"Long before it's in the papers"
June 04, 2013


Killed twice in 1600s, hoax “dragon” slain again—in creationism dispute

May 8, 2013
Special to World Science  

A “drag­on” thought to have turned up out­side Rome in the 1600s was killed once, or even twice, in the lo­cal lo­re of its day.

It then lay for­got­ten for three cen­turies—be­fore tak­ing on yet a new life, in the minds of some crea­t­ion­ists who saw in the tale com­pel­ling ev­i­dence for their be­liefs.

Two bi­ol­o­gists from Fay­ette­ville State Uni­vers­ity in North Car­o­li­na have now de­cid­ed to slay the beast once and for all, by do­ing some sleuthing to con­firm what many Ital­ians al­ready sus­pected way back then. 

Engravings from Meyer's book.

The drag­on was a hoax, they con­clude. Such ex­ist­ence as it had, they add, was based on a forgery com­posed of var­i­ous an­i­mal bones. In that sense it was not too un­like the fa­mous Pilt­down Man, a fake “early hu­man” con­sist­ing of the low­er jaw­bone of an orang­u­tan com­bined with a hu­man skull. That scheme was ex­posed in 1953.

The drag­on sto­ry as trans­mit­ted through old doc­u­ments has de­light­ed some crea­t­ion­ists be­cause they cite the mon­ster—en­grav­ings from the time in­clude a de­tailed skele­tal view—as proof that con­tra­ry to main­stream sci­ence, a fly­ing, rep­til­i­an cous­in of the di­no­saurs lived just re­cent­ly.

But the tale cap­ti­vat­ed Ital­ians long be­fore ar­gu­ments over ev­o­lu­tion. The sto­ry brings us back to about the time when the great sculp­tor-ar­chi­tect Gian Lo­ren­zo Ber­ni­ni re­built the fa­mous square in front of St. Pe­ter’s Ba­sil­i­ca in Rome, erect­ing its cel­e­brat­ed col­on­nade.

A cou­ple of dec­ades af­ter that proj­ect, ru­mors of the drag­on cropped up in con­nec­tion with an­oth­er, less fa­mous con­struc­tion near­by. 

Ac­tu­al­ly, one pub­lished ver­sion of the drag­on tale ac­tu­ally dat­ed its “death” to the mid­dle of the St. Pe­ter’s Square proj­ect, in 1660. Yet ma­te­ri­al in an­oth­er book sug­gests that ru­mors of its sight­ing cir­cu­lat­ed about 1691, in the swamps out­side Rome where a di­ke was un­der con­struc­tion. Which­ev­er ver­sion might ac­cu­rately re­flect the “real” ru­mor, the lat­ter book is the one with the en­grav­ings.

This book, by an en­gi­neer in­volved with the di­ke, states that the drag­on was killed and pro­vides three de­light­ful en­graved il­lustra­t­ions. But it says lit­tle else on the sub­ject, ex­cept to men­tion that the beast was “was reco­vered in the hands of the en­gi­neer” him­self, one Cor­ne­li­us Mey­er. The book is mostly about di­ke con­struc­tion proj­ects around Rome.

De­tails on the bi­zarre rep­til­i­an tale are thus fog­gy. But the two bi­ol­o­gists, Pon­danesa D. Wil­kins and Phil Sen­ter, spec­u­late, based on the doc­u­ments, that a drag­on ru­mor be­came an ob­sta­cle to a di­ke con­struc­tion in 1691. Lo­cals or work­ers might have balked at the proj­ect, be­liev­ing a drag­on was on the loose in the ar­ea, per­haps one that was an­gry over the dis­turb­ance of its home. The beast was per­haps viewed as a res­ur­rec­tion of the same mon­ster writ­ten else­where to have died in 1660, al­so in the Rome ar­ea.

In any case, the bi­ol­o­gists pro­pose that Mey­er’s pub­lished “ev­i­dence” of the death in­clud­ing the en­grav­ings might have been part of an effort to fi­nally quell the ru­mors and keep the proj­ect afloat. A pa­per with their findings ap­pears in the May-August is­sue of the on­line re­search jour­nal Pa­lae­on­tolo­gia Elec­tron­ica.

The explanation for the engravings is that “Meyer chose not to invite op­position by ex­press­ing skepticism about the lo­cal rumor,” they argue. “In­stead, he wisely chose to avoid re­sist­ance by hu­moring the lo­cals... em­bracing the lo­cal rumor and pro­viding vi­sual evid­ence that their source of con­cern had been van­quished.”

