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Fossil Legends of the First Americans Paperback – 18 Mar 2007


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Product details

  • Paperback: 488 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; New Ed edition (18 Mar. 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691130493
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691130491
  • Product Dimensions: 3.2 x 15.2 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 380,119 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

"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."--Bryn Nelson, Newsday

"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. . . . 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."--Eric A. Powell, Archaeology

"Fossil Legends of the First Americans presents an interesting, intriguing and informative text, written in a fun, accessible way that will appeal to a wide audience, without scaring off the scientific community. The manner in which fossils legends and Native American tales are dealt with, is as original. . . . Adrienne Mayor has based her book on a substantial amount of relevant, up-to-date and to-the-point research data, and as such commands the reader's indulgence."--C. van Kooten, PaleoArchaeology

"Through remarkably wide-ranging research, Mayor has recovered the fascinating story of how various tribes encountered and interpreted dinosaur bones and other remains of early life. . . . [She] illuminates the surprisingly relevant views of early peoples confronting evidence of prehistoric life. . . . This pioneering work replaces cultural estrangement with belated understanding."--Booklist

"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, her larger themes resonate with a remarkable clarity. . . . [R]ichly illuminating."--Bryn Nelson, Philadelphia Inquirer

From the Back Cover

"Engaging, enlightening, and most of all, educationally entertaining. We have precious few examples of Native American interpretation of prehistoric events as they have been passed down through the generations, and in this book Adrienne Mayor unveils several. In so doing, she opens up a new world."--Jack Horner, coauthor of Digging Dinosaurs, Curator of Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, Montana State University

"Adrienne Mayor has absolutely done it again. In Fossil Legends of the First Americans she has taken up exactly where she left off last time with The First Fossil Hunters. She has done a superb job of researching her topic and making it interesting. Just a wonderful job all around."--Peter Dodson, author of The Horned Dinosaurs

"Adrienne Mayor is a wonderfully independent-minded scholar and a fine writer who works the edge lines between disciplines, where others don't go. She's a brilliant researcher but never forgets about character and story. Give her a fossil or a legend, and she'll supply flesh, blood, narrative, cultural context, and a smile. In this book she also delivers an important sense of justice."--David Quammen, author of Monster of God and Song of the Dodo

"A brilliant and well-researched book that creates a new field of inquiry. Mayor opens a wide landscape in which native knowledge and use of fossils becomes an integral part of the academic and popular interest. Undoubtedly a landmark in American thought."--Vine Deloria, Jr., author of Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths, former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians

"This is a surprising, convincing, and most interesting book, which I read with pleasure. It is an intelligent book, one that continues to map out a new field of scholarship of which Mayor is the prime exponent. It is a novel book, because of its unique content and its unusual and yet valuable insight that all 'scientific' knowledge does not and need not follow the modern Western tradition."--Pat Shipman, author of The Wisdom of Bones and The Evolution of Racism


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on 11 Aug. 2005
Format: Hardcover
Following her innovative and informative study of fossils as roots for myths in the Mediterranean, Mayor brings her investigative talents to the Western Hemisphere. Here, she follows the pattern set in her earlier book, "Ancient Paleontologists" by examining the myths and legends of Native Americans. Did they, like their Eurasian counterparts in Greece, find ancient bones protruding from creek beds and bluffs? Did they also weave legends of fabulous creatures, human giants or spiritual entites from these unusual artefacts? In this account of tales and myths, Mayor's fluid style enlivens the legends, their tellers and the artefacts that inspired them.
Dividing her quest into regional investigations, she surveys the East Coast of North America, skips South to the realm of the Incas, then returns to Great Plains and Pacific Slope. Mayor finds links from recorded stories to the bones of dinosaurs, pterosaurs and mammoths. She is hampered, of course, by the minimal direct information available. She must rely on those who recorded and interpreted the information often gathered from conquered peoples. And many of the earliest records were destroyed by the Christian conquerors. What remains of those records has been the subject of much dispute. In early New England, Puritan Cotton Mather rejected stories and fossils alike as the invalid heritage of the heathen "salvages". In modern times, renowned paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson rejected the notion of Native American fossil finds and the legends surrounding them as lacking scientific value.
Mayor, however, shows how narrow Simpson's view has proven. Taking the legends more seriously, she notes that even President Thomas Jefferson had enough faith in fossil finds to charge the Lewis and Clark expedition with searching for living specimens.
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Format: Paperback
This book is in very much a similar vein to Adrienne Mayor's earlier book, The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times, tracing evidence, via literature, folklore and myth, of the awareness of ancient cultures of prehistoric fossils. She set herself a much harder task in this book, in tracing Native American awareness and understanding of fossil remains via stories and myth-making, since most Native cultures are oral and therefore prior to the relatively modern era left little in the way of written evidence of myths and beliefs.

