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Short Report on Mythology and Zoology


    Man has always lived with animals, and sought to understand them.  Early cave paintings from before the Ice Age depict antelopes, bison, giraffes, and other animals, some of which are now extinct. Ancient Egyptians were fascinated by animals and treated them with religious reverence.  It was not until Aristotle (382-322 BC) created his History of Animals that zoology became a science.  In his work, he collected all the known facts about approximately 500 animals, and devised the first known classification system.  Aristotleís system:

  • Animals with blood

        1.    4-footed animals that bear their young

        2.    4-footed animals that lay eggs

        3.    Birds

        4.    Fish

  • Animals without blood

        1.    Mollusks

        2.    Crabs

        3.    Insects


    Other Greek writers such as Ctesias and Herodotus also contributed to the knowledge of animals in their writings.

     In Roman times, the main writer about natural history was Pliny the Elder (23/24 Ė 79 AD) who was a cavalry colonel and a biologist.  He wrote a 37-part book called Historia Naturalis, in which he listed      

    After the fall of the Roman Empire, Christianity dominated the culture of western civilization.  There was a focus on the Bible and the afterlife, rather than on science and the secular world.  Nevertheless, a book called the Physiologus became extremely widespread, second only to the Bible in popularity. It was written in Greek by an unknown source probably around 200-300 AD in Egypt, and listed 49 separate animals, some of them fictional.  It was circulated as a manuscript, added to, and translated into most of the languages of the time, so there were many different versions of the book.   It was used as a teaching companion for the Bible, and the characteristics of the animals in it usually had a metaphorical significance. Many of the animals in it became popular subjects for medieval art.  Because some of the source material was from the Bible, it was difficult for anyone to doubt it.  For example, unicorns are mentioned in the Bible, so their existence could not be questioned.  The Physiologus, along with the Bible and the works of Aristotle and Pliny, was the source of many medieval bestiaries, in which stories about fictional creatures were widely spread. The Physilogus was widely used for more than a thousand years, with the hand written copies being made up to 1724.

     Stories of fictional beasts were added to as Europeans began to explore the world.  The travel stories of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville told about strange beasts in Africa, India and Asia. 

     In the 1400ís though, universities began to form, and there was a renewed interest in science and knowledge as the Renaissance began.  Leonardo da Vinci contributed by conducting autopsies on humans and serious biology, and the discovery of the microscope in the 1500ís contributed a lot to the study of biology.  In 1555, Conrad Gesner wrote the first of a series of several books called Historia Animalum, which became the new standard for the next two hundred years. During this time there were also number of books about specialized topics, such as birds, fish, and others.  Gesner, and other writers like Aldrovandus and Sir Thomas Browne began to subject biology and zoology to scientific scrutiny.

    As the amount of knowledge grew quickly, it was necessary to develop a system classification system. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) created a classification system that used two Latin names- the species, and the genus.  This is the system that is still used today.  But it still took many years for scientists to understand how systems of biology and zoology worked.  The next turning point for zoology came in the 1860ís, when Charles Darwin  proposed his theory of evolution.

     Paleontology is a newer science than zoology.  Some ancient Greek writers believed that fossils were from prehistoric creatures, but Aristotle thought they were merely formed by a mud slide.  For hundreds of years, nobody understood fossils, and thought they were freaks of nature.  Paleontology did not become a science until the early 1800ís when George Cuvier founded comparative anatomy.  This science studied the development, functions, and structure of internal organs, and allowed scientists to identify and understand fossilized remains.

     Despite the significant progress of science, it is still difficult to prove conclusively that some creatures do not exist.  Cryptozoologists believe that there are still undiscovered creatures out there, such as a Loch Ness monster and a Yeti.  There have been discoveries of animals  that were unknown, or though to be extinct.  Often cited as an example is the coelocanth, which was thought to have become extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, until one was caught by fishermen in 1938 (and many since.)



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