Did the American Indians See “Winged Dinosaurs”?

Originally published in Creation 24, no 2 (March 2002): 28-32.

In Jurassic Park III, the most exciting part of the movie for me was the sudden introduction of the pteranodons. I was on the edge of my seat as these monstrous bird-like pterosaurs hotly pursued the search team working their way out of the birdcage.

Of course, the standard long-age scenario of our evolution-riddled culture says that such encounters between pterosaurs and man have never happened, because all flying reptiles, along with the dinosaurs, allegedly became extinct some 65 million years before man came on the scene.

However, my research on the Indians of North and South America permits a different conclusion. There are many stories and related lines of evidence suggesting that the American Indians may have a long history of encountering creatures reminiscent of pterosaurs, especially the huge Pteranodon or the even larger Quetzalcoatlus (see aside below). The following stories, all on similar themes (even though they generally have obvious legendary aspects, presumably accumulated through retelling), raise the intriguing possibility of a common basis in historical reality.

American Southwest

While exploring the Sonora Desert on 12 February 1699, Captain Juan Mateo Manje, accompanied by Jesuits Eusebio Francisco Kino and Adamo Gil, was told by the Pima Indians that a giant monster lived in a nearby cave in days past. It was a menace to the Pima because it would fly around and catch as many Indians as it could eat.

There are many stories...suggesting that the American Indians may have a long history of encountering creatures reminiscent of pterosaurs.

One day, after the creature had eaten its fill, some Indians followed it back to its cave. When it was sound asleep they closed the entrance of the cave with wood collected for this occasion; then set it on fire. The creature couldn’t escape and, growling fiercely, died as it was asphyxiated by the flames and smoke.1

The Pima recalled another story of killing a similar creature in the pueblo of Oposura by using the same strategy. We are told the bones of this creature were found during the pacification of Mexico by General Don Hernándo Cortés and were sent to Spain.2

Stories of giant man-eating birds are common among many other Indian tribes of the American Southwest.3 The Yaqui Indians spoke of a giant bird that lived on the hill of Otan Kawi. Every morning it would fly out to capture its human prey. After many deaths, a young boy who lost his family to this bird killed the creature with a bow and arrows.4

In Utah’s San Raphael Swell there is other suggestive evidence for man’s coexistence with pterosaurs. In the Black Dragon Canyon there is a beautiful pictograph of a pterosaur. The Indians of the Swell apparently saw a bird-like creature with enormous wings, a tail, a long neck and beak, and a vertical head crest, which some flying reptiles sported.


One creature in Indian mythology that has long puzzled anthropologists is the thunderbird. Stories of thunderbirds are widespread, extending from Alaska all the way down to South America. Indians attributed thunder and lightning to these birds: the thunder resulted from the flapping of their wings, while bolts of lightning proceeded from their mouths. The impressive size of the thunderbirds meant that during midday flight they would cast strikingly large shadows upon the ground.

The thunderbirds’ description, albeit distorted by time and retelling, so much fits that of pterosaurs that even some evolutionists have conceded on that point: “The thunderbird appears in many Indian tales and Indian art work. Its description is very much like one of the prehistoric flying reptiles that flapped its way through the skies in the days of the dinosaurs.”5

The Sioux Indians tell a story about an experience some of their warriors had with a thunderbird that perfectly fits the description of the pteranodon.

“One day, long long ago, before the white man came to America, a party of Sioux Indian warriors were out hunting. They had left their village far behind. Before they realized it, the group of braves found themselves alone in the bare and rocky badlands of the West.

“Suddenly the sky darkened…. There was a clap of thunder that shook the earth. Looking up in terror, the Indians thought they saw the shape of a giant bird falling to earth….

“The band of hunters traveled over the badlands for days until they came at last to the spot where they thought the giant bird had fallen. Nothing was left of the terrible creature but its bones….

