First published in 2005, this is an unmodified paperback reprint.
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.
List of Illustrations ix
Geological Time Scale xv
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
Adrienne Mayor’s books include The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. She is a research scholar in classics and the history of science at Stanford University.
"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."
"Few books have had such an influence on my thinking as Adrienne Mayor's book on fossil legends of the New World. For one thing, it invites one to ask how anyone can make old stories about old bones both so interesting and so worthwhile [...] What Mayor has done is astonishing. She has been so thorough that it's difficult to imagine anyone ever writing a more definitive book on her subject [...] A hundred years from now, this book will surely continue to be read, consulted, and mined for data. I would not want to be a piece of data seeking to escape her attention [...] Mayor not only shows how these stories cast light on cultural history but also demonstrates repeatedly that they anticipated many of the views of modern scientists."
– Paul Barber, Journal of American Folklore
"Mayor's book is a fascinating exploration of how Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island held, and still hold, knowledge of fossils. Indigenous peoples observed the remains of enormous creatures found embedded in our land – from dinosaurs to giant buffalo – and integrated these findings into our ways of knowing. Mayor's coupling of Indigenous stories of legendary beings to specific fossils, bone beds, and species makes this a must-read for anyone who thinks that the wisdom held in Indigenous oral traditions is anything less than science."
– Kent Monkman, award-winning Cree visual artist
"Engaging, enlightening, and most of all, educationally entertaining. We have precious few examples of Native American interpretation of prehistoric events as they have been passed down through the generations, and in this book Adrienne Mayor unveils several. In so doing, she opens up a new world."
– Jack Horner, coauthor of Digging Dinosaurs, Curator of Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, Montana State University
"Adrienne Mayor has absolutely done it again. In Fossil Legends of the First Americans she has taken up exactly where she left off last time with The First Fossil Hunters. She has done a superb job of researching her topic and making it interesting. Just a wonderful job all around."
– Peter Dodson, author of The Horned Dinosaurs
"Adrienne Mayor is a wonderfully independent-minded scholar and a fine writer who works the edge lines between disciplines, where others don't go. She's a brilliant researcher but never forgets about character and story. Give her a fossil or a legend, and she'll supply flesh, blood, narrative, cultural context, and a smile. In this book she also delivers an important sense of justice."
– David Quammen, author of Monster of God and The Song of the Dodo
"A brilliant and well-researched book that creates a new field of inquiry. Mayor opens a wide landscape in which native knowledge and use of fossils becomes an integral part of the academic and popular interest. Undoubtedly a landmark in American thought."
– Vine Deloria, Jr., author of Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths, former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians
"This is a surprising, convincing, and most interesting book, which I read with pleasure. It is an intelligent book, one that continues to map out a new field of scholarship of which Mayor is the prime exponent. It is a novel book, because of its unique content and its unusual and yet valuable insight that all 'scientific' knowledge does not and need not follow the modern Western tradition."
– Pat Shipman, author of The Wisdom of Bones and The Evolution of Racism