March 29, 2014

The History of History

How art breathing life into long dead bones helps to drag history back into the present.

Sergey Krasovskiy's beautiful drawing of the recently discovered European "tyrannosaurus", torvosaurus gurneyi, leaps off the page in such a way that it almost appears to bring it back to life.

Torvosauruses are actually some 80 million years older than T. Rex and, being part of the Megalosauridae family, are only distantly related to the tyrannosauridae through some of the very first theropods. However, like T. Rex and many other theropods, torvosaurus too was a fearsome looking carnivorous predator. When it was active in the late Jurassic, a particularly brave one might have tried to make a meal out of stegosaurus. By the time T. Rex was stalking Triceratops in the upper cretaceous period, torvosaurus' bones had already been turned to stone.

We've come a long way since ancient times in which people thought that the massive bones they uncovered had once belonged to giants and dragons. Even in the 17th century most people with an interest in what we would now call paleontology were still trying to assemble mythical creatures like unicorns out of a variety of completely different animal skeletons from all over the world. They tended to mix and match parts as they saw fit, more concerned with showmanship than historic truth. It wasn't until the end of the 18th century and the development of comparative anatomy that paleontology started getting serious.

We owe this mostly to Georges Cuvier (1769 -1832) who not only pointed out that comparing between anatomies can tell us particulars about any given skeleton but who also took it upon himself to reapply flesh and fur to said skeletons in his drawings. Although his images too shocked and dazzled the crowd, he really cared about their veracity and always tried to depict them as true to life as possible. What he started gave rise to an explosion of interest in the study of ancient life and when only 10 years after his death Richard Owen coined the term "dinosaurs", and the bones of giants were finally recognized for what they truly were, there was no going back. A revolution in our understanding of both the history of life and earth itself swept across our 4,5 billion planet like a tidal wave and knocked the people who had previously thought the earth to be only a few millions years old off their feet.

The 19th and 20th century were a golden age for both geology and paleontology. Thanks to the construction of museums and the increasingly wide circulation of various works of art that depicted dinosaurs and prehistoric life, the reality of our ancient earth started to enter the minds of everyday people. The easy access to such information sparked even greater interest in the fields and helped ensure a constant influx of new talent. As a result these two centuries saw an extremely rapid accumulation of knowledge.

The power of art is not to be underestimated. Indeed, although it helped to birth the field of paleontology, it has also held it back. For the longest time dinosaurs were thought of as slow elephantine reptiles. In no small part thanks to how they were depicted by Richard Owen in the 1850s. He, with what must have been a stunning exhibition in the then to South London relocated Crystal Palace, made an enormous impact on people's perception of dinosaurs. It didn't take long for the progress in paleontology to make these early first models laughably outdated but by then the damage had been done. It would take the public almost an entire century, until the 1960s, to catch up with the paleontology of the late 1800s. People had trouble letting go of the pictures that had entrenched themselves so deeply in popular culture... A situation that is eerily similar to today's with people not wanting the hero/monster of their childhood, the T. Rex "to be turned into a big chicken".

The Posture of Tyrannosaurus rex: Why Do Student Views Lag Behind the Science?

Unfortunately, researchers active in paleontology are not immune to popular thinking. In many ways the thought climate during the turn of the century had been much more fertile for exploring what dinosaurs were really like than the decades that came after. Just before the end of the 19th century, people like Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, were convinced that birds had evolved from small carnivorous dinosaurs but this idea, going against popular thought, did not manage to get any traction. Instead the arrival of early monster movies during the first decades of the 20th century helped to cement the view of dinosaurs as cumbersome and stupid creatures even further. It's during this period that the idea of a dinosaur as something out of date, an evolutionary dead end bound for extinction, entered the public consciousness. Although at the time an undercurrent of both research and paleoart depicting dinosaurs as agile and energetic creatures did exist, it was mostly ignored and not taken seriously.

It wouldn't be until the 60s that views would begin to shift. In a period that is now known as "the dinosaur renaissance" research that couldn't be ignored began to paint a rather different picture of dinosaurs, one more inline with the one we have today. First and foremost the fact that dinosaurs lived on until today as modern day birds really pulled the rug out from under everyone's feet. Suddenly it was no longer clear whether dinosaurs had been slow cold blooded reptiles. The field got hammered with discovery after discovery, like for example the one that uncovered a communal nesting site of maiasaura, that revealed that far from being stupid, certain dinosaurs had displayed remarkable levels of social behavioral intelligence.

The 70s saw an explosion in "new dinosaur" paleoart with many artists defending controversial views and criticizing aspects of more traditional approaches. This proved to be a boon for the field and reinvigorated the debate. Of particular note is Gregory Paul who started depicting certain dinosaurs with feathers and defended the idea in various books. The excavation of the first feathered dinosaur 20 years later in the early 90s goes to show that art really can lead the way. The shift of views from dinosaurs as lizard-like to more bird-like creatures reached the general public in 1993 with the release of Jurassic Park. Even though certain aspects JP itself have now again become outdated, it's done a lot to bring current views of dinosaurs more in line with reality. Hopefully next year's Jurassic World will continue this tradition and for the first time introduce both young and old to deinos pteros sauros or terrible feathered lizards.

Like Monet and van Gogh, artists like Charles Knight, Zdeněk Burian, Rudolph Zallinger, Doug Henderson, Raúl Martín, Mark Hallett, Gregory Paul, John Gurche, Eleanor Kish, ... should be household names! Accompanying this post is a picture album that contains some of the most important historic paleoart as well as a few works from famous modern and contemporary artists. I've also included quite a few personal favorites but please feel free to point me towards yours!

Wiki - Theropoda
Wiki - Tyrannosauridae
Wiki - Megalosauridae
Wiki - Torvosaurus

Wiki - History of paleontology
Wiki - Georges Cuvier
Wiki - Duria Antiquior
Wiki - Crystal Palace Dinosaurs
Wiki - Cultural depictions of dinosaurs
Wiki - Dinosaur renaissance
Wiki - Paleoart

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