Unlike other mythological creatures, the existence of dragons will always intrigue scientists, mainly because no one has been able to prove that they, in fact, never existed.
Let’s just start assuming that we all agree that dragons belong to mythology and fiction and that there’s no way they actually existed. For years, people have devoted themselves to proving the existence of these fearsome creatures that shaped our popular belief. People believed paleontology would finally give a definite answer to the existence of dragons. However, there hasn't been a single fossil to support this hypothesis. We've seen them everywhere, in literature, film, television, comics, art, and many other mediums. Dragons have been part of our popular culture for thousands and thousands of years, and even when we’ve come to accept that they do not exist, we’re still intrigued by them. But how do you explain that so many cultures in different parts of the world, with no apparent communication between each other, have depicted pretty much the same creature?
That’s the particular mystery with dragons when compared to other mythological creatures. The fact that they have appeared in so many cultures (being the Sumerians the first to depict them in 5000 B.C.) is what makes many believe that they must have existed. For instance, during the seventeenth-century scientists believed in something called “spermatick principle”. This theory stated that life was formed actually in the sperm and that eggs were only a source of food and shelter. According to this principle, there was a chance that sperms, when mixed, would create monstrous creatures like dragons, which were seen as a combination of birds, snakes, and bats. However, this has been absolutely debunked, since each species has its own genome and they can’t really be mixed.
As scientific advancements became more rational, new and believable theories regarding the existence of dragons started to appear. For instance, the Austrian paleontologist Othenio Abel firmly believed that the reason why so many cultures had imagined a creature with those particular features was linked to the skulls of different mammals. According to him, both the shape and the nostrils of so many mammals resemble common depictions of dragons. To support his theory, he resorted to some of the most popular legends and folktales. In most of them, these creatures are found in caves or lairs. He showed that some mammals, like bears or felines inhabit those spaces, so it's most likely to find their skulls there, which resemble the descriptions of dragons. That’s one step closer to understanding the phenomenon of dragons, but there’s actually a recent theory that's way more convincing.
In 2001, anthropologist David E. Jones shed new light on why ancient societies had developed a belief in dragons, and his hypothesis conducted him to a very particular species of monkeys that still live in the African savannah, known as vervet monkeys. So, what’s the connection? Well, these creatures have a fantastic alarm system that differentiates each of their most common predators. Being in constant threat by eagles, felines, and snakes, they developed an alarm call for each of them to warn their pack. Studying these creatures, he determined that this is a particular trait that can be found in other types of apes (though not as spectacularly as it happens with these species), so it could be possible that at some point in the evolutionary process, these calls were mixed and passed into our human ancestors. Following Jung’s concept of collective fear, Jones proposed that this mixed fear of predators eventually transformed into a monstrous creature, so rather than being a cultural representation, dragons are the result of the evolution of our unconscious mind.
This sounds quite logical if you ask me, and even when there’s no way to actually prove it, this is the closest we’ve come to unveiling the mystery of dragons. Of course, there are still theories based on the evolution theory that link these creatures to other types of reptiles (even dinosaurs), but as we mentioned, there isn’t any proof backing the premise that dragons are in fact the missing link in the evolutionary process of reptiles. The conclusion for many scientists is that, although there are many creatures that do have the main features of dragons (“fire-breathing” beetles, huge winged reptiles in the Mesozoic era, birds with a fascination for shiny objects, among others), they do not belong to the same family, so there’s no way to link them to a common ancestor in the evolutionary chain. So, for that matter, Jones’ theory is by far the closest and most realistic one out there.
This is what science has to say about these mysteries: