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Fossil Legends of the First Americans Hardcover – May 1, 2005
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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 Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
Mayor presents a multi-faceted look at many overlapping American- Indian and European-American explanations of fossils, bones, and other mysterious findings. As a former folklorist, I especially liked Mayor's even-handed work in getting out both sides of the story.
She points out that Native explanations, expressed in mythic language, were based on repeated, careful observations of geological evidence over generations. Earth's history was visualized as a series of ages marked by different landforms, climates and a succession of different faunas no longer alive today. Not only did many of the insights about Earth's past anticipate modern scientific theories, but some traditional narratives were revised to integrate new scientific knowledge. These activities show the stirrings of scientific inquiry in pre-Darwinian cultures.
Mayor also devotes some time to the English botanist, Mark Catesby's 1725 visit to Stono, a large plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, to examine several colossal teeth dug up in a swamp by slaves. Catesby tells us that the slaves immediately recognized the shape of the teeth. In the "concurring opinion of all the negroes, native Africans, that saw them," wrote Catesby, these were the molars of "an elephant," an animal of their homeland.
In the Year 2000 conflict arose over the discovery of what may be the largest dinosaur ever found in North America, the hundred-foot-long, thirty-five-foot-tall Alamosaurus in Big Bend National Park in Texas. Some accused the National Park Service's paleontologists of stealing fossils from public land when they allowed the dinosaur to be hauled off to the University of Texas lab in Dallas. Why not build a display over it, like Dinosaur National monument in Utah?
The Natives core belief about this "taking" was expressed by the Oglala leader, Johnson Holy Rock, in 2002: "Fossil bones should be left in the ground as they were found. It is not good to take them away and put them in a museum. If we want to understand them, shouldn't we go to see the animals where they lived and died?"
Holy Rock singled out the Hot Springs Mammoth Site in South Dakota as a positive model of how traditional Native Americans would like to see fossils treated and preserved. Another outstanding example of the integration of Native culture and paleontology is the state-of-the-art Journey Museum in Rapid City in the Black Hills of South Dakota, dedicated to the region's geological, paleontological and Lakota history. The founders of that museum assembled a Lakota Advisory Board to ensure that a Native perspective helped shape all aspects of the museum.
This book deserves better editing, layout and design. The paperback version is especially text-heavy and would benefit from color photographs, distinctive larger format subtitles, and having the related legends laid out in a boxed-text format.
"Fossil Legends" is a fresh and carefully researched approach to a complex and endlessly fascinating topic.
If you happen to be reading it at the same time as When They Separated Earth From Sky (Barber and Barber) it's like being in the middle of an enthusiastic conversation between friends and colleagues.