Unearthing Unexpected Fossil Usage in Ancient Medicine (Part 1): Ogre Balms to Dragon Tongues
Whenever a person thinks of fossils today, lively images of dinosaurs or other primordial beasts emerge within one's mind. Indeed, most people nowadays would connect fossils with museums, excavation digs, or research laboratories. However, people have viewed fossils very differently in the past; usually through wilder... more phantasmic interpretations.
The Power of Mythical Beasts, Saints, Gods, and Demons
Long before people truly understood the details on dinosaurs or other extinct life - which modern science has properly identified - the ancients would imagine fossils to be the bones of legendary creatures, holy saints, demons, or even the gods themselves. Most people from past civilizations lived alongside predominant traditional or mystical influences, and have thus viewed prehistoric remnants through the eyes of fantasy. Despite the drastically different perspectives between ancient and modern mentalities, both groups of people have gazed upon fossils with the very same breathtaking awe.
Similar to how modern people would imagine lost exotic worlds teeming with primal lifeforms after looking at fossils, those living in antiquity would conjure up visions of a mythical era when dragons, giants, and deities thrived amongst mortals. What's more is that the ancients would be so immensely inspired by fossils of so-called dragons or deities that they even went as far as believing their bones contained hidden special powers. Examples of said powers included the ability to restore youth, heighten sexual performance, grant longevity, cure ailments, and countless other terrific claims. In short, fossils of supposed magical creatures were used as ancient medicinal drugs.
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Dinosaur bones were used as ancient ‘magical’ drugs. (Legendz Collective)
Ogre Bones Made into Musculoskeletal Cures
Different world cultures frequently mistook fossils for petrified parts of magical beasts or entities, and humans have used fossilized bones to treat diseases according to their corresponding beliefs. Fossils were often crushed to fine powder, or in some cases they would be brewed together with potent medicinal herbs for lengthy hours in preparation of decoctions or tonics. For instance, Native American tribes such as the Comanches had a tradition of grinding or boiling fossilized bones they believed belonged to dark predatory ogres called the Mu Pitz .
The Comanches of the Great Plains believed that the Mu Pitz were bogeyman-like fiends that prowled the North American wilderness; usually appearing in the form of ominous hairy Sasquatch spirits or man-eating humanoid owls. Adults and children alike held the Mu Pitz with both sheer dread and reverence, as they viewed it to be a personification of Nature's dangerous aspects that keeps the environment in balance. However, whenever a Mu Pitz died, leaving its bones across the land for numerous years, the tribal healers would gather the fossilized remains from the ground and convert those bones into therapeutic compounds such as powders, balms, or poultices to aid patients of their tribe. Healers would then use these Mu Pitz-made medicines for the treatment of sprains, fractures, and related diseases of the musculoskeletal system. Sometimes boiled Mu Pitz compounds would even be taken by healthy individuals as dietary supplements for further strengthening their own bones or joints.
An example of balm. Mu Pitz balm was believed to help the musculoskeletal system. (Legendz Collective)
All this time, however, bones of the man-eating Mu Pitz were in fact fossil fragments of plant-feeding mammoths and other Ice Age megafauna that once roamed North America in droves during the distant past. Much of the healing ogre bones that the Comanche used were mere misidentified mammoth teeth.
The mythical bones of hairy Sasquatch spirits or man-eating humanoid owls were actually the remains of Ice Age megafauna. (Legendz Collective)
Dragon Tongues that Invite Prosperity and Ward off Misfortune
Meanwhile across the Atlantic, other cultures such as those in the Mediterranean have also used fossilized teeth not only as medicine but also as amulets to ward off misfortune while inviting prosperity simultaneously. One group of fossil specimens which were used as both amulet and medicine are the “ glossopetrae”, otherwise called “ Lingue di Seripi ” in the Mediterranean region. Glossopetrae are better known by their English term “ dragon tongues ”.
