Fossil Legends of the First Americans by Adrienne Mayor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. $29.95 hardcover; 446 pp; 15 page appendix; 58 pages of notes to the text; 21 page bibliography; 18 page index. The book is illustrated throughout with black & white photographs and other art.
Many of you will recognize the name of Adrienne Mayor as having written another book reviewed here previously. I refer to The First Fossil Hunters, Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. In both of these books Mayor combines her interests in folklore and the history of science to open a window to a more inclusive view of historical legends and their basis in reality.
Fossil Legends of the First Americans is an extensively researched work. Mayor has interviewed countless paleontologists and Native Americans to bolster the database for this work. There remains a great deal of mistrust of "whites" by Native American tribes even to this day. Despite the rapport Mayor developed with the native people she interviewed she admits that some legends were kept from her - a sad comment on the unfortunate reality that the whole story will probably never be known.
The Introduction will be of special interest as it is the story of Big Bone Lick and the beginnings of American paleontology. Mayor relates the familiar story of the discovery of Big Bone Lick but this account, even presented at the park itself as true, is not quite right. Through her research Mayor was able to determine that the discoverer was not the French explorer Longueuil but Abenaki ndians who were serving as his guides.
It is within the story surrounding Big Bone Lick that we see the first of the native legends. Many of the teeth and bones from Big Bone Lick made their way back to England and France in the late 1700's. The first study and written report was by a Frenchman named Daubenton. He concluded that the large bones were from an elephant-like creature but that the teeth were those of a carnivorous hippopotamus. Daubenton may have known about the Indian legend of horned water monsters of the Ohio valley and it is possible, according to Mayor, that this influenced his ideas. Both Daubenton and later Cuvier credited the discovery of these fossil to the Indians. Cuvier ultimately re-described the fossils from Big Bone Lick in the 1800's as the American Mastodon, Mammut americanum.
Another legend in Indian lore relates that the bones were those of giant bison that had preyed on early Indians. The giant bison were all wiped out by the Great Spirit, save for a single male and female, with a promise from the Indians that they would obey all his laws. The spared male and female were banished to lands up north in case they were needed in the future. This story and its implications for living examples of the strange creatures led many early Euro-Americans to believe these animals were still alive in the American west. Finding these living animals was one of the charters of the Lewis and Clark expeditions commissioned by Thomas Jefferson.
Following the introduction, the five chapters of Fossil Legends of the First Americans are organized by region. The regions covered are: the northeastern parts of North America; New Spain which includes Mexico, Central America and western South America; the southwestern part of North America including the west coastal areas; The Prairies or central North America; and the High Plains covering central and western Canada.
It is most interesting to see the similarity of different tribal groups' legends. This appears to reveal the ancient common heritage between these groups. Despite the similarities, some groups such as the Navajo have a fear of the dead. Their legends and beliefs caution that the giant beings of past worlds could come back to life if the conditions are right and that the bones should not be disturbed. The Zuni on the other hand believed that the fossils, as remains of ancient creatures turned to stone, were available to help people and used them as fetishes. The Zuni creation story is prescient as it includes "evolution, extinction, climate change, deep time, geology, and fossils" (quote from Douglas Wolfe, p. 116, Fossil Legends of the First Americans).
In some ways it is remarkable that the pre-contact creation stories of the Native Americans were more accurate than European thinking at the time. The native people of the Americas had creation myths that included prior worlds of immense age that predated humans. They also believed that there had been creatures inhabiting the earth in those earlier worlds that no longer existed. If that were not enough, the Indians recognized that some of the creatures were extinct relatives of living forms.
Native Americans modified their creation stories and myths based upon the accumulation of new evidence from scientists and missionaries. Much in the way scientists work, the Indians strove to make their stories more accurate as new information was known. Mayor's effort allowed her to work back to the original form of most Indian myths and legends.
Prior to the Bone Wars of the 1800s, Mesozoic and Cenozoic vertebrate remains littered the western lands. Mayor easily links these occurrences to legends of water monsters and thunderbirds. Native Americans developed water monster legends from exposed skeletons of Cretaceous Mosasaurs and the like. Thunderbirds were derived from Mesozoic Pterosaurs and giant Cenozoic raptors as well as the trace fossil remains of dinosaur footprints.
