Archaeologists in Argentina announced this week the discovery of fossilized bones [pictured above] that may represent the largest dinosaur ever found.
Interestingly, (okay, I find it interesting) while dinosaurs existed hundreds of millions of years ago, the word “dinosaur” has been around for fewer than 175 years. Sir Richard Owen coined the word in 1841 (or 1842, depending on what source you want to believe) to describe the fossils of certain land-based reptiles. He actually called them “dinosauria,” combining two Greek words meaning “terrible lizard.”
So, what were those terrible lizards called before 1841, when we didn’t have the word dinosaur? Well, there are a couple of answers. The primary answer is, they weren’t called much of anything, because we didn’t know they existed, and when we did see evidence of them (i.e., fossils) we had no idea what they were. (I’m working on a joke: A dinosaur walks into a bar before the year 1841. Bartender says, “Hey, we don’t serve you, um, er…what do you call yourself, anyway?” Dinosaur answers “I have no idea; no one’s ever told me.” Then he proceeds to eat the bartender and destroy the place. Funny, right?)
Dinosaurs first appeared around 220 million years ago in the Mesozoic Era (Mesozoic, from the Greek “mesos,” or middle, and “zoe,” life. British geologist John Phillips came up with the name in 1840 to describe the fossil era between Paleozoic and Cenozoic. Mesozoic was the period when the first mammals appeared on Earth. Cenozoic means “new life” – when mammals took over the planet — and Paleo is a popular fad diet. No, I’m sorry. Paleozoic means “old life,” characterized by the rise of insects, primitive fish and reptiles).
All the dinosaurs were gone (extinct) by 65 million years ago. Man has only been around for roughly 2.3 million years, so despite all those “Land of the Lost”-type science fiction books and films you’ve seen, Man and Dinosaurs never occupied Earth at the same time.
Humans found dinosaur fossils for hundreds or thousands of years, without knowing quite what to make of them. The ancient Greeks developed a whole mythology around them, creating characters like the Cyclops and the Griffin. More modern investigators realized the fossils were of some kind of reptile. The first scientific description of a dinosaur came in 1824, when British geologist and fossil hunter William Buckland named the “Megalosaurus” (“Great Lizard”). A year later, Dr. Gideon Mantell named another dinosaur fossil “Iguanodon,” because its fossilized tooth looked like the teeth of an iguana (a very, very big iguana).
I said there were a couple of answers to the question, “What were dinosaurs called before 1841?” The other answer is a bit more speculative, but many folks believe that our great-great-great-great grandparents (assuming they lived in China) had their own ideas about the fossils they discovered. They built up all kinds of myths around the creatures, and called them by a name derived from a Greek word meaning a huge serpent. They called those great creatures…dragons.