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Dragon Hoaxes: Piltdown Men of Creationism

Young-earth creationist authors often fall for hoaxes perpetrated centuries ago: taxidermic fakes that were billed as dragons. The fakes don’t even resemble the very animals the creationist authors claim they are (dinosaurs and pterosaurs).

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.

The practice of selling fake animals in the form of taxidermic composites to gullible buyers has had a long and amusing history.

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 gur nards (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).

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Seven Big Misconceptions about Heredity Rossi’s E-Cat: Exposé of a Claimed Cold Fusion Device Dragon Hoaxes: Piltdown Men of Creationism