It should be noted that Mayor relates more than the creation myths surrounding vertebrate remains. Invertebrate fossils were used by Native Americans as fetishes and good luck charms. The Utes felt that trilobites would protect them from being "hurt by the white man's bullets" (p.152, op. cit.). Fossil bone, ground to powder was used to promote healing of wounds. In yet another application, ground bone powder was consumed in a potion to ease fear and promote courage. Many more examples are related within the book.
Throughout Fossil Legends of the First Americans Mayor documents the involvement of Native Americans in the discovery of specific fossils. She has done a great service to the Native Americans here by making every effort to discover the actual names of the native discoverers and not merely their tribal affiliation. This work helps fill in missing information in the history of American paleontology. Oddly enough, the early French explorers and scientists such as Cuvier did give credit to the American "savages" for the discovery of those Big Bone Lick specimens; once American paleontology really took hold in the 1800s Indian involvement was ignored or discounted altogether. This despite the fact that they were all-important in locating fossils for the likes of Cope and Marsh.
We are all familiar with what happened to the native populations as expansion continued through the American west with broken treaties and reservations on the worst possible lands. As Mayor points out, Euro-Americans pretty much did what they wanted regarding Indian lands and their rights concerning the fossils. The surprising part is that this mistreatment has continued. Mayor cites examples of this as recently as 2003.
The final chapter of Fossil Legends of the First Americans, "Common Ground", seeks to reveal similarities and common interests between native beliefs and the science of paleontology. Among other topics in this chapter was a discussion of "who owns the fossils" on Indian lands. Of course the story of the famous T. rex Sue was related along with all the ugly legalities of that case. But in a "man bites dog" twist, Mayor relates conflicts between vertebrate paleontologists who want to excavate fossils on Reservation lands and the Native Americans whose cultural beliefs maintain that the bones should stay in the ground.
Some of the Native American tribes want the fossils on their lands classified as cultural artifacts so that they fall under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). With such a move, Native Americans could request that all fossils previously taken from their lands be returned from museums. Under current rules, returnable cultural artifacts are only those considered to be found in an archaeological context.
The good news related by Mayor is that today there are many Native Americans who are assisting professional paleontologists. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is cooperating with Native American groups in joint efforts so that scientists can excavate and study the fossils, make casts and return the actual bones. Paleontologists provide educational opportunities and help the Native Americans set up their own museums that could attract tourists. Despite this degree of cooperation, there are certain Indian lands that are considered sacred and off limits.
Fossil Legends of the First Americans appears to have more of a personal motivation behind it than in her previous work. Mayor makes links between legends of strange creatures as told by Native Americans to the realities of the fossil evidence as the probable source. But beyond that, she is moved to right many wrongs directed at Native Americans by both early and more recent paleontologists. Mayor has placed a focus on George Gaylord Simpson. Simpson is introduced in the Preface in his own words and by others who knew him. A key player in forming the modern synthesis of evolutionary theory in the mid 20th century, Simpson, as revealed by Mayor, placed little credence in the tales and myths of the native peoples regarding fossils. He was a hard liner in his definition of empirical science and discounted the oral histories as inherently inaccurate, not scientific and by default, not worthy of consideration. Mayor provides two quotes under the heading for each chapter, one with a pro-Native American slant and a second with a contrary message. Half of the derogatory quotes are from George Gaylord Simpson. Mayor also makes repeated references to Simpson throughout the book. I know of Simpson only through his work in paleontology and evolutionary theory so I do not have the research background of Mayor to comment on his apparent dark side. My complaint is that his comments and beliefs have been taken out of his historical context. Was Simpson a racist? Maybe so. But in the early to mid 20th century he was not alone by any means.
Readability - High School and up.
On the Upside - Fascinating account of a part of New World history that you won't find elsewhere. Well researched and documented telling of the Native American's pre-scientific insight into the fossil remains visible around them. In the cases presented, the native explanations show more understanding of the natural world than Europeans at the time of contact and before the understanding brought by the likes of Cuvier and Darwin. On the Downside - Comments critical of George Gaylord Simpson were well stated but the point was sufficiently made quite early and the repetition was unnecessary. Emphasis on this one man was overdone.
Overall Rating - Highly recommended. This book will be interesting to science and paleontology history buffs as well as those wanting to learn more about Native American culture.