“The Indians shuddered as they looked at the monster’s skeleton. The bird had fallen so hard they thought, that its bones were partly sunk in the rock. But the braves could see that its wingspread was as big as four tall men standing on top of one another. The strange creature had fierce claws on its wings, as well as on its feet, and the beak was long and sharp. There was a long, bony crest on its head. The Indians knew that they had never seen a bird like it before.”6

The Hoh and Quileute of western Washington boast of a thunderbird so large that its wingspan was twice as long as their war canoes. This immense “bird” also had a long beak, great claws, and the alleged ability to pluck some types of whales out of the sea (see aside below). Their mythology, again with obvious elements of exaggeration, attributes the lack of trees in Beaver Prairie to a fight between Whale and Thunderbird:

“One time Thunderbird got a big whale in his talons and carried him to Beaver Prairie and ate him there. The whale fought very hard before he was killed. Thunderbird and Whale fought so very hard that they pulled up the trees by their roots. And no trees have ever grown in that place to this day.”7

The Indians of Vancouver Island say that they feared being in the presence of killer whales when they were plentiful, because of their frail canoes. Knowing thunderbirds to be their enemy, the Indians painted these birds on their bodies and homes to try to secure protection.8


In the Midwest, the Illini Indians of Illinois were once terrorized by a creature they called “Piasa”, which means “bird that devours man”. The Piasa was so large that it could allegedly carry off a full-grown deer. When it finally acquired a taste for human flesh, no Indian was safe. The Illini, as well as other Indian tribes in the area, greatly feared the Piasa and sought to destroy it.

One day the Illini were said to have tricked the Piasa by hiding 20 armed warriors in a designated spot, while the Chief chose to stand in open view as a victim for the Piasa. When the bird was about to pounce upon the Chief, the warriors leapt out and speared it to death.

John Russell was a writer from Illinois who had a great interest in the Piasa. In 1848, Mr Russell explored the caves where this creature was said to live. One cave that was extremely difficult to access yielded evidence for the Illini’s story. Russell stated, “The shape of the cave was irregular, but so far as I could judge the bottom would average twenty by thirty feet. The floor of the cave throughout its whole extent was one mass of human bones.9

So, what kind of creature was the Piasa? High upon a cliff in Alton, Illinois, the Indians made a painting of the Piasa. The painting was destroyed in the 1850s when the face of the cliff collapsed into the river. However, many explorers during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the painting and described it in great detail in their journals. These explorers describe a bird-like creature with many reptilian characteristics.

Mexico and South America

Ica stones

Controversy has raged over the authenticity of the Ica Stones (above) since their discovery in South America. Skeptics have claimed, though without proof, that they are modern forgeries, based on the premise that it is impossible for humans to have seen a living dinosaur. The stones remain a mystery, and reinforce the intriguing possibility that the ancient Amerindians knew of such creatures.

There is similar evidence, suggesting possible coexistence with pterosaurs, among the Indians of Mexico and South America, too. Jose Diaz-Bolio, a Mexican archaeologist, discovered an ancient Mayan relief sculpture in Veracruz, Mexico, of a bird with some features of the Pteranodon. The November 1968 edition of Science Digest published an article on this “evolutionary oddity”, called “Serpent-bird of the Mayans”. The serpent-bird, says Bolio, “is not merely the product of Mayan flights of fancy, but a realistic representation of an animal that lived during the period of the ancient Mayans—1,000 to 5,000 years ago.”10

Two of the most controversial discoveries in the 20th century are the ceramic and clay figurines of Acambaro, Mexico, and the Ica stones of Peru. The reason why there is so much controversy regarding these artifacts is that a large number of them are of the dinosaur type.

The figurines of Acambaro were discovered in the 1940s by a German archaeologist named Waldamar Julsrud. One day, while on the outskirts of Acambaro, Julsrud discovered a figurine protruding half out of the ground. He had one of his employees dig in the area and bring the artifacts back to his home. Not long after, over 33,000 figurines filled nearly every square inch of his mansion.

Acambaro figurines
Acambaro figurines
Acambaro figurines

The controversial Acambaro figurines (above, top and middle) include, among representations of other living animals, creatures which could only be decribed as dinosaurs and similar extinct reptiles. Some are recognizable as known types, others not. The above images depict a creature with a tipped tail, bat-like wings and long head. Though clearly artistically exaggerated, some small “rhamphorhynchoid” pterosaurs such as Dimorphodon (lower image) share some of these features, especially the unique tail.

The Ica stones of Peru were brought to light in the first half of the 20th century as a result of the overflowing of the Ica River. This flood caused the eroding of a mountainside, thus exposing a cave. The cave proved to be a repository of the stones. There are a total of 16,000 stones in existence. 11,000 were amassed by Dr Javier Cabrera, former professor of medicine at the University of Lima, and displayed in his museum.

These artifacts from Mexico and South America depict dinosaurs and flying reptiles of all types and sizes. Unless both discoveries are elaborate hoaxes (always a possibility in this sinful world, as both evolutionists and creationists have been “taken” by manufactured artefacts supporting their particular cause), they demonstrate once more that the American Indian was well acquainted with the pterosaur.