Wil­kins and Sen­ter ar­gue that some­one likely cob­bled to­geth­er a fake skel­e­ton. This nat­u­rally found its way in­to some of those closely ob­served de­pic­tions for which Ital­ians had such a flair. In one of these en­grav­ings, the ske­l­e­ton ap­pears, prop­erly perched on a charm­ing ba­roque ped­es­tal.

All that re­mained was for Wil­kins and Sen­ter to fig­ure out just what went in­to this “skel­e­ton.” In­ter­est­ingly “the en­grav­ing is de­tailed enough to test” the view that it’s a real pter­o­saur, the re­search­ers wrote.

The con­clu­sions from their analysis are cut­ting.

“The skull of Mey­er’s drag­on is that of a do­mes­tic dog,” they write. “The man­di­ble is that of a sec­ond, smaller do­mes­tic dog. The 'hindlimb' is the fore­limb of a bear. The ribs are from a large fish. Os­ten­si­ble skin hides the junc­tions be­tween the parts of dif­fer­ent an­i­mals. The tail is a sculpted fake. The wings are fake and lack di­ag­nos­tic traits of bat wings and pter­o­saur wings. No part of the ske­l­e­ton re­sem­bles its coun­ter­part in pter­o­saurs.”

“This piece of young-Earth crea­t­ion­ist ‘ev­i­dence’ there­fore now joins the ranks of oth­er dis­cred­ited ‘ev­i­dence’ for hu­man-pter­o­saur coex­ist­ence and against the ex­ist­ence of the pas­sage of mil­lions of years,” Wil­kins and Sen­ter add. “Also, a three-century-old hoax is fi­nally un­veiled, the mys­tery of its con­struc­tion is solved, and an in­ter­est­ing and bi­zarre ep­i­sode in Ren­ais­sance Ital­ian histo­ry is elucidat­ed.”

Skep­ti­cism over the drag­on yarn is far from new. The con­tem­po­rary Ger­man au­thor George Kirch­meyer re­counts that the “fly­ing ser­pent” was sup­posedly “killed by a hunt­er af­ter a se­vere and dan­ger­ous strug­gle”; but “this sto­ry, which ap­peared more like some fa­ble than real truth, was a sub­ject of dis­cus­sion among the learn­ed. The cir­cum­stance was de­nied by many, be­lieved by oth­ers, and left in doubt by sev­er­al.”

Two crea­t­ion­ists who have cho­sen to join the be­liev­ers are the au­thors John Go­ertzen and Da­vid Woet­zel, who penned 1998 and 2006 pa­pers on the sub­ject, re­spec­tive­ly.

“This study helps to es­tab­lish the re­cent ex­ist­ence of rham­phorhyn­choid pter­o­saurs; an­i­mals that main­stream sci­ence be­lieves be­came ex­tinct about 140 mil­lion years ago,” Go­ertzen wrote in his pa­per, which ap­peared in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Fourth In­terna­t­ional Con­fer­ence on Crea­t­ion.

Crea­t­ion­ists claim that the Bi­ble proves Earth is only a few thou­sand years old. Thus things like di­no­saurs, which died out 65 mil­lion years ago, pose a prob­lem for crea­t­ion­ists.

Woet­zel did not re­spond to an e­mail sent through his web­site re­quest­ing com­ment.

Go­ertzen could not be lo­cat­ed via e­mail or tel­e­phone, with none of his sev­er­al pa­pers on­line pro­vid­ing con­tact in­forma­t­ion. How­ev­er, his 1998 pa­per on the drag­on ar­gued that the Ital­ian drag­on tale was not the only piece of ev­i­dence for its re­cent ex­ist­ence.

“The re­mark­a­ble thing about this an­i­mal is that it was de­picted in sev­er­al cul­tures of an­ti­qu­ity. Ar­ti­facts iden­ti­fied with this in­ter­est­ing pter­o­saur spe­cies in­clude Roman-Alex­and­rian coins, an Ara­bia-Phil­istia coin, a French wood carv­ing, a Ger­man stat­ue and coin, sev­er­al Mid­dle Ages pic­ture maps, and an en­light­en­ing sketch of a mount­ed an­i­mal in Rome.”

