Say you lived in ancient times and you walked to the top of a mountain. There, you were astonished to find fossils of seashells and various marine creatures. What explanation would you come up so that your find made sense?
The actual reason those fossils are there is plate tectonics. In many cases, the land now at the top of a mountain was once at the bottom of the sea. But given how frequently sea fossils are found far from the ocean, it’s no surprise that just about every ancient culture has a story describing a great flood.
Let’s turn to Ancient Greece. Elephants once lived on the islands in the Mediterranean; they’ve been extinct for a long time. But say you’re an ancient Greek who stumbles across an elephant skull like the one pictured on the left. You have never seen a live elephant. What would you think this creature looked like when alive? The hole for the trunk looks rather like a hole for a gigantic single eye. Might you tell a story about a one-eyed giant (the Cyclops) who lives on an island?
The ancient Scythians, while mining for gold in central Asia, discovered well-preserved fossils of protoceratops, what we now know is a type of dinosaur. The ancient Greeks first made contact with the Scythians at around 675 BC, and at around that time they first began to describe the griffin: a lion-sized quadruped with a raptor’s beak. On the right is a picture of a protoceratops skeleton. Might the Greeks have seen those fossils, discovered by the Scythians, and invented the griffin to explain what they saw?
Further reading: Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters, by Matt Kaplan; The First Fossil Hunters, by Adrienne Mayor