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Fossil Legends of the First Americans Hardcover – May 1, 2005

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 488 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (May 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691113459
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691113456
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #739,356 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Mayor, a folklorist and historian of science, continues the project of understanding what premodern peoples made of fossils that she started in The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Surveying accounts of Native American tradition from the earliest Spanish conquistador and missionary records of Aztec and Inca lore up through present-day Indian oral histories, she correlates Native American myths with the fossils they are known or presumed to have observed. The results are unsurprising: giant fossil mastodon and dinosaur bones engendered myths about giants—giant elk, bear, birds, centipedes, subhumanoids and mysterious "water monsters"—who populated the earth until, in a nearly universal motif, they were killed off with lightning strikes by sky spirits. Indian notions of "deep time," changing landforms and climates, and the descent of contemporary species from fossilized ancestors anticipate the insights of present-day geology and evolutionary theory, she contends, while Inca legends of extinction by "fire from heaven" prefigure modern theories of extinction by asteroid impact. Her research makes for a competent if dry study in comparative folklore, but her claim that these myths "evince the stirrings of scientific inquiry in pre-Darwinian cultures" downplays the elements of animism and supernaturalism that are so radically at odds with the materialist and mechanistic thrust of modern science. Photos. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Centuries before modern paleontologists began scouring the western badlands for dinosaur skeletons, a dozen Native American tribes had already discovered hundreds of ancient fossils. 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. As she did in her landmark study of Greek and Roman responses to fossils (The First Fossil Hunters, 2001), Mayor illuminates the surprisingly relevant views of early peoples confronting evidence of prehistoric life. But in this investigation, Mayor must also rescue these Native American musings from generations of neglect and derision. By interviewing numerous tribal folklorists and probing neglected chronicles of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century explorers, Mayor has reconstructed the way Native Americans converted fossils into the substrate for powerful myths. Though tribal myths actually anticipate key Darwinian concepts of species change, Native American traditions have too often been dismissed as mere superstition by orthodox scientists. This pioneering work replaces cultural estrangement with belated understanding. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

More About the Author

Adrienne Mayor is a research scholar in Classics and the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program at Stanford. Her work is often featured on NPR and BBC, Discovery and History TV channels, and other popular media, including the New York Times and National Geographic, and her books are translated into Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hungarian, Polish, Turkish, Italian, Russian, and Greek. In college during the Vietnam War, she received special permission to take ROTC courses in the history of war; 20 years later she began writing articles for "MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History." Mayor is especially interested in the history of science (the history of human curiosity) and she investigates natural knowledge embedded in classcial Greek and Roman literature and other "pre-scientific" myths and oral traditions.

"The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World" (2014) is the result of Mayor's long interest in the realities behind myths, legends, and ancient historical accounts of women warriors. "The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates" is the first full biography in half a century of one of Rome's deadliest enemies and the world's first experimental toxicologist. "The Poison King" was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award, nonfiction and won top honors in Biography in the Independent Book Publishers Awards, 2010.

Mayor's two books on pre-Darwinian fossil traditions in classical antiquity and in Native America ("The First Fossil Hunters" and "Fossil Legends of the First Americans") opened new windows in the emerging field of Geomythology. "First Fossil Hunters" is featured in the popular History Channel show "Ancient Monster Hunters," about Mayor's discovery of the links between ancient observations of dinosaur fossils and the gold-guarding Griffin of mythology. "First Fossil Hunters" and "Fossil Legends of the First Americans" also inspired the BBC documentary "Dinosaurs, Monsters, and Myths" and the popular traveling exhibit "Mythic Creatures" (launched at the American Museum of Natural History, 2007-17).

Her book "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs," about the origins and early use of biological weapons, uncovered the surprisingly ancient roots of biochemical warfare. This book was featured in National Geographic, New York Times, and the History Channel's "Ancient Greek WMDs" --and it has become a favorite resource for diabolical, unconventional weaponry among ancient war-gamers.

Customer Reviews

Adrienne Mayor has written a groundbreaking and scholarly book that is also a pleasure to read.
Inlet Rower
Adrienne Mayor offers an interesting point of view, and one that has been neglected, which is why I ordered it and look forward to reading it.
Her clear prose style eases the way for anybody interested in these topics to delve into them and perceive the possibilities.
Stephen A. Haines

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on August 11, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Following her innovative and informative study of fossils as roots for myths in the Mediterranean, Mayor brings her investigative talents to the Western Hemisphere. Here, she follows the pattern set in her earlier book, "Ancient Paleontologists" by examining the myths and legends of Native Americans. Did they, like their Eurasian counterparts in Greece, find ancient bones protruding from creek beds and bluffs? Did they also weave legends of fabulous creatures, human giants or spiritual entites from these unusual artefacts? In this account of tales and myths, Mayor's fluid style enlivens the legends, their tellers and the artefacts that inspired them.