* * *

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A “dragon” thought to have turned up outside Rome in the 1600s was killed once, or even twice, in the local lore of its day. It then lay forgotten for three centuries—before taking on yet a new life, in the minds of some creationists who saw in the tale compelling evidence for their beliefs. Two biologists from Fayetteville State University in North Carolina have now decided to slay the beast once and for all, by doing some sleuthing to confirm what many Italians already suspected way back then. The dragon was a hoax, they conclude, its existence based on a composite of various animal bones, not too unlike the famous Piltdown Man, a forged “early human” consisting of the lower jawbone of an orangutan combined with a human skull exposed in 1953. The dragon story as transmitted through old documents has delighted some creationists because they cite the monster—engravings from the time include a detailed skeletal view—as proof that contrary to mainstream science, a flying, reptilian cousin of the dinosaurs lived just recently. But the tale captivated Italians long before arguments over evolution. The story brings us back to about the time when the architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini was rebuilding the famous square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, with its celebrated colonnade. A couple of decades after that project, rumors of the dragon cropped up in connection with another, less famous construction nearby. Actually, one published version of the dragon tale actually dated its “death” to the middle of the St. Peter’s Square project, in 1660. Yet material in another book suggests that rumors of its sighting circulated about 1691, in the swamps outside Rome where a dike was under construction. Whichever version might accurately reflect the “real” rumor, the latter book is the one with the engravings. This book, by an engineer involved with the dike, said that the dragon was killed and provides three engraved illustrations. But it said little else on the subject, except to mention that the beast was “was recovered in the hands of the engineer” himself, one Cornelius Meyer. The book is mostly about dike construction projects around Rome. Details on the bizarre reptilian tale are foggy. But the two biologists, Pondanesa D. Wilkins and Phil Senter, speculate, based on the documentation, that a dragon rumor became an obstacle to a dike construction in 1691. Locals or workers might have balked at the project, believing a dragon was on the loose in the area, perhaps one that was angry over the disturbance of its home. The beast was perhaps viewed as a resurrection of the same monster written elsewhere to have died in 1660, also in the Rome area. In any case, the biologists propose that Meyer’s published “evidence” of the death including the engravings might have been part of a campaign to finally quell the rumors and keep the project afloat. Wilkins and Senter argue that someone likely cobbled together a fake skeleton. This naturally found its way into some of those closely observed depictions for which Italians had such a flair, where the skeleton appears properly perched on a charming baroque pedestal. All that remained was for Wilkins and Senter to figure out just what went into this “skeleton.” Interestingly “the engraving is detailed enough to test” the view that it’s a real pterosaur, the researchers wrote in a report on their findings. The paper appears in the May-August issue of the online research journal Palaeontologia Electronica. The conclusions are cutting. “The skull of Meyer’s dragon is that of a domestic dog,” they write. “The mandible is that of a second, smaller domestic dog. The “hindlimb” is the forelimb of a bear. The ribs are from a large fish. Ostensible skin hides the junctions between the parts of different animals. The tail is a sculpted fake. The wings are fake and lack diagnostic traits of bat wings and pterosaur wings. No part of the skeleton resembles its counterpart in pterosaurs.” “This piece of young-Earth creationist ‘evidence’ therefore now joins the ranks of other discredited ‘evidence’ for human-pterosaur coexistence and against the existence of the passage of millions of years,” Wilkins and Senter add. “Also, a three-century-old hoax is finally unveiled, the mystery of its construction is solved, and an interesting and bizarre episode in Renaissance Italian history is elucidated.” Skepticism over the dragon yarn is far from new. The contemporary German author George Kirchmeyer recounts that the “flying serpent” was supposedly “killed by a hunter after a severe and dangerous struggle”; but “this story, which appeared more like some fable than real truth, was a subject of discussion among the learned. The circumstance was denied by many, believed by others, and left in doubt by several.” Two creationists who have chosen to join the believers are the authors John Goertzen and David Woetzel, who penned 1998 and 2006 papers on the subject, respectively. “This study helps to establish the recent existence of rhamphorhynchoid pterosaurs; animals that mainstream science believes became extinct about 140 million years ago,” Goertzen wrote in his paper, which appeared in the Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Creationism. Creationists claim that the Bible proves Earth is only a few thousand years old. Thus things like dinosaurs, which died out 65 million years ago, pose a problem for creationists. Woetzel did not respond to an email sent through his website requesting comment. Goertzen could not be located via email or telephone, with none of his several papers online providing contact information. However, his 1998 paper on the dragon argued that the Italian dragon tale was not the only piece of evidence for its recent existence. “The remarkable thing about this animal is that it was depicted in several cultures of antiquity. Artifacts identified with this interesting pterosaur species include Roman-Alexandrian coins, an Arabia-Philistia coin, a French wood carving, a German statue and coin, several Middle Ages picture maps, and an enlightening sketch of a mounted animal in Rome.”