Western sources refer to a few scholars who were the pioneers in describing huge fossilised animals that are now known to be the remains of the long extinct dinosaurs. Around 1677, the British scholar, Robert Plot, was widely believed to have written the first description of a dinosaur fossil, after finding a fossilised object, which looked like the bones of a giant creature (Haven, 2007, p. 67; Parsons, 2004, p.15; Fastovsky & Weishampel, 2009, p. 309; Martin, 2009, p. 57). However, Plot was not able to identify the fossil, assuming first that it belonged to an elephant; and he later suggested that it belonged to giant human beings:
“There happily came to Oxford while I was writing of this, a living Elephant to be shown publickly at the ACT, An. 1676, with whose Bones … I compared ours; and found those of the Elephant not only of a different Shape, but also incomparably different to ours, though the Beast were very young and not half grown. If then they are neither the Bones of Horses, Oxen, nor Elephants, as I am strongly persuaded they are not… It remains, that (notwithstanding their extravagant Magnitude) they must have been the bones of Men or Women: Nor doth any thing hinder but they may have been so, provided it be clearly made out, that there have been Men and Women of proportionable Stature in all Ages of the World, down even to our own Days” (Plot, 1677, p. 137).
It was only around two centuries later that Mary Anning (1799-1847) and shortly afterward Gideon Mantell (1790-1852) were able to find more bones and accurately relate them to extinct species that roamed the earth, millions of years ago (Cadbury, 2001, pp. 3-6; Haven, 2007, p. 67). As for the term ‘dinosaur’, it was first coined by Sir Richard Owen in 1841 and was published in the proceedings of a meeting held by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
However, someone long before Plot and other Western writers did make a reference to dinosaur fossils and mentioned that they belonged to a giant animal that once lived on earth. His name is Abū Hāmid Mohammed Al-Andalusī, an Arab traveller who was born in Granada, Spain in 1080. He died around the year 1169 in Damascus and wrote a book entitled Tuhfat Al-Albāb wa Nukhbat Al-‘Ijāb in Arabic. Some parts of Al-Andalusī’s book are missing, but there are several references to it made by another traveller called Al-Qazwīnī (about 1208-1283), especially a reference to Al-Andalusi’s visit to Bulgar city (Volga Bulgaria), which is located in the modern day Republic of Tatarstan, part of today’s Russian Federation. It is important to note that Al-Andalusī was not the first Arab traveller to visit Bulgar since Ibn Fadlān described the city (also called Saqqālbah) during his visit on 12 May 922 (Ibn Fadlān 1960, p. 113). After describing the city and its dwellers’ manners and customs, Al-Andalusī mentioned the following:
“I saw a tooth whose width was about two hands in size and its length was four hands, while its skull was like a dome. There were teeth like elephant’s tusks underneath the earth and were as white as snow. They were very heavy since each tooth weighed about 200 mann [about 170 kilos]. No one knows to which animal it belongs since they might be the teeth of the Bulgars’ animals that were transported to Khewārzm city [Khiva in modern day Uzbekistan]. These teeth were sold in Khiva in a fairly good price since they were treated like ivory though they were stronger than ivory as they never break. They were often used to make combs and hair holders” (Al-Andalusī, 1925, p.238; Al-Qazwīnī, 1969, p. 613).
The above account provides a description that is similar to that of a dinosaur – a giant extinct animal whose fossilised skeleton was buried under earth. Interestingly, Andalusī and Plot both compared the bones they found to elephants, because the latter was the largest living animal known to them. This is also confirmed by the famous Arab writer, Al-Jāhiz (c. 781-868), who mentioned that the elephant was believed to be the largest and strongest known animal during his time in carrying heavy weights (1968, p. 105 and p. 110). Yet, there seems to be an exaggeration regarding the weight of the teeth in the account given above: it seems that Al-Andalusī was referring to the animal’s spikes or claws. Also, it is difficult to determine which kind of dinosaur the above account refers to, but the Eotitanosuchus that actually lived once in Russia had large teeth and a wide and big skull similar to the shape of a dome (Benton, Shishkin & Unwin, 2003, p. 89). Indeed, the account given above can be regarded as the earliest reference to a dinosaur and now needs to be incorporated into other academic sources that investigate man’s first descriptions of extinct creatures.
About the author: Dr Ahmed K Al-Rawi is assistant professor at the School of History, Culture, & Communication at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
Al-Andalusī, Abū Hāmid Mohammed. 1925. Le Tuhfat Al-Albāb. Journal Asiatique. Octobre-Decembre. No. 13, VI. Edited by Gabriel Ferrand. Edite D’apres Les Mss. 2167, 2168, 2170 de La Bibliotheque Nationale Et le Ms. D’Alger.
Al-Jāhiz, Abī ‘Othmān. 1968. Al-Haywān, Vol. VII. Cairo: Maktabāt Al-Bābī Al-Halabī.
Al-Qazwīnī, Abū ‘Abdullah Zakaryā. 1969. Ithār Al-Bilād wa Akhbār Al-‘Ibād. Beirut: Dār Sāddr.
Benton, M. J., Shishkin, M. A., & Unwin, D. M. (2003). The age of dinosaurs in Russia and Mongolia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cadbury, Deborah. 2001. The Dinosaur Hunters: A Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World. London: Fourth Estate.
Fastovsky, D. E., & Weishampel, D. B. (2009). Dinosaurs: a concise natural history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Haven, Kendall. 2007. 100 Greatest Science Discoveries of All Time. Wesport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Ibn Fadlān, Ahmed. 1960. Risālat Ibn Fadlān. Damascus: Al-Mattb‘ah Al-Hāshimyeh.
Martin, A. J. (2009). Introduction to the Study of Dinosaurs. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
n.a. Report of the Eleventh Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science Held at Plymouth in July 1841.1842. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street.
Parsons, K. M. 2004. The Great Dinosaur Controversy: A Guide to the Debates. New York: ABC-CLIO.
Plot, R. 1677. The Natural History of Oxford-shire, being an essay towards the Natural History of England. Oxford: Printed at the Theatre.