Fossil Legends Of The First Americans by Adrienne Mayor

Around the campfire that night…the talk drifted to the people who had known these fossil-rich badlands better than anyone ever would: the Crow, Blackfeet, and Sioux. Long before the arrival of Europeans, Native people had been the first to experience the thrill of discovery that we had felt today. They were the first to encounter dinosaur bones and other fossils buried in the earth for eons and then exposed, like our finds, by wind and rain.

Suddenly we all were wondering out loud: What did Native Americans think of these bizarre skeletons mysteriously turned to stone? How did they explain the bones and teeth and claws of gigantic creatures that no one had ever seen alive? Did they speculate about what could have destroyed such monsters? Did they collect fossils?

As a scholar of natural history legends, I had written a book about how the ancient Greeks and Romans interpreted the remains of enormous, extinct creatures buried around the Mediterranean. And I’d read about the pioneer paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Marsh battling over dinosaur bones in the American West. But Native American discoveries and conceptions of fossils—this was unexplored territory, full of exciting possibilities for understanding pre-Darwinian ideas about paleontology.

What did fossils mean to Native Americans? It was something I’d wondered about every time I had gazed at arrowheads and fossils exhibited side by side in museums. I knew that Plains Indians had gathered certain iridescent marine fossils for their magical power to summon buffalo herds. Growing up in South Dakota, I remembered reading Sioux myths about Thunder Birds fighting Water Monsters. Now I was curious to know whether those stories had been woven around dinosaur and giant reptile skeletons that people had observed weathering out of the Badlands.1

I recalled an object I’d seen earlier that summer in the Phillips County Museum in Malta, Montana, a small town northwest of Hell Creek. Indian artifacts were displayed along with impressive dinosaur remains, just as they are in countless other American museums, whether large and famous or modest and obscure. This juxtaposition, which seems to equate the human artifacts with the animal fossils as relics of extinction, would become a common sight as I visited natural history collections across the country. I had always wondered why museum curators never made what seemed to me the obvious connection between the local Native cultures and the conspicuous evidence of remarkable creatures from another age that they had encountered in their lands.2

Most historians of science assume that traditional Indian knowledge of fossils is irretrievably lost. As the paleontologists David Weishampel and Luther Young recently put it: “Native Americans, so in tune with Earth and sky and water, surely noticed the giant bones weathering from the ground and the birdlike footprints preserved on slabs of stone. But their discoveries are lost to modern science; only their legends survive.”3

But, in fact, the collection of New World oral paleontological traditions began nearly 500 years ago, in 1519, when Hernando Cortés brought Aztec fossil legends and a huge mastodon bone from Mexico back to the King of Spain. And it turns out that many of the great figures in early modern scientific history— from Georges Cuvier and Alexander von Humboldt in Europe to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in America—were avid investigators of indigenous American fossil lore.

The deep involvement in Native folklore of these scientifically oriented individuals—especially Cuvier, the father of paleontology—was one of the most surprising discoveries of my research. Their interest points to an important theme of this book: even though Native American understandings of the fossil record were not scientifically methodical in the modern sense, they offered an alternative, coherent way of interpreting earth’s history at a time when Europeans were questioning their own mythic explanations for fossils and just beginning to develop the formal disciplines of geology and paleontology. Many of the Native approaches to the fossil record—based on their careful and repeated observation of evidence and on rational speculation— are compatible with scientific inquiry. Observations of remarkable natural evidence stimulated explanations that became part of traditional Native knowledge, and those traditions were often verified and revised over time—activities that spring from the same impulses to “get it right” that led to the creation of scientific methods.

