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Legendary Bones Volume 58 Number 4, July/August 2005
by Eric A Powell
Fossil Legends of the First Americans

Most archaeologists field questions about dinosaurs about once a month. Of course, that's the paleontologists' realm, a distinction often lost on laypeople. But folklorist Adrienne Mayor is making a career of linking paleontology to the study of humanity's past. Her 2001 book, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, made the case that Greek and Roman myths involving monsters were largely inspired by fossils of extinct creatures ("A Time of Giants and Monsters," March/April 2000). At the heart of her work is the idea that such myths contain the first inklings of scientific thought: observation of natural phenomenon and creation of a theory to explain it.

Mayor's latest offering, Fossil Legends of the First Americans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005; $29.95), catalogs the fossil knowledge of Native Americans past and present. Essentially, the entire volume is an earnest riposte to eminent paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, who in a 1942 work wrote that "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."

Marshaling the array of evidence available from scholarly and popular works, and contributing her own research, Mayor shows that far from ignoring fossils, many Native American groups took great notice of them and developed elaborate myths to explain their origin. She pulls in archaeological data showing that prehistoric North Americans often collected fossils and presents historical accounts demonstrating that Native Americans were intimately familiar with the bones of extinct creatures. But she mostly relies on native legends she's gathered from the American West, like ones that speak of a time when "thunder birds" (pterosaurs?) and "water monsters" (mosasaurs?) dominated the world. Though Mayor is careful not to homogenize native myths, she does note that virtually all of them exhibit a sense of "deep time," as geologists call it: an awareness that the world has existed for far longer than humans have walked it.

She searches the fossil record for creatures that may have inspired native legends. Is the Hi stowunini hotua ("double-toothed bull") of Cheyenne legend a cultural memory of the terrifying short-faced bear that became extinct some 10,000 years ago? Or is it inspired by the fossil remains of the fearsome "terminator pig" of 20 million years ago?

Mayor doesn't offer an opinion either way; her goal seems to be simply to present what she's gathered through multidisciplinary research. Indeed, she works across so many specialties--folklore, ethnography, archaeology, history, paleontology--that her speculations, while fascinating, are often hard to follow. The complexity of this approach also may have led to a few errors. Mayor applies the term "Paleoindian," used by archaeologists for cultures that existed at the end of the last Ice Age, to all prehistoric American cultures, including those that existed relatively recently, while New York's important Hiscock Site, a true Paleoindian site at least 10,000 years old, is incorrectly dated to A.D. 100. And a map of the desert Southwest places the critical prehistoric trading center of Paquime, which had a storage room filled with fossils, in the wrong Mexican state.

Ultimately, though, the reader can't help but be propelled through the book by the sheer number of fascinating anecodotes (a favorite: enslaved Africans in Virginia were the first to identify mastodon bones as belonging to an elephant-like animal). An entertaining appendix chronicles a number of archaeological hoaxes that claimed that dinosaurs and humans existed side by side. Archaeologists don't need paleontological training to answer questions about that.

Eric A Powell is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America