1651In the 1570's, a Spanish physician named Francisco Hernandez was tasked to travel through Mexico and document the plants and animals for the region with the intent of publishing a tome with this information. His trip was funded and directed by King Phillip II, whom Hernandez was the physician for. King Phillip II was intent on expanding Spanish influence on scientific matters in the world by directing the first European scientific exploration of the "New World". Hernandez ended up traveling through Mexico for three years with the help of the local Aztecs, constantly cataloging plants and animal species. He eventually spent a small fortune but the trip was considered a success with a boat load of specimens brought back to Spain.
The Mexican Dragon
The Mexican Dragon
|Dragon illustration from the Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (1651) by Francisco Hernandez [Page 816].|
Unfortunately, by the time of Hernandez's death in 1587, the tome wasn't even close to being published. Still wanting to make a profit on this knowledge, King Phillip II tasked another court doctor to finish the publication. Eventually, this new doctor and King Phillip II both passed away without making much headway. Part of the issue was that Hernandez's notes were confusing and jumbled up, adding to the difficulty in organizing them, especially for anyone who wasn't on the trip in the first place. He also often used the local name for species of plants and animals, not knowing how they related to European plants and animals.
In 1603, some of his notes were eventually discovered by Federico Cesi, a member of a high-class Italian family. Being fascinated with the papers, Cesi spent a small fortune obtaining all of the scattered Hernandez papers that he could find. He then tasked himself and his friends, which included a young Galileo, to organizing and eventually publish this tome. Years went by and all of Cesi's friends who were working on the publication eventually passed away, except for one, Francesco Stelluti. Stelluti was finally able to bring the final document to publication in 1651, eighty years after Hernandez initially set out to the New World. The finalized work was entitled Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (New Plants, Animals, and Minerals Mexican History).
With so many people touching this manuscript from the time of Hernandez's journey until final publication it is impossible to know which illustrations were original to the author and which were added later. The illustration itself also looks like it was pieced together from several different animals with the head and body of a snake, and the scaled wings unlike anything that I am aware of. I have seen people claim that this illustration, or others like it, is evidence of pterosaurs still in existence, however the body structure and wing plans are nothing like any pterosaur that I aware of. The body structure however does resemble previous dragon illustrations throughout the history of the middle ages in Europe. Specifically like the dragons from Topsell's The History of Four-footed Beasts and The History of Serpents. This strong similarity lends credence that this dragon is completely made up, probably by one of Cesi's crew of workers.
Hernandez, F., 1651, Dracunculus monoceros, Nova plantarum, animalium et mineralium Mexicanorum historia (A New Natural History of the Plants, Animals and Minerals of Mexico): Rome, p. 816-828.