The interest in Native American fossil knowledge continued among scientific thinkers for 400 years after Columbus, but had already begun to wane by the time Marsh, Cope, and the other pioneer paleontologists began to hunt fossils in the American West in the late 19th and 20th centuries. These men depended on the help of Indian scouts to locate the bone beds, but they rarely preserved any traditional notions about the extinct remains offered by the guides—or even their names. I have made a special effort to recover the names of Indians who helped the early paleontologists find and collect fossils. They deserve no less than what the famous bone-hunter Charles H. Sternberg claimed as his “inalienable right.” “I demand that my name appear as collector on all the material which I have gathered from the rocks of the earth,” he wrote in 1909.4

In 1935, the Canadian paleontologist Edward M. Kindle (1869- 1940) was the first scientist to suggest that Native Americans should be credited with several significant fossil discoveries, in a brief paper in the Journal of Paleontology. But in 1942-43, the eminent U.S. paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson (1902-84) strenuously rejected Kindle’s suggestion, classifying all Indian fossil discoveries as “casual finds without scientific sequel.” Simpson, Curator and Chair of the newly formed Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), effectively ended the earlier conversations between Native Americans and Euro-American scientists about the fossil record. And his pronouncements are one reason why the history of Native encounters with fossils is so little known today.5

Yet much more historical and natural knowledge has been retained and for a longer timespan than is generally appreciated. To find these nuggets of genuine knowledge, the Iroquois scholar Barbara Mann suggests that one should look for the “consistent elements” in the layered matrix of storytelling over the ages. Many scholars have questioned whether oral traditions are “real history.” Anthropologist Robert Lowie, for example, who studied several Native American cultures in the 1930s, famously declared in 1915 that “oral traditions [have no] historical value whatsoever under any conditions whatsoever.” But Lowie’s grip is loosening: today many mythologists and historians would agree with Roger Echo-Hawk, a Pawnee historian, that oral histories should be treated as “respectable siblings of written documents,” as valuable sources for reconstructing “ancient American history.” Indeed, the most recent analyses of the mythmaking process, drawing on modern linguistics and cognition studies and matching details in traditions with datable historical, astronomical, or geological events, are revealing that accurate geomythology can extend back over millennia.6

Other, mute, evidence for ancient curiosity about fossils is literally buried in the ground, since modern archaeological excavations have shown that many kinds of fossils were collected and used in various ways by paleo-Indians. Further evidence for interest in fossils is also stored in museum collections, in the form of medicine bundles and amulets containing petrified wood and fossil shells and bones.

Trying to reconstruct the outlines of an incomplete and ancient body of oral fossil knowledge is like trying to reconstruct a skeleton from disarticulated and incomplete remains. As in paleontology, luck plays a role and so does conjecture. The paleontologist assembles a framework from the fragmentary traces of a creature that were accidentally preserved in stone by a capricious geological process—a process as unpredictable as the preservation of spoken folklore over countless generations and cultural upheavals. Gaps are filled in with hypothetical bones. The reconstructed dinosaur skeleton is truly impressive, but it is still only a lifeless armature and one longs for so much more than dry bones. I remember Jack Horner exclaiming, as he pointed outcthe remains of T. rex and Triceratops at Hell Creek: “But these are just skeletons! I wish I could see the real dinosaur, the living, breathing creature!”

Like paleontological resources on Indian lands, however, traditional fossil knowledge can be fraught with issues of ownership. Some oral knowledge is considered sacred or kept secret from outsiders. Deloria approaches the problem of sacred knowledge by trying to avoid being the first to publish oral material unless a comparable version has already appeared in print. This approach is generally accepted among Native Americans as they balance the tensions between revealing and sharing cultural wisdom. Juanita Pahdopony, a Comanche storyteller who related some personal memories about fossil- bone medicine in Oklahoma, remarked: “I would not like to be the first to reveal a tribal knowledge that is kept by our people. After all, what is left that hasn’t already been taken from us?”

Some traditional stories are the private possessions of individuals. The early ethnologists learned that offering something of value was often the price of a hearing a story. A rare few today feel that their stories remain personal possessions even after publication. For example, Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, a Lakota writer in South Dakota, told me that I needed her permission to quote from books she has published with a university press. John Allen, Jr., an Assiniboine spiritual leader in Montana, on the other hand, says that it honors his culture whenever oral traditions are retold in writing.