In recent years, missionaries have come out of South America’s interior with stories from Indians of “birds” that are also suggestive of pterosaurs. In Southern Venezuela, about 150 km (100) miles from the Brazilian border, the Yek’wana have a story of a giant man-eating bat. This story has been with them for several centuries. Clint Vernoy, a missionary to these Indians, told me the following:

“The legend is told that a few generations ago there was a large bat that lived at the headwaters of the river in a cave on a large mountain. Periodically it would attack canoes and carry off people as its prey. After quite a few deaths men were chosen to go to the animal’s lair and kill it, which they did. I asked them which mountain it was but there is no consensus, even though I would love to know where that was.

“Because it was seen to defecate in the river after carrying off humans the Indians would not drink from the Erebato River, they will cross a river 100 yards wide just to get to a small stream that feeds into the river for their drinking water.

“We showed the Indians pictures of pterodactyls and such and they said, ‘Yes’, that had to be the giant bat. For them it is not a myth or legend, but a true story of their past that has been handed down through the years.”

The Indians of the Corentyn, according to missionary W.H. Brett, also tell of an enormous gliding serpent.11


Space has prevented giving more than a fraction of the evidence available for man coexisting with pterosaurs—not just in the Americas. There are even some reported sightings, from remote regions in the world, over the last 120 years.

Can all these sightings and stories be easily written off as “coincidentally” having a pterosaur-like common thread? It seems easier to believe that the evolutionary/long-age notion that these reptiles became extinct 65 million years ago is flawed—people have indeed encountered some of the terrifyingly large birdlike creatures we know today from the fossil record.


Gigantic Quetzalcoatlus Comparison

An average-sized man compared to the gigantic Quetzalcoatlus

This huge pterosaur (as all the flying reptiles are collectively known) was the largest flying creature ever known to have lived—a distinction previously held by the Pteranodon. At up to 15 m (50 ft) its wingspan was equivalent to many modern jet fighter planes. It weighed up to 100 kg (220 lbs), which, proportional to its size, was actually rather light.

Reconstructions from its fossils have suggested that it lacked appropriate anchor points for the powerful flapping downstrokes of which many birds are capable. Thus it would have been predominantly a glider; though it still may have been able to carry off a human, it is likely that many of the fearsome accounts are the result of legendary accretion, perhaps inspired by its terrifying size. This would have been more so in times when they were becoming rarer—close familiarity with the creatures would presumably have indicated that their threat to man was less than their intimidating size suggested.

Secular scientists have suggested that Quetzalcoatlus may have plucked fish from the sea. Though the idea of it scooping up the average whale (see main text) is clearly an exaggeration, it is not hard to see where such a notion might have come from. Anyone who witnessed firsthand the sight of such an awesome creature, the size of a jet fighter, swooping down to pluck a large struggling fish (possibly even a dolphin frolicking at the surface) from the sea would have sparked a story retold down the generations.


  1. Karns, H.J., Unknown Arizona and Sonora 1693-1721, Arizona Silhouttes, Arizona, pp. 105-106, 1954. This book is a translation of Manje’s Luz De Tierra Incognita.
  2. Karns, H.J., Unknown Arizona and Sonora 1693-1721, Arizona Silhouttes, Arizona, pp. 105-106, 1954. This book is a translation of Manje’s Luz De Tierra Incognita.
  3. As they are in many cultures; the Arabs have their roc, New Zealand’s Maoris the pouakai.
  4. Giddings, R.W., “Yaqui Myths and Legends” in Anthropological Papers of the University of Arizona, Tucson, pp. 36-38, 1959.
  5. Geis, D., Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, p. 10, 1972.
  6. Geis, D., Dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, p. 9, 1972.
  7. “Tales From the Hoh and Quileute” in Journal of American Folklore 46:320, 1933.
  8. “The Thunderbird” in American Anthropologist II, p. 333, Oct. 1889.
  9. The Piasa, or The Devil Among the Indians, E.B. Fletcher, p. 31, 1887.
  10. “Serpent-bird of the Mayans” in Science Digest, p. 1, Nov. 1968.
  11. Clay, R., Indian Tribes of Guiana, Taylor and Son Printers, p. 375, 1868.


Get the latest answers emailed to you.

I agree to the current Privacy Policy.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA, and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Learn more

  • Customer Service 800.778.3390