February 1, 2011
In 1999, construction workers creating a highway from Tibet’s Bangda Airport to Changdu County uncovered a set of enormous tracks. They had been left more than 160 million years ago by a large sauropod dinosaur, but the local Tibetan people had other interpretations. Some believed that the tracks had been left by the “Deity of the Mountains,” scared away by the noise of the construction, while others asserted that the tracks were left by King Gesar, the legendary star of one of the world’s longest epic poems.
This was not the first time that fossils have been mistaken for the signs of gods, monsters, and heroes. Thanks to the work of historians such as Adrienne Mayor, we now know that fossils have been inspiring myths and legends for centuries. It has only been very recently, since the 17th century, that we have recognized what they truly are. What makes the case of the Tibet tracks unusual, however, is that the myths surrounding their origin are entirely new and sprang up as soon as the tracks were discovered. Given the shape of at least two of the traces, it isn’t difficult to see how they were interpreted as the footsteps of a giant human.
The details of the tracks have just been reported by Xing Li-da, Jerald Harris and Philip Currie in the Geological Bulletin of China. Arrayed on part of a cliff face tilted almost perpendicular to the ground, the slab contains multiple footprints from at least three different trackways, all left by sauropod dinosaurs. Among them are two sets of front- and hind-foot impressions that were close enough together to make the shape of a large human-type foot. Close inspection shows that these particular traces were made by the hindfoot coming down close to where the front foot had lifted up, but it is easy to see how they could have been mistaken for something else. (Even naturalists have made this sort of mistake. In the 1880s, some naturalists mistook the footprints of a giant ground sloth found in Nevada for those of an immense, sandal-wearing human.)
Exactly what species of dinosaur left the track is unknown. Early and Middle Jurassic trackways are rare, and there are no corresponding body fossils to identify the dinosaur. Based on the width of the trackways, though, the paleontologists propose that the tracks were left by a titanosauriform dinosaur—a variety of sauropod known for leaving wide-gauge trackways. This identification of the tracks has not dissuaded the local people for leaving colorful scarves at the site as friendship offerings, though. In an article about the find in the People’s Daily, lead author Xing reported that some worshipers at the site are now paying homage to a dinosaur god. The modern mythology surrounding the tracks remains.
Xing, Li-da; Harris, Jerald; Currie, Philip. (2011). First record of dinosaur trackway from Tibet, China Geological Bulletin of China, 30 (1), 173-178
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