Some elders believe that oral stories should never be put in print, for they “must have human breath or they will die,” in the words of the Shawnee storyteller Neeake. And sometimes stories are not recalled until the right question is asked, continued Neeake. “People sometimes suddenly give a story if they have found someone who knows how to listen with the heart, but at other times they decide not to share. A cardinal rule of Indian teaching must be followed: If you don’t know the proper question, or how to pose it properly, then you don’t need to know the answer.” 7

Fossils of all sorts were collected in the Americas for a wide range of uses: as “deeds” to land, as historical evidence, as weapons, as healing medicine, and as personal amulets for protection or other special powers. Their mysterious presence in the earth inspired explanatory narratives both simple and suprisingly sophisticated.


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 different landforms, climates, and a succession of different faunas no longer alive today. The Native observers envisioned the extinct creatures’ appearance, behavior, habitat, and the cause of their disappearance, proposing gradual and catastrophic extinction scenarios. Some animals and plants observed only in fossil form were identified as ancestors or relatives of living species. Not only did many of the insights about earth’s past anticipate modern scientific theories, but some traditional narratives were revised to integrate new scientific knowledge. All these activities evince the stirrings of scientific inquiry in pre-Darwinian cultures. And as European and Euro-American naturalists became aware of the significance of fossils in the New World, Native knowledge and guides actively contributed to the development of paleontological science.

In expanding the definitions of paleontological discovery and inquiry, this book takes up the tapestry begun by Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, Georges Cuvier, and Edward Kindle. I have endeavored to gather enough dramatic evidence, backed up by rigorous documentation, to persuade even George Gaylord Simpson, were he still alive, to relax his stance as a sentinel of hard science and give in to the “temptation” to contemplate First American fossil discoveries and insights as something more than simply a “diffuse awareness of fossils.” Would Simpson be convinced that Native American discoveries and interpretions deserve a place in the history of paleontology? That’s debatable—by all accounts he was an “irascible man and very firm in his convictions”—yet I feel that this new evidence would encourage Simpson to reconsider his judgment. As Michael Novacek, of the American Museum of Natural History, remarked to me in 1998 when I first began writing about the earliest recorded discoveries and interpretations of fossils in classical antiquity and among Native Americans, “It is important to uncover any inklings of the facts that fossilized creatures were indeed from the distant past, are now extinct, and have some connection with living creatures,” ideas usually credited to Steno in the 17th century. “Any foreshadowings of these scientific concepts would be fascinating.”8

But as Allison Dussias observed in her 1996 article tracing the legal ramifications of fossils on reservation lands, traditional beliefs “about land, stones, and fossils are not simply of historical interest.” Because many of the traditions about land, stones, and fossils survive in the living culture of Native Americans today, they influence tribal members’ interactions, for good or ill, with paleontologists who work on Indian lands. Native American fossil knowledge once enjoyed a mutually informing relationship with Euro-American science, but nowadays the two cultures often have clashing views of paleontology, especially in the American West, where conflicts over land and fossils are most recent and raw.

The chief disagreement between traditional Native Americans and paleontologists centers on the proper treatment of ancient animal remains that weather out of the earth where they have lain for ages. Both groups hold passionate ideas about the fossils. For many traditionalists, digging into and removing things from the ground, such as rocks and bones, violates the integrity of the Earth, the source of life. As the Sioux medicine man Lame Deer maintained, loose fossils and pebbles may be collected for special uses, but embedded fossils and stones should not be dug up. Even a medicine man “finds his stones on the surface of high buttes,” said Lame Deer.

In the Indian worldview, the land and everything that composes it, including stones and fossils, are hallowed, vital entities. Wovoka, the Paiute holy man, expressed this reverence in powerful language in about 1890: “You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my Mother’s bosom? Then when I die, she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stones! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones?” Custer’s Crow scout, Curly, voiced similar sentiments in 1907: “The soil you can see is not ordinary soil—it is the dