A Brief History of the Discovery of Dinosaurs

Dinosaur discovery and its history spans back many centuries and over many different continents. Humans since their beginning of their existence have been discovering fossils and questioning their age, meaning and purpose. Here I will give you a brief timeline of discoveries and the people that made dinosaurs what we know they are today.

The Formative Period (750BC-1800AD)

I realise this period spans a long way but it also encompasses many other periods. During this period, terms such as ‘fossil’, ‘extinction’ and ‘deep time’ were worked out. Clark (1997:211) argues that “the creation and deployment of art…promoted governance through covert control of foundational ideologies.”  People were thinking in a different way and coming up with new ideas.

Xenophanes (c.570 – c.475 BC) was a Greek historian who recognised that fossils were the remains of extinct animals. Xenophanes wrote about two extremes predominating the world: wet and dry (water and earth). These two would alternate between each other and would cause extinction and regeneration (a very difficult concept to grasp, especially when you think about how easy it is to explain the word ‘extinction’). The thought of alternating states and human life perishing and coming back suggests he believed in the principle of causation; another distinctive step that Xenophanes takes from Ancient philosophical traditions to ones based more on scientific examination.


James Hutton (3 June 1726– 26 March 1797) was a Scottish naturalist and geologist who is the creator of the term ‘uniformitarianism’. This is a basic principle of geology which states that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe. Obviously this is now somewhat not always true, especially if we take into consideration the fact that the Earth’s oxygen levels have changed dramatically over deep time, but many still refer to Hutton as ‘The Father of Modern Geology’.

james hutton

Robert Plott (13 December 1640 – 30 April 1696) wrote ‘The Natural History of Oxford-shire’ in 1677 and was the first person to figure out and describe a dinosaur bone. This bone turned out to be a femur of a Megalosaurus. He called it, Scrotum humanum because, well you can guess why. Apart from this Plott believed that most fossils were not remains of living organisms but rather crystallizations of mineral salts with a coincidental zoological form.

robert plotthumanus s

The Pre-Classical Era (1680-1842)

During this period, giant bones were found but their significance was not fully appreciated. For centuries, the Blackfeet Nation had inhabited Montana and Alberta-the same area in which the dinosaur-rich, late Cretaceous Hell Creek and Oldman Formations occur. Dinosaur fossils were known to the Blackfeet who considered them to be the remains of giant, ancestral buffalo. They used these bones in rituals, as they believed it would make them good at hunting. Besides this, they hit on the antiquity, and the organic nature of dinosaur remains, and in comparing them to buffalo showed their sophisticated knowledge of vertebrate anatomy. Referring to dinosaurs as large buffalo was thus good scientific practice in the context of their perception of the natural world.


William Buckland (1784-1856) was a vicar who made a careful analysis of fossil material, including teeth, jaws, and limb bones and in a paper published in 1824, he correctly identified them as deriving from a large, carnivorous fossil reptile, to which he gave the name Megalosaurus. But, he thought this as a lizard rather than a dinosaur. However, this was the first scientifically valid name given to a species of dinosaur.

william buckland

Gideon Mantell (1790-1852) was deeply interested in geology and natural history. He is credited with the discovery of the remains of a large, fossil reptile resembling in some ways the modern iguana, which he named Iguanodon. He also studied the dinosaur’s teeth and surmised that it was herbivorous. It was actually his wife, MaryAnn, who discovered the fossil and provided many of the ink drawings seen in her husband’s paper of the dinosaur. Mantell put a horn on Iguanodon’s nose, which was later discovered to be the creature’s thumb.


Baron Georges Von Cuvier (1769-1832) was a French Palaeontologist who wrote the ‘Laws of Anatomy’ and worked out that pterosaurs can fly. He also proved that extinction was real by studying mastodons and wooly mammoths. These elephant-like animals are not members of the modern elephant species, and therefore represent earlier elephant relatives that no longer exist. This led people to understand that dinosaurs were an extinct group of animals.


The Classical Age (1842-1870)

During this age, dinosaurs were recognised as a unique group of reptiles. This was all because of Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892), who coined the term ‘dinosaur’, meaning ‘terrible lizard’. He was extremely influential in the decades prior to the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. But because he could not accept Darwin’s ideas about evolution, his influence waned considerably after the appearance of Darwin’s great book. Owen was also a major contributor to the study of dinosaurs during the 1830’s, 40’s and 50’s, and published many important papers on these animals during this period. He proposed the idea that dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded (like mammals and birds) rather than cold-blooded like other reptiles.

richard owen

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins teamed up with Owen to sculpt the life-size models of dinosaurs then known to exist. Hawkins sculpted life size models following Owen’s directions. It was inside Hawkins’ “Iguanodon” that Owen held his famous dinner meeting. Hawkins’ dinosaurs were also a prime attraction at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1853-54.



