November 08, 2014

Review of Fossil Legends of the First Americans

Fossil Legends of the First AmericansThe 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.

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.

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
Rob's review

Fossil Legends of the First Americans offers many interesting tidbits. For instance, that buried skeletons inspired the idea of animals and people emerging from underground. Or that legends of previous worlds dying in fire or ice or floods came from the geological record.

The Publishers Weekly review above is a little harsh. Natives believe that giant prehistoric animals roamed the earth--something they could've surmised from seeing bones. Euro-American Christians believed that animals never went extinct--that the animals seen today had always existed. Anything God created was perfect and therefore endured forever without change.

Well, Natives were much closer to the truth. And that may be because they actually observed the bones while Westerners were getting their "science" from the Bible. In short, Natives understood the natural world better--a point we shouldn't overlook.

As for the writing style, "a competent if dry study" describes it pretty well. The book probably won't appeal to you unless you're already interested in the subject. Rob's rating: 7.5 of 10.

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