Early Explorers & Mistaken Identities

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.


When European explorers like Christopher Columbus set out on their voyages of discovery in the 1400s and 1500s, they were sailing into uncharted waters. Sea monsters were a real concern, and frightening rumors ran rampant. Sailors’ tales were sometimes the only first-hand information available about far-off lands. The stories ranged from accurate observations to honest mistakes to outright tall tales. As methods for scientific observation and interpretation developed, it became clear which animals existed in nature—and which were mythical.

Students will:

  • chart the voyage of an explorer and describe which mythic creatures they reported seeing.
  • consider the evidence the explorers may have used to make those assertions.
  • interpret this evidence to assess what the explorer saw.

Time Frame
One period plus outside research


Prior Knowledge

  1. Ask students what they know about the journeys of Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo. Share that both explorers reported seeing a number of unusual animals: Columbus saw mermaids in the ocean off the coast of Haiti. Marco Polo wrote about the legendary roc, a giant bird living near the island of Madagascar. 
  2. Have students consider how and why animal identification might have been different in Columbus’ and Polo’s times than it is today.


  1. Have students select either Christopher Columbus or Marco Polo to research.
  2. Ask students to investigate the explorer’s voyage using library or Internet sources, including the Museum’s Mythic Creatures page. Questions for students to consider:
    • When did this explorer travel?
    • Where did he stop on his journey?
    • What unusual animals did he describe in each location? Did he find evidence of unusual animals, but not the animals themselves?
    • Which of these creatures are also featured in stories of the local people?
    • Did the explorer describe seeing the unusual creature personally? If not, what does that suggest?
    • Were any of these creatures brought back to Europe?
    • Are you skeptical of these sightings? Why or why not?
    • If you are skeptical, what animal might these explorers have seen instead?


  1. Have students present their findings to the class. They can map the journey of the explorer on a world map, and provide anecdotes of sightings, along with illustrations of “evidence” or mythic creatures.



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