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Fossil Legends of the First Americans

By: Adrienne Mayor

446 pages, 87 halftones. 2 line illus. 6 maps

Princeton University Press

Paperback | Apr 2007 | #166725 | ISBN-13: 9780691130491
Availability: In stock
NHBS Price: £29.99 $40/€34 approx
Hardback | Dec 2005 | #152309 | ISBN: 0691113459
Out of Print Details

About this book

Fascinating study of native American knowledge and understanding of fossils.

The burnt-red badlands of Montana's Hell Creek are a vast graveyard of the Cretaceous dinosaurs that lived 68 million years ago. Those hills were, much later, also home to the Sioux, the Crows, and the Blackfeet, the first people to encounter the dinosaur fossils exposed by the elements. What did Native Americans make of these stone skeletons, and how did they explain the teeth and claws of gargantuan animals no one had seen alive? Did they speculate about their deaths? Did they collect fossils?

Beginning in the East, with its Ice Age monsters, and ending in the West, where dinosaurs lived and died, this richly illustrated and elegantly written book examines the discoveries of enormous bones and uses of fossils for medicine, hunting magic, and spells. Well before Columbus, Native Americans observed the mysterious petrified remains of extinct creatures and sought to understand their transformation to stone. In perceptive creation stories, they visualized the remains of extinct mammoths, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and marine creatures as Monster Bears, Giant Lizards, Thunder Birds, and Water Monsters. Their insights, some so sophisticated that they anticipate modern scientific theories, were passed down in oral histories over many centuries.

Drawing on historical sources, archaeology, traditional accounts, and extensive personal interviews, Adrienne Mayor takes us from Aztec and Inca fossil tales to the traditions of the Iroquois, Navajos, Apaches, Cheyennes, and Pawnees. Fossil Legends of the First Americans represents a major step forward in our understanding of how humans made sense of fossils before evolutionary theory developed.

Adrienne Mayor, an independent scholar of natural history folklore and the early history of science, is the author of The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton) and Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs (Overlook).

Mayor the storyteller relishes the opportunity to provide fascinating insights, but she shines most in her ability to stitch together a rich and varied body of oral history grounded in natural history... Mayor clearly thrives at the intersection of science and folklore. -- Bryn Nelson Newsday Marshaling the array of evidence available from scholarly and popular works, and contributing her own research, Mayor shows that far from ignoring fossils, many Native American groups took great notice of them and developed elaborate myths to explain their origin... Though Mayor is careful not to homogenize native myths, she does note that virtually all of them exhibit a sense of "deep time," as geologists call it: an awareness that the world has existed for far longer than humans have walked it. -- Eric A. Powell Archaeology Fossil Legends of the First Americans presents an interesting, intriguing and informative text, written in a fun, accessible way that will appeal to a wide audience, without scaring off the scientific community. The manner in which fossils legends and Native American tales are dealt with, is as original... Adrienne Mayor has based her book on a substantial amount of relevant, up-to-date and to-the-point research data, and as such commands the reader's indulgence. -- C. van Kooten PaleoArchaeology Through remarkably wide-ranging research, Mayor has recovered the fascinating story of how various tribes encountered and interpreted dinosaur bones and other remains of early life... [She] illuminates the surprisingly relevant views of early peoples confronting evidence of prehistoric life... This pioneering work replaces cultural estrangement with belated understanding. Booklist Mayor clearly thrives at the intersection of science and folklore, a long-overlooked combination now being explored by a growing cadre of authors. As one of the genre's chief trailblazers, her larger themes resonate with a remarkable clarity... [R]ichly illuminating. -- Bryn Nelson Philadelphia Inquirer


List of Illustrations ix Geological Time Scale xv Acknowledgments xvii Preface xxi INTRODUCTION: Marsh Monsters of Big Bone Lick 1 Chapter 1: The Northeast: Giants, Great Bears, and Grandfather of the Buffalo 32 Chapter 2: New Spain: Bones of Fear and Birds of Terror 73 Chapter 3: The Southwest: Fossil Fetishes and Monster Slayers 106 Chapter 4: The Prairies: Fossil Medicine and Spirit Animals 168 Chapter 5: The High Plains: Thunder Birds, Water Monsters, and Buffalo-Calling Stones 220 CONCLUSION: Common Ground 296 APPENDIX: Fossil Frauds and Specious Legends 332 Notes 347 Bibliography 407 Index 429

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Adrienne Mayor, an independent scholar of natural history folklore and the early history of science, is the author of "The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times" (Princeton) and "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs" (Overlook).

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