New Study Challenges Dinosaur Fossil Origins of the Griffin Myth

A widely-promoted claim that dinosaur fossils inspired the legend of the griffin, a mythological creature popular in medieval bestiaries, has been challenged in a new study.

The specific link between dinosaur fossils and griffin mythology was proposed over 30 years ago by historian Adrienne Mayor in a series of papers and books. This started with the 1989 Cryptozoology paper titled ‘Paleocryptozoology: a call for collaboration between classicists and cryptozoologists’ and was cemented in her seminal 2000 book The First Fossil Hunters. The idea became a staple of books, documentaries, and museum exhibits.


Mayor’s theory suggests that an early horned dinosaur of Mongolia and China, Protoceratops, was discovered by ancient nomads prospecting for gold in Central Asia. According to this theory, tales of Protoceratops bones travelled southwest on trade routes to inspire or influence stories and art of the griffin.

Griffins are among the oldest mythological creatures, first appearing in Egyptian and Middle Eastern art during the 4th millennium BC before becoming popular in ancient Greece during the 8th century BC. In medieval texts they are typically depicted as having a bird’s head and wings on a lion’s body.


Protoceratops was a small dinosaur (about 2 meters long) that lived in Mongolia and northern China during the Cretaceous period (75-71 million years ago). As a member of the horned dinosaur group, it was a relative of Triceratops, though it lacked facial horns. Like griffins, Protoceratops stood on four legs, had beaks, and had frill-like extensions of their skulls that, it has been argued, could be interpreted as wings.

In the first detailed assessment of these claims, study authors Dr. Mark Witton and Richard Hing, paleontologists at the University of Portsmouth, re-evaluated historical fossil records, the distribution and nature of Protoceratops fossils, and classical sources linking the griffin with the Protoceratops. They consulted with historians and archaeologists to fully understand the conventional, non-fossil-based view of griffin origins. Ultimately, they found that none of the arguments withstood scrutiny.

Protoceratops skeleton on display – photo by Karen / Wikimedia Commons

Ideas that Protoceratops would be discovered by nomads prospecting for gold are unlikely, as Protoceratops fossils are found hundreds of kilometres away from ancient gold sites. In the century since Protoceratops was discovered, no gold has been reported alongside them. It also seems doubtful that nomads would have seen much of the Protoceratops skeletons, even if they prospected for gold where their fossils occur.

“There is an assumption that dinosaur skeletons are discovered half-exposed, lying around almost like the remains of recently-deceased animals,” said Dr. Witton. “But generally speaking, just a fraction of an eroding dinosaur skeleton will be visible to the naked eye, unnoticed to all except for sharp-eyed fossil hunters.


“That’s almost certainly how ancient peoples wandering around Mongolia encountered Protoceratops. If they wanted to see more, as they’d need to if they were forming myths about these animals, they’d have to extract the fossil from the surrounding rock. That is no small task, even with modern tools, glues, protective wrapping, and preparatory techniques. It seems more probable that Protoceratops remains, by and large, went unnoticed — if the gold prospectors were even there to see them.”

Martin Schongauer: The griffin, 15th century

Similarly, the geographic spread of griffin art through history does not align with the scenario of griffin lore beginning with Central Asian fossils and then spreading west. There are also no unambiguous references to Protoceratops fossils in ancient literature.

Protoceratops is only griffin-like in being a four-limbed animal with a beak. There are no details in griffin art suggesting that their fossils were referenced, but conversely, many griffins were clearly composed of features of living cats and birds.


“Everything about griffin origins is consistent with their traditional interpretation as imaginary beasts, just as their appearance is entirely explained by them being chimeras of big cats and raptorial birds,” Dr. Witton added. “Invoking a role for dinosaurs in griffin lore, especially species from distant lands like Protoceratops, not only introduces unnecessary complexity and inconsistencies to their origins but also relies on interpretations and proposals that don’t withstand scrutiny.”

The authors stress that there is excellent evidence of fossils being culturally important throughout human history, with innumerable instances of fossils inspiring folklore around the world, referred to as ‘geomyths.’

“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 notes. “There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea that ancient peoples found dinosaur bones and incorporated them into their mythology, but we need to root such proposals in the realities of history, geography, and paleontology. Otherwise, they are just speculation.”

Dr. Witton added: “Not all mythological creatures demand explanations through fossils. Some of the most popular geomyths — Protoceratops and griffins, fossil elephants and cyclopes, and dragons and dinosaurs — have no evidential basis and are entirely speculative. We promote these stories because they’re exciting and seem intuitively plausible, but doing so ignores our growing knowledge of fossil geomyths grounded in fact and evidence. These are just as interesting as their conjectural counterparts, and probably deserve more attention than entirely speculated geomythological scenarios.”


The historians also note how ‘griffin claws’ were a common artifact held in medieval churches, but studies have shown that these were usually fossilized horns from other animals, including the Pleistocene rhinoceroses. Meanwhile ‘griffin eggs’ were, in fact, ostrich eggs.

The article, “Did the horned dinosaur Protoceratops inspire the griffin?,” by Mark P. Witton and Richard A. Hing, appears in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. Click here to read it.

Top Image: Britsh Library MS Harley 4751, fol. 7v