A perusal of the archives will show that I've been interested in faux creatures and specimens for some time, but it's only the last year or so that I've actively been researching their history. The majority of the available material on the subject concentrates on two areas. The first is cryptozoology, where manufactured body parts of creatures like Bigfoot or the Chupacabra have bamboozled a truly amazing number of "scientists". The second is the circus, where a cottage industry developed around the manufacture and exhibition of improbable beasts.
Somewhere between the two are those sources that look at the historical manufacture of fantastic creatures. Sadly, there's precious little documentation of gaffed animals beyond the 14th century, but there is one account from the 13th century that stands out. It comes to us from The Travels of Marco Polo. After describing the kingdom of Basma and it's unicorn (almost certainly a rhinoceros) he spills the beans on the real source of those "pygmy" bodies flowing into Europe.
I may tell you moreover that when people bring home pygmies which they allege to come from India, 'tis all a lie and a cheat. For those little men, as they call them, are manufactured on this Island, and I will tell you how. You see there is on the Island a kind of monkey which is very small, and has a face just like a man's. They take these, and pluck out all the hair except the hair of the beard and on the breast, and then they dry them and stuff them and daub them with saffron and other things until they look like men. But you see it is all a cheat; for nowhere in India nor anywhere else in the world were there ever men seen so small as these pretended pygmies.
What's striking about this passage is how it presages what's to come. A few hundred years down the line those pygmy bodies would be passé. But the market would come alive again when craftsman grafted the tail of a fish to those same monkey bodies and created the Fiji Mermaid. Only to see fake versions of their fake mermaids show up when someone realized you could save a lot of trouble by crafting the thing from wood and paper mache right from the start. It's a glorious example of meta-fraud.