongside the fossils of Protoceratops, a horned dinosaur. The latter are said to have informed the lore and appearance of the former, but a study suggests that there is no compelling connection between dinosaurs and griffins. (Credit: Mark Witton)


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A scholarly article once proposed that the griffin — a mythological beast with a raptor’s head, a lion’s body, and eagle’s wings — was created by ancient prospectors stumbling upon a dinosaur fossil while searching for gold in Central Asia.

But something about the argument didn’t feel right to Mark Witton, a paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth in England, who with a colleague, now debunked the study over 30 years later in an Interdisciplinary Science Reviews article.

The idea, whose seed was planted by folklorist Adrienne Mayor in a 1989 Cryptozoology paper entitled, Paleocryptozoology: a call for collaboration between classicists and cryptozoologists, germinated in the public’s imagination. It grew after the publication of Mayor’s 2000 book The First Fossil Hunters, then became an element of more books, documentaries, and museum exhibits.

On one hand, the theory’s basis is commendable because it involves art history, folklore, archeology, and paleontology. But on another, it involves faulty assumptions about those interdisciplinary foundations — then takes huge leaps of logic about their connections.

Take the prospector theory. Griffins of legend were said to be guarding gold, but no Protoceratops fossils have been found under a few hundred miles from the nearest gold deposits.

“If they were gold prospectors, they were way off course,” says Witton.

There is also no record of fossils resembling Protoceratops being found in ancient times. And there is no way to trace the griffin legends from Central Asia to their first known origins in Egyptian and Middle Eastern art 6,000 years ago, never mind to their peak popularity in ancient Greece during the 8th century B.C.

Read More: The Lore and Legends Behind 3 Medieval Monsters

Debunking the Mythology

Then, connecting all those prospective claims becomes unrealistic. “It becomes a very long chain of compounding speculation,” Witton says.

Witton and colleague Richard Hing, also a University of Portsmouth paleontologist, embarked upon a systematic look at the evidence that fueled the theory. They examined historical fossil records, investigated the locations of Protoceratops fossils, and consulted classics scholars as well as historians and archeologists to examine the theory’s foundations. No individual premise — much less the entire logic chain connecting them — withstood the scrutiny.

Even the most essential — that an ancient nomad would stumble upon an entire intact Protoceratops — approaches the absurd. A contemporary paleontologist often begins a discovery by finding a small bit of bone poking out of rock. Their expertise informs them whether it may be a noteworthy specimen. Then they carefully excavate using specialized tools and techniques.

“All we can say is, today, fossils are difficult to find and they are difficult to extract,” says Witton. “We can’t assume that was any different thousands of years ago.”

Read More: What Are Fossils and Where Are They Found the Most?

Dinosaur vs. Griffin

Also, the Protoceratops fossil doesn’t look particularly griffin-like. Both creatures have four legs and a beak, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Even if a lucky prospector did bump into an intact fossil, the timeline of the griffin’s emergence in both art history and ancient literature doesn’t track with the time of the theoretical paleontology find.

And there are no records communicating the discovery of a Protoceratops fossil, nor of that discovery’s news spreading from Central Asia to Egypt, then Greece.

Despite debunking this particular theory, the authors stress that fossils have been culturally significant throughout human history and have inspired folklore.

“It is important to distinguish between fossil folklore with a factual basis — that is, connections between fossils and myth evidenced by archaeological discoveries or compelling references in literature and artwork — and speculated connections based on intuition," Hing said in a statement.

Read More: One-Eyed-Looking Mammoth Fossils May Have Inspired Origins of the Cyclops

Article Sources

Our writers at use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Before joining Discover Magazine, Paul spent over 20 years as a science journalist, specializing in U.S. life science policy and global scientific career issues. He began his career in newspapers, but switched to scientific magazines. His work has appeared in publications including Science News, Science, Nature, and Scientific American.

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