As inhabitants of the information age, it's nearly impossible for us to imagine a time when we couldn't answer any question with the single click of a mouse. But centuries ago, before Planet Earth showed us every vein on the eyeball of a microscopic endangered bug that exists only on one corner of a tiny island thousands of miles from civilization, the average citizen had no idea what an animal looked like if it wasn't native to their immediate area.
As artists and scientists throughout history began to study animals in earnest and create compendiums of fantastic beasts (and where to find them), they had to rely on secondhand knowledge to create their own drawings. The result? Hilariously inaccurate and weird depictions of creatures that look more like they come from a Dr. Seuss book than an encyclopedia.
Case in point: If you Google the word "elephant," you get more than 250 million results depicting with photographic accuracy exactly what an elephant looks like. But imagine if you lived centuries ago, before cameras let you capture that information and computers let you access it, and you wanted to draw one of these exotic creatures without ever having seen one in the flesh. All you knew about this creature from a far-off land was from its description by others: "a very large plant-eating mammal with a trunk, long curved ivory tusks, and large ears." How would your drawing come out?
A Hippopotamus, Jacob van Maerlant, c. 13502,596249Way off base?
A Crocodile, Unknown Artist, c. 1250-12602,411234Way off base?
Dogs Attacking A Beaver, Unknown Artist, c. 12701,607305Way off base?
A Tiger, Unknown Artist, 12th Century1,473549Way off base?