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A New Origin for Dragon Folklore?

A New Origin for Dragon Folklore?

An Edo period painting of a dragon from Japan.

At the bedrock of folklore studies is one underlying question: why is it that ancient peoples, separated by continents and millenia, generated similar stories independently? Let’s take the mythological dragon for example: how is this creature able to rear its head in both ancient China and Britain? Like other creatures of folklore, it’s usually thought that the fictitious dragons are the progeny of the real-life dinosaurs, that ancient peoples discovered their bones and built mythologies around them. A recent study suggests that dragon mythology may not have been generated from animal life alone, but from plants.

A study from 2020 out of Roanoke College suggests that dragons owe their origin to Carboniferous Period plants, specifically Lepidodendron, whose fossilized patterns resemble reptilian scales. Ulodendron may be able to account for the dragon’s eye, while still other plants and fronds possess a superficial resemblance to feathers. During the Carboniferous over 300 million years ago, these plants and others were concentrated along the equator–as Pangea broke up, these fossils were scattered across the world, which could account for the wide distribution of dragon mythology.

A lepidodendron fossil.

Lepidodendron from the Joggins Formation in Nova Scotia.

As a part of their research, the study’s authors compared 217 known fossil sites of the specific plant genera against cases of dragon folklore, finding that the two roughly align across the world. Britain has the highest correlation between stories and fossils, perhaps explaining the indelible place dragons maintain in British folklore. The authors specifically cite Worm Hill, supposedly formed by the Lambton Worm wrapping itself around a hill seven times, and its close proximity to a known fossil site. The Sockburn Worm’s poisonous and fiery breath could perhaps be accounted for by escaping gas produced by Carboniferous coal deposits.

The study is quick to concede that plant life is unlikely to account for the entirety of the dragon mythos, with dinosaur fossils also helping to build the mythology, but we now have a clearer picture of how these mythological creatures came about. Just as vampires may be the product of blood disorders like porphyria, folklore often is the product of real-life phenomenon, interpreted by a pre-scientific peoples into the realm of the legendary.

What do you think? See a resemblance? Check out this Lepidodendron fossil bark and compare it to dragon scales up close and personal!

(Find even more plant fossils here!)

Lepidodendron fossil bark


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