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Fossil Legends of the First Americans

Fossil Legends of the First Americans

Adrienne Mayor
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 488
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  • Book Info
    Fossil Legends of the First Americans
    Book Description:

    The 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4931-4
    Subjects: Archaeology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Geological Time Scale
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xx)
    (pp. xxi-xl)
  7. INTRODUCTION Marsh Monsters of Big Bone Lick
    (pp. 1-31)

    Toward dusk, the Indian hunting party returned with game to feed the army of French Canadians and Indians camped along the Ohio River in what is now Kentucky. But tonight the hunters’ canoes are laden with more than fresh venison. Curious soldiers gather to watch the Indians unload a strange cargo—an enormous, fossilized femur nearly as tall as a man, several huge teeth, and great ivory tusks darkened by time.

    The expedition of 442 men (123 French soldiers and 319 Native American warriors) from Quebec was commanded by Charles Le Moyne, Baron de Longueuil. Traveling by waterway, the fleet...

  8. CHAPTER 1 The Northeast: Giants, Great Bears, and Grandfather of the Buffalo
    (pp. 32-72)

    After the Abenaki discovery of 1739 and the American fossils’ scientific debut in Paris in 1762, the mastodon, Columbian mammoth, and giant bison deposits at Big Bone Lick began to attract the interest of European and American scientists. The early investigators sought out the traditions of the Shawnees and Delawares in their efforts to understand the extensive bone beds in the Ohio Valley. But Pleistocene mastodons and oversize buffalo and bears—as well as dinosaur tracks and even rare dinosaur bones—also existed in the Northeast, and these conspicuous remains had influenced exciting tales of giant creatures among the Iroquois,...

  9. CHAPTER 2 New Spain: Bones of Fear and Birds of Terror
    (pp. 73-105)

    The Spanish conquistadors came to the New World seeking gold and souls. They didn’t expect to find the enormous, petrified bones of giants among the treasures of the Aztec Empire. But when Hernando Cortés and his Spanish army first arrived in central Mexico in 1519, that’s just what they found. As I pursued my research into early European encounters with American fossil lore, I was fascinated to learn that Aztec codices and Inca traditions, originating before the time of Columbus, described the remains of mammoths and other immense creatures as evidence of giant creatures from past eras.

    These ancient accounts,...

  10. CHAPTER 3 The Southwest: Fossil Fetishes and Monster Slayers
    (pp. 106-167)

    On the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona a few years ago, paleontologists were excavating the bizarre, five-horned skull of a Pentaceratops, a twenty-five-foot-long dinosaur of the Late Cretaceous with the largest skull of any land animal. An old Navajo man came up to see what they were doing. Taking one look at the creature, he uttered two words, “Monster Slayer,” and walked away.¹

    The incident exemplifies the limited dialogue between paleontologists and Native Americans today about the meaning of fossils in the western United States. Paradoxically, the West has some of the richest dinosaur exposures studied by scientists, yet little...

  11. CHAPTER 4 The Prairies: Fossil Medicine and Spirit Animals
    (pp. 168-219)

    In 1541, the Pawnee scout known as The Turk led Coronado up from Texas into central Kansas, to the Pawnee town of Quivira. Expecting to enter a fabulous city of gold, the Spanish conquistadors were disgusted to find only earth lodges and wealth measured in buffalo robes. After The Turk confessed that he had deliberately misled Coronado, the Spanish executed him and at last gave up their search for gold treasure in the plains.

    Some two hundred years later, a very different sort of treasure discovered in Kansas territory was prized by the Pawnees. Neither gold nor Spanish silver, the...

  12. CHAPTER 5 The High Plains: Thunder Birds, Water Monsters, and Buffalo-Calling Stones
    (pp. 220-295)

    I pitched my tent on the east bank of the Missouri River. It was late afternoon, the last day of July, my first day at the paleontological field camp on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation. I hurried to pound in the tent stakes. The western horizon was black with a fast-approaching storm—the Sioux would have said that Thunder Beings were striking the ground with lightning and beating up strong winds. Under the towering clouds, a tornado was gathering force over the High Plains. By midnight it would pass over the roiling river and touch down east of our camp,...

  13. CONCLUSION Common Ground
    (pp. 296-331)

    Native Americans observed, collected, and attempted to explain the remains of extinct invertebrate and vertebrate species long before contact with Europeans, and their cultural connection with fossils continues today. Their explanations, expressed in mythic language, were based on repeated, careful observations of geological evidence over generations. Search parties traveled long distances to verify reports of fossil beds, and some remains were deliberately excavated to confirm old traditions and to obtain fossils for special uses. Discoveries of fossil traces resulted in etiological stories imbued with a sense of deep time. Earth’s history was visualized as a series of ages marked by...

  14. APPENDIX Fossil Frauds and Specious Legends
    (pp. 332-346)
  15. NOTES
    (pp. 347-406)
    (pp. 407-428)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 429-448)