Colonial Americans understood neither the concept of geological time nor the actual process by which fossils were created. Their society was one that still looked largely to scripture for explanations of much of the surrounding natural world. For instance, the fossil fish and seashells found at quarries and construction excavations in the 1700s were widely believed to be residue from the great flood survived by Noah.
Paleontology -- the scientific study of fossils -- emerged in the years after the American revolution as all the sciences began evolving into more objective investigative disciplines that pursued their research independently of religious dogma.
The First Hints
Throughout the early 1800s, various individuals in Europe and North America documented finds of peculiar fossilized bones unlike those of any living animal. These finds were small -- a metatarsal fragment scooped up here; a vertebra pried from the rock there; a few odd teeth sieved from loose gravel further on; and so forth. Nevertheless, anatomists of the era noted striking similarities between the mysterious bones and those of living species of lizards such as iguanas. One major difference between the two was size. Some of the fossil bones and teeth were more than a hundred times larger than those of living animals.
In 1841, Dr. Richard Owen, a leading British authority on anatomy, completed a review of all that was known about such strange bones. He published a report concluding that the individual bones were from animals that had all been members of a group of large reptiles that had completely died out in some past age. Because of their apparent size, as well as their fangs and claws, Owen called them by a combination of the Greek words for "terrible lizards" -- dino saurs. But neither Owen nor anyone else could say what such animals would have actually looked like because no one had found enough bones from a single animal to reconstruct its anatomy.
The very idea -- that previously unknown species of monstrously large reptiles could have existed outside of the events documented in the Bible -- was a highly controversial one. It also exerted a deliciously exotic pull on the imaginations of nineteenth-century scientists and laymen alike.
It became fashionable among the members of the new fossil hunting set to mix tantalizing handfuls of fossil bone bits with equal amounts of speculation and populist whimsy to conjure up visions of how such beasts might have looked. Above (left) is an illustration from the 1851 Iconographic Encyclopedia of Science, one of the most renowned reference books of the era. It shows the latest "knowledge" available about the structure of dinosaurs ten years after Dr. Owen coined the term. Note the figure is essentially a formless, serpentine string of vertebrae topped with a crocodile-like skull. There is no clear anatomical structure. Meanwhile, many scientific and ecclesiastic authorities rejected all such theories about so-called dinosaurs as wild fantasy.
The First Real Proof of Dinosaur Existence
Eight years after this reference book was published the first full skeletal form of a real dinosaur -- Hadrosaurus foulkii -- was unearthed in Haddonfield, New Jersey. Taller than a house, it had the pelvic structure of a bird, the tail of a lizard and, incredibly, it walked upright on two legs, foraging with arm-like forelimbs.
That nearly-complete skeleton was like a lightning bolt in the scientific community, cutting through decades of murky speculation, skepticism and debate to dramatically confirm a historical reality so new and vast and meaningful, it took the breath away.
An Epochal Scientific Event
This Haddonfield skeleton proved dinosaurs were for real. It was the find that changed paleontology from a quaint Victorian gentleman's hobby to a mainstream scientific activity commanding world attention.