It's a fascinating read, although it didn't enthral me in quite the same way as her other book. Part of my issue was the approach, I have to confess. For a start, it would be impossible to replicate the thoughts and beliefs of earlier generations of Native Americans; for all that their culture is predominately oral, it is virtually impossible to believe that modern stories and myths can have been handed down over decades and centuries within any change, modification or influence from current knowledge. Unlike a Greek vase or a Roman tablet, there is no way of ascertaining just how old a story may be. A storyteller saying it has been passed from his grandfather's grandfather's grandfather is not evidence.

I can well believe that earlier generations of Native Americans, both pre- and post-Columbian, will have incorporated the fossils and remains into their belief systems, that stories of Thunder Beings and Water Monsters may have been inspired by the scattered remains of gigantic creatures, that Native Americans may have shown much more awareness of 'deep time' and geological epochs, of extinction events, climate change and climatic disasters, than pre-Darwinian Europeans may have.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful By S. L. Marchant on 16 Jan. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
'QI' It's a shame that so called educated western ideas put very little store by native oral records and in most cases did not bother to record anything that was said. Similar to south America in earlier invasions where written accounts were destroyed before any research and understanding could be carried out. It's frustrating that 'political' wrangling is still denying full scientific research in certain areas. I've only marked this as three stars, as whilst reading I got the impression it was written so as not to upset the belief that North American Tribes were 'The First Americans'. I would suggest that anyone interested in this area should read 'Forbidden Archeology' (Michael A. Cremo & Richard L. Thompson)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 12 reviews
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
A second first step 11 Aug. 2005
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Following her innovative and informative study of fossils as roots for myths in the Mediterranean, Mayor brings her investigative talents to the Western Hemisphere. Here, she follows the pattern set in her earlier book, "Ancient Paleontologists" by examining the myths and legends of Native Americans. Did they, like their Eurasian counterparts in Greece, find ancient bones protruding from creek beds and bluffs? Did they also weave legends of fabulous creatures, human giants or spiritual entites from these unusual artefacts? In this account of tales and myths, Mayor's fluid style enlivens the legends, their tellers and the artefacts that inspired them.

Dividing her quest into regional investigations, she surveys the East Coast of North America, skips South to the realm of the Incas, then returns to Great Plains and Pacific Slope. Mayor finds links from recorded stories to the bones of dinosaurs, pterosaurs and mammoths. She is hampered, of course, by the minimal direct information available. She must rely on those who recorded and interpreted the information often gathered from conquered peoples. And many of the earliest records were destroyed by the Christian conquerors. What remains of those records has been the subject of much dispute. In early New England, Puritan Cotton Mather rejected stories and fossils alike as the invalid heritage of the heathen "salvages". In modern times, renowned paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson rejected the notion of Native American fossil finds and the legends surrounding them as lacking scientific value.

Mayor, however, shows how narrow Simpson's view has proven. Taking the legends more seriously, she notes that even President Thomas Jefferson had enough faith in fossil finds to charge the Lewis and Clark expedition with searching for living specimens. It took one of the geniuses of the times, Georges Cuvier, to bestow validity on fossil bones by declaring them the remnants of actual ancient creatures. With so many of the artefacts representing large species, the underlying logic of Native American legends depicting giant people and creatures makes sense.

The tales Mayor recounts are those of huge, terrifying animals or human-like creatures. Some raid the human settlements, only defeated by divine beings or the occasional heroic figure. Many of the stories have these beings eliminated by lightning or "fire from the sky". The powers of the giants were immense, but some felt the strength and size might be imparted to people. It remains unclear how many peoples used the bones for medicinal purposes - reminiscent of the "dragon bones" of apothecary shops in China. From Atlantic to Pacific, on the Plains or in the Andes, the bones emerged, launching fireside stories. The tales show how innovative individuals acquired special powers in the community through knowledge of fossils. These people could give the artefacts meaning or make them useful in various ways. There is a great similarity among the many peoples of the Western Hemisphere on what the strange objects appearing from the ground meant. The theme of giants, great battles and contests with fiery ends recurs often. When recorded in images, whether on tipis or stelae, they are readily identifiable.

Fossils in "enterprising" North America became the subject of frauds and deceptions. To the credulous, artefacts take on a special role and there's money to be made in them. Mayor concludes her book with an account of many of these. Fossils have been used to support "Scripture", such as accounting for the Noachean Flood. A regular business arose in Mexico through a trove of clay figurines purporting to represent ancient Sumer or even Atlantis. Red-haired giants were "found" in Nevada and ceremonies are performed in northern Mexico by people claiming to have recent contact with dinosaurs.

Mayor's books on ancient paleontology are a call for further investigation of a new field of interest. She is a herald for a new, emerging science. Simply finding bones and other fossils is no longer sufficient evidence for assessing the past. Long-term historical and legendary records have much to contribute. Mayor's plea for more studies should be taken up by young [and not so young!] scholars who are open-minded enough to apply new ideas and approaches. Her clear prose style eases the way for anybody interested in these topics to delve into them and perceive the possibilities. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Pioneering and Fun 4 May 2005
By Inlet Rower - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Long before Europeans rediscovered the dinosaur, Native Americans knew about fossils. They collected and tried to explain them, and fossils remain part of the living legacy of Native culture today. Always fascinating and often passionate, this book traces the story of Amerindian fossil-collecting from the Aztecs to the Iroquois and from the pre-Columbian era to the politics of the American West. Adrienne Mayor has written a groundbreaking and scholarly book that is also a pleasure to read. The illustrations are beautiful. Mayor does for Native-American culture what she did for the Greeks and Romans in an earlier book about unknown fossil hunters. Her new volume has many strands, from paleontology to history to Hollywood, and they come together seamlessly.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
America's First Fossil Collectors 2 Mar. 2007
By Neal Baxter - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I always wondered how Native Americans interpreted the huge fossil skeletons of extinct animals like giant sloths and mastodons, dinosaurs and Pterodactyls. Natural History Museums in the US never address this question, even though they often display dinosaur skeletons that were dug up on American Indian Reservations.

Mayors book is based on an obvious fact: centuries before Europeans arrived, way before scientists started studying fossils, people in the Americas created stories to try to explain the weird remains of creatures that died out millions of years ago. I was amazed that she found the oldest recorded fossil legends from the Inkas and Aztecs; the book is well-researched and I liked her writing style, as she presents fossil legends told by the Iroquois, Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Navaho,Apache, and many other tribes to account for the various kinds of fossils they found.

My favorite were the exciting Lakota Sioux stories about the fossils of giant marine reptiles (Mosasaurs) and huge pterasaurs in the badlands and chalk hills of the west: they attributed the bones to wars between giant water serpents and thunderbirds.

What really impressed me was the way Mayor shows how the Native American ideas about fossils were accurate about a lot of things that scientists would discover later. This is the idea behind geomythology, which has been in the news lately as scientists are beginning to see that the myths about fossils and volcanoes, earthquakes, etc, were based on real evidence and sometimes actually got some things right without modern scientific methods. The Native American tales of fossils talk about earth's first lifeforms in primeval times, changes of species, and extinctions.

In a section at the end of the book, Mayor chronicles some entertaining misinformed accounts and deliberate hoaxes, such as claims that dinos and human beings existed at the same time.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Excavating Folklore 19 Mar. 2009
By K. R. Evans - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This work exceeds expectation created by Mayor's previous excavation, "The First Fossil Hunters", which digs out the solid remains of myths of the Classical ancient world. The research may not qualify as 'exhaustive'; but, it is certainly extensive, with shovels-full of previously unpublished Native American lore. The Appendix and Notes sections take about a fourth of the volume, but are as fascinating as the text itself. It is a companion milestone to her first project demonstrating that, contrary to the overconfident opinion of academic science, Human ancestors did not simply create their traditional histories out of their imaginations for entertainment purposes, as we tend to do nowadays; but, were usually quite genuine in observing, understanding, and explaining these undeniable pieces of the past in their own way, as is the tendancy of every culture. The reader will be further enlightened to find that the various folktales of the Native Americans contain common elements which preserve a knowlege of the remote past that exceeded the academic science of the time. You may even be inclined to think, after considering the 'former myths' of Troy, Ankor Wat, Irem, Ebla, and others, that the only true myth is "myth" itself: a pigeonhole term that was invented to safely and securely catagorize anything that does not immediately seem believable.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Proving that not all American history is boring 18 Sept. 2007
By Laura Jefferson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book because I enjoyed Mayor's previous book and I have become interested in American prehistory. This book is more readable than the First Fossil Hunters (which I also enjoyed and learned from), and makes me aware how very large this continent is and how little I know about it. The author's sympathy with the pre-literate peoples does not diminish her appreciation of modern science. It's an enjoyable read and makes me want to visit regions more fossiliferous than New England.
If you happen to be reading it at the same time as When They Separated Earth From Sky (Barber and Barber) it's like being in the middle of an enthusiastic conversation between friends and colleagues.
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