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Re: Indian Fossil Legends

For those of us who can't make the talk, at least check out this review of Adrienne's book. It's a bit short on paleontological focus, but is a decent overview of the archeological aspects. (When you get the book, check out my snazzy fossil illustrations!) - Patti

Book Review | Seeing an American Indian role in advancing paleontologyIn 2000, classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor proposed an
idea that was both plausible and pioneering: The familiar myths of the Greeks and Romans were rooted, at least in part, in their attempts to
explain the origins of the fossils littering the landscape. The full article will be available on the Web for a limited time:
(c) 2005 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Fossil Legends of the First Americans
By Adrienne Mayor
Princeton. 446 pp. $29.95

In 2000, classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor proposed an idea that was both plausible and pioneering: The familiar myths of the Greeks and Romans were rooted, at least in part, in their attempts to explain the origins of the fossils littering the landscape.
In The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, Mayor concluded that the ancients perhaps lacked the proper context to match the extraordinary bones to their true owners but that they laid the groundwork for later investigations with their keen scientific curiosity.
With her new book, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, Mayor charts similar terrain, but from the historical vantage of the Indians inhabiting North and South America.
And what a rich terrain it is, populated by Witch Buffaloes, Great Bears, Thunder Birds, Water Monsters and other fantastical creatures that in Mayor's view embody a creative fleshing out of real bones. The remains of large prehistoric birds in the Southwest, she writes, may have inspired a legend of Hopi ancestors in which a giant bird "used to swoop down on the pueblos and fly away with their children."
Similarly, Mayor deduces that a terrifying monster of Navajo legends, "covered with flinty scales" and called Yeitso, was likely influenced by the fossilized bones of creatures like the armored dinosaurs that once inhabited the same region.
And in the Badlands, the Lakota may have equated the spines of brontosaurs with huge serpents that "could strike a person blind, crazy or deaf."
As an archaeologist tells her, "We have no monopoly on curiosity about the past," a statement that echoes throughout the book. Nor are the past interpretations of fossilized bison, mastodons or dinosaurs mutually exclusive of modern scientific theories, she suggests.
Early observers, she argues, readily grasped concepts such as extinction, past cataclysms, and great expanses of time - ideas that are central to the field of paleontology.
If inquisitive American Indians are Mayor's previously unheralded heroes, the chief antagonist is the late George Gaylord Simpson, a former chairman of the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. Throughout much of her book, Mayor spars with Simpson's ghost and his dour pronouncements on the unreliability of Indian fossil knowledge and its meager contributions to modern paleontology.
Poor George. By including quotes of his, such as, "The abundant occurrence of fossil bones in North America was not widely known among the Indians and not a common subject of remark by them," in a book with a 49-page section of notes, Mayor has made him a sitting duck.
But by neatly shooting down his Eurocentric dismissal of native knowledge, she is trying to make a larger point: How much more might we have known if so many others hadn't shared his point of view?
As a historian and folklorist, Mayor laments this unrealized potential as a personal loss, but she puts her scientific skills to good use in teasing out the possible connections between the remaining fragments and their organic sources of inspiration.
Along the way, it's hard not to root for the historical underdogs, like the Indians retrieving mastodon fossils from a Kentucky site known as Big Bone Lick, a find that Mayor credits with ushering in modern paleontology despite the lingering "historical fantasy" that portrays French soldiers as the real 18th-century discoverers.
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, a long-overlooked combination now being explored by a growing cadre of authors. As one of the genre's chief trailblazers, Mayor sometimes overwhelms with her detail, though her larger themes resonate with a remarkable clarity.
Following her historical survey across the continent (with a foray into South America) is like taking a road trip with your favorite college professor: Some of the stopovers may seem repetitive and pedantic, but the eventual destinations are richly illuminating.

Patricia Kane-Vanni, Esq.
Bala Cynwyd, PA  19004
pkv1@erols.com  or paleopatti@hotmail.com

"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but really great ones make you feel that you too, can become great." - Mark Twain

----- Original Message ----- From: "Adrienne Mayor" <afmayor@aol.com>
To: <vrtpaleo@usc.edu>
Cc: <dinosaur@usc.edu>
Sent: Wednesday, July 06, 2005 9:40 PM
Subject: Indian Fossil Legends


Adrienne Mayor will give an illustrated talk on "Native American Fossil Legends" at the Denver Museum of Natual Science

Tuesday, July 19
7 pm
Ricketson Auditorium
2001 Colorado Blvd
Denver CO 80205