True to its name, glossopetrae were thought to be remains of sharp-tipped tongues from long-dead dragons or serpents during classical antiquity. Locals in Malta believed glossopetrae originated from the tongues of venomous serpents that St. Paul transformed to stone - symbolizing his triumph of good over evil. Meanwhile, ancient Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder (author of Naturalis Historia – an ancestor of modern encyclopedias) somehow believed glossopetrae originated from space; he thought dragon tongues rained from the heavens during lapses of lunar eclipses. In actuality, glossopetrae have their beginnings from the oceans instead of the heavens, and in sharks rather than serpentine dragons.
Most ancients barely recognized glossopetrae as sharks' teeth, and the common belief that these fossils were sharp petrified tips of a dragon or serpent's tongue was the norm. Dragons and serpents have symbolic roles in old traditions, and because of this reason the ancients eventually viewed shark teeth as important ingredients for potent antidotes against poisons and snakebites. Furthermore, glossopetrae were handled during divination to foretell the dragon tongue wearer's future.
“Dragon tongues” or fossilized shark teeth have been used as amulets, in divination, and medicine in the Mediterranean. (Legendz Collective)
Megalodon – The Amazing Beast Behind the Giant Teeth
People back then believed giant serpentine dragons once haunted the ancient Mediterranean. Reality, however, brings a more interesting surprise. Jumbo-sized sharks such as the notorious megalodon ruled the primordial Southern European seas with an iron fin. Megalodon was a leviathan – growing 15 meters (49.21 ft.) on average - that dined on whales during lunch at the Miocene period; around the same time the first human ancestors began walking on Earth. 'Twas a titan capable of chomping the main shark villain from the film Jaws like a fish stick. A smaller-sized megalodon tooth can grow as big as a human hand, whereas larger tooth specimens are hefty enough to obliterate turtle shells. Today great white sharks and other smaller species prowl the Mediterranean waters, continuing the legacy of their extinct megashark predecessor.
Megalodon ruled the primordial Southern European seas with an iron fin. (Legendz Collective)
It wasn't until the Renaissance when Italian and English polymaths such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Robert Hooke, John Ray, or Fabio Colonna, and notably Danish geologist-cum-anatomist Nicolaus Steno, emerged to public attention to properly identify glossopetrae with their true marine origins. After Steno received a freshly caught shark's head in Italy from the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the anatomist prepared it for dissection - it was here that he made his breakthrough. His dissection showed him how the head's teeth appear to be in the exact shape to the fabled glossopetrae. After much investigation, Steno concluded that all those dragon tongues the ancients spoke of were in fact misidentified shark teeth.
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The depiction of a shark's head by Nicolaus Steno in his work The Head of a Shark Dissected. ( Public Domain )
The majority of people during antiquity still believed glossopetrae originated from dragons, and other unusual theories regarding fossils persisted at that time; such as fossils sprouting out from the Earth like plants. Eventually, Steno and other freethinkers prevailed by proving that dragon tongues were in truth shark teeth. Renaissance thinkers paved the way for new knowledge which decrees that instead of sprouting from dirt, fossils were once fresh bodies of living animals whose deceased remains have become one with the Earth.
Without the efforts of Renaissance thinkers, much of humanity would still be misinterpreting prehistory, and indeed Earth's history. Their research helped give rise to the advancement of paleontology - whilst also preventing sharks from being confused for dragons.
Speaking of dragons... these legends played crucial roles in the development of understanding dinosaurs from past to present. In Part 2, details on how dinosaur bones interwove with the development of medicine and mythology will be revealed. Part 2 also includes facts on alleged fossils of demons and gods, as well as the sinister side of fossil medicine.
Artwork of a dragon for the Durian-Project of the Blender Foundation. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Fossils were viewed very differently in the past; usually through wilder... more fantastical interpretations. Source: Legendz Collective
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Jones, V.H., 1942. Fossil Bones as Medicine , American Anthropologist, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 162. American Anthropological Association.
Mayor, A., 2007. Fossil Legends of the First Americans . Princeton University Press.
ReefQuest Center for Shark Research, 2017. Glossopetrae and the Birth of Paleontology, [Online]
Richet, P. 2007. A Natural History of Time . University of Chicago Press.
Rosenberg, G.D., 2009. The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment . Geological Society of America.
University of California Museum of Paleontology., 2017. Nicholas Steno (1638-1686) , [Online]
Available at: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/steno.html