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)
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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 ChristensenCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved