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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
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
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
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
firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.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" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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
2001 Colorado Blvd
Denver CO 80205