When was the first dinosaur bone collected and described?
The fossilized bones of dinosaurs have probably been found throughout human history, but for much of this time people did not realize what they were. Therefore, no records or descriptions were kept until fairly recently. References to fossilized sharks’ teeth and shells are recorded from the European medieval period, but because they believed that no animal or plant made by God could become extinct, they explained them in other ways. For example, many of the fossils were interpreted as the remains of modern species as opposed to ancient, extinct species; others were thought of as merely pebbles that resembled the remains of animal and plant species.
The first recorded description of a dinosaur bone was made in 1676 by Robert Plot (1640–1696), a professor of chemistry at the University of Oxford, England, in his book The Natural History of Oxfordshire. Although he correctly determined that it was a broken piece of a giant bone, Plot did not know the bone came from a dinosaur. Instead, he felt it belonged to a giant man or woman, citing mythical, historical, and biblical sources. In 1763, the same bone fragment was named Scrotum humanum, by R. Brookes, to describe its appearance, but the name never gained wide, or serious, acceptance. Based on Plot’s illustration, modern scientists believe the bone fragment is actually the lower end of a thigh bone from a Megalosaurus, a meat-eating dinosaur from the Middle Jurassic period that roamed the area now known as Oxfordshire.
In 1787, American physician Caspar Wistar (1761–1818) and Timothy Matlack (better known as a statesman and patriot during the American Revolution; 1730–1829) discovered a large fossil bone in the state of New Jersey. Although they reported their finding, it was ignored and unverified; it may have been the first dinosaur bone ever collected in North America.