The Golden Age (1870-1899)

At this time, dinosaur collecting was the craze and new dinosaurs were discovered in huge numbers. Othniel C. Marsh (1831-1899) was the nephew of the fabulously wealthy banker and philanthropist George Peabody. Whilst in Europe, Marsh convinced Peabody to establish at Yale a new natural history museum – today’s Yale Peabody Museum, and to endow a professorship for Marsh at Yale in palaeontology. Marsh’s great contribution to dinosaur palaeontology is that he found dinosaurs on a grand scale, discovering famous dinosaurs such as: Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Ornithomimus, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops.

o marsh


Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) was another force driving dinosaur discovery. Cope thought that groups of species that shared similar developmental patterns could be grouped into more inclusive groups (i.e. genera, families, and so on). He thought that parts of the body most in use would be most likely to become better developed at the expense of other, less used parts, which would explain why, for example, pterosaurs evolved and lost their tails. Marsh and he were also in a race to see who could discover the most dinosaurs; a race which Cope lost. It also resulted in the mess of some dinosaurs being named twice with two different names!


The Baroque Era (1899-1966)

Because this era was filled with wars, cold wars, depression and a European divide, dinosaur collecting and describing was put on hold. And you can understand why; at the time it was far more important to go to war; earn some money or fear the USSR to even think about dinosaurs. Apart from this, there were a few people who continued to write about them such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (22 May 1859 – 7 July 1930) who wrote ‘The Lost World’ in 1912. In this story, a exhibition team discover dinosaurs, pterosaurs and other extinct animals in South America. This flung pterosaurs and dinosaurs into the limelight and pushed them into the eye of the general public.


Arthur Smith Woodward was the head of Palaeontology in 1902 and was better known for his work on fossil fish than dinosaurs. Unfortunately he fell victim to the Piltdown Hoax- bone fragments were presented as the fossilised remains of a previously unknown early human. These fragments consisted of parts of a skull and jawbone, said to have been collected in 1912 from a gravel pit at Piltdown, East Sussex, England. The Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni (“Dawson’s dawn-man”, after the collector Charles Dawson) was given to the specimen. The significance of the specimen remained the subject of controversy until it was exposed in 1953 as a forgery, consisting of the lower jawbone of an orangutan deliberately combined with the skull of a fully developed modern human.


The Dinosaur Renaissance (1966-Present)

I’m not going to go into great depth about this period because it is the one most people know about. Since the Baroque Era, dinosaurs have been in pop culture. We have children’s’ books, TV shows and films staring dinosaurs and themes such as what it would be like if they walked among us. There are constant documentaries that we can watch about dinosaurs, right from the very beginning, to their demise at the Cretaceous Extinction, and how all modern day birds evolved from them. New discoveries are cropping up all the time from countries such as Mongolia and China, wielding new fossils almost every day. We do truly live in the era of dinosaur discovery.


A. J. Turner, ‘Plot, Robert (bap. 1640, d. 1696)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press

Keith, A. (1914) “The Significance of the Skull at Piltdown”, Bedrock 2 435:453.

McKirahan, Richard D. “Xenophanes of Colophon. Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994. 65. Print.

Robert Plot: A brief biography of this important geologist’s life and work.”. Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Retrieved 4 June 2013.

University of Edinburgh. “Millennial Plaques: James Hutton”. (Hutton’s Millennial Plaque, which reads, “In honour of James Hutton 1726-1797 Geologist, chemist, naturalist, father of modern geology, alumnus of the University,” is located at the main entrance of the Grant Institute).












About danniteboul

Palaeobiologist at the University of Portsmouth- Undergrad 20 years old Follow: @danniteboul
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5 Responses to A Brief History of the Discovery of Dinosaurs

  1. Teresa Teboul, says:

    I have found all of your blogs have been very informative and interesting. I look forward to them.Thank you.

  2. U . Blomfield says:

    Very interesting,your reasoning shows a keen mind. Do your superiors at Uni agree ?

  3. Pingback: Darwin, first writings on dinosaurs, online | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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