Dividing her quest into regional investigations, she surveys the East Coast of North America, skips South to the realm of the Incas, then returns to Great Plains and Pacific Slope. Mayor finds links from recorded stories to the bones of dinosaurs, pterosaurs and mammoths. She is hampered, of course, by the minimal direct information available. She must rely on those who recorded and interpreted the information often gathered from conquered peoples. And many of the earliest records were destroyed by the Christian conquerors. What remains of those records has been the subject of much dispute. In early New England, Puritan Cotton Mather rejected stories and fossils alike as the invalid heritage of the heathen "salvages". In modern times, renowned paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson rejected the notion of Native American fossil finds and the legends surrounding them as lacking scientific value.

Mayor, however, shows how narrow Simpson's view has proven.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Inlet Rower on May 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Long before Europeans rediscovered the dinosaur, Native Americans knew about fossils. They collected and tried to explain them, and fossils remain part of the living legacy of Native culture today. Always fascinating and often passionate, this book traces the story of Amerindian fossil-collecting from the Aztecs to the Iroquois and from the pre-Columbian era to the politics of the American West. Adrienne Mayor has written a groundbreaking and scholarly book that is also a pleasure to read. The illustrations are beautiful. Mayor does for Native-American culture what she did for the Greeks and Romans in an earlier book about unknown fossil hunters. Her new volume has many strands, from paleontology to history to Hollywood, and they come together seamlessly.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Neal Baxter on March 1, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I always wondered how Native Americans interpreted the huge fossil skeletons of extinct animals like giant sloths and mastodons, dinosaurs and Pterodactyls. Natural History Museums in the US never address this question, even though they often display dinosaur skeletons that were dug up on American Indian Reservations.

Mayors book is based on an obvious fact: centuries before Europeans arrived, way before scientists started studying fossils, people in the Americas created stories to try to explain the weird remains of creatures that died out millions of years ago. I was amazed that she found the oldest recorded fossil legends from the Inkas and Aztecs; the book is well-researched and I liked her writing style, as she presents fossil legends told by the Iroquois, Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Navaho,Apache, and many other tribes to account for the various kinds of fossils they found.

My favorite were the exciting Lakota Sioux stories about the fossils of giant marine reptiles (Mosasaurs) and huge pterasaurs in the badlands and chalk hills of the west: they attributed the bones to wars between giant water serpents and thunderbirds.

What really impressed me was the way Mayor shows how the Native American ideas about fossils were accurate about a lot of things that scientists would discover later. This is the idea behind geomythology, which has been in the news lately as scientists are beginning to see that the myths about fossils and volcanoes, earthquakes, etc, were based on real evidence and sometimes actually got some things right without modern scientific methods. The Native American tales of fossils talk about earth's first lifeforms in primeval times, changes of species, and extinctions.

In a section at the end of the book, Mayor chronicles some entertaining misinformed accounts and deliberate hoaxes, such as claims that dinos and human beings existed at the same time.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By K. R. Evans on March 19, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This work exceeds expectation created by Mayor's previous excavation, "The First Fossil Hunters", which digs out the solid remains of myths of the Classical ancient world. The research may not qualify as 'exhaustive'; but, it is certainly extensive, with shovels-full of previously unpublished Native American lore. The Appendix and Notes sections take about a fourth of the volume, but are as fascinating as the text itself. It is a companion milestone to her first project demonstrating that, contrary to the overconfident opinion of academic science, Human ancestors did not simply create their traditional histories out of their imaginations for entertainment purposes, as we tend to do nowadays; but, were usually quite genuine in observing, understanding, and explaining these undeniable pieces of the past in their own way, as is the tendancy of every culture. The reader will be further enlightened to find that the various folktales of the Native Americans contain common elements which preserve a knowlege of the remote past that exceeded the academic science of the time. You may even be inclined to think, after considering the 'former myths' of Troy, Ankor Wat, Irem, Ebla, and others, that the only true myth is "myth" itself: a pigeonhole term that was invented to safely and securely catagorize anything that does not immediately seem believable.
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