Phoenix tracks: Edmonton palaeontologist retraces the stone footsteps of dinosaurs

An Edmonton palaeontologist is relying on ancient folklore to retrace the stone footprints of giant dinosaurs.

Could ancient myths help modern-day researchers make new dinosaur discoveries?

Tyrannosaurus Rex tracks discovered in ancient China were misinterpreted as those of a massive, mythological bird.

An Edmonton paleontologist is relying on ancient folklore to retrace the stone footprints of giant dinosaurs.

Scott Persons with the University of Alberta is helping Lida Xing of the China University of Geosciences explore old and contemporary folklore to uncover possible sites where dinosaur footprints might be found.

In ancient China, the discovery of these prehistoric tracks mystified the population and ingrained belief in the phoenix, a giant supernatural bird.

'Humongous chicken scratch'

"The foot of a large carnivorous dinosaur like T. rex has three long forward-pointing toes, just like a bird's," Persons said in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

"The tracks of such dinosaurs look, for all the world, like a humongous chicken scratch so, they were thought to be made by a phoenix."

The phoenix, a divine mythological beast, was said to live only in places blessed with the utmost peace, prosperity and happiness. The track sites often became places of worship.

"There are a number cases where wonderfully preserved dinosaur footprints —  multiple tracks — had been found and shrines were actually erected nearby," Persons said.

"The tracks themselves were considered objects of great reverence."
Scott Persons, a University of Alberta palaeontologist, is exploring the link between myths and real-life fossil sites. (Amanda Kelley)

In China, local folklore about dinosaur footprints is preserved in oral traditions which persist today.

These stories are steeped with the supernatural, but they contain legitimate clues on the possible location of forgotten track sites and can serve as a guide for paleontologists in East Asia, leading them to identify tracks unknown to science, Persons said.

Their work has already hit pay dirt.

This summer, Xing made a massive discovery near a remote village on the coast of China's Yellow Sea.

A plot the size of a football field holds hundreds, possibly a thousand, well-preserved footprints from dinosaurs of various sizes and ages, representing at least seven species.

Persons said it's fascinating to realize just how accurate the ancient interpretation of the imprints were.

"What I really, really love about that example is that it's a case where ancient people got it right," Person said.

"They looked at the anatomy and they made the right connection. We understand today that birds are dinosaurs, it just took modern day paleontology several centuries to catch up."

Dragon bones 

The phoenix myths — and the real stone footprints that led to them — are examples of how the old world shaped our modern day fascination with all things supernatural, said Persons.

The discovery of dinosaur fossils, although rare in ancient times, inspired many legends about mythical beasts which still survive today.

As far back as the 4th century BC, Chinese dinosaur bones were found and thought to belong to dragons.

The fire-breathing lizards were already prominent creatures in Chinese mythology, so it's natural that the bones would be interpreted that way, said Persons.

According to the Smithsonian, Chang Qu, a Chinese historian from the 4th century BC, mislabeled such a fossil in what is now Sichuan Province.

Of monsters and men 

Persons will be sharing some of his insights on the relationship between monsters and real-life beasts, both extinct and living, when the University of Alberta hosts its annual Harry Potter-inspired School of Witchcraft and Wizardry lecture series on Saturday Oct 28.

At a basic level, our fear of monsters — and much of the surviving folklore about them —  is rooted in prehistory, said Persons.

For centuries, dread, trepidation and a desire to understand the world's most fearsome predators, were basic survival instincts.

"There were sabre-toothed cats, dire wolves, and cave bears all going bump in the night," Persons said.

"So, being scared of what might be hidden in dark places, or feeling the need to look over your shoulder as you stroll through the woods were, until very recently, sound and adaptive survival instincts."

Listen to Radio Active with host Portia Clark, weekday afternoons at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the morning crew on Twitter @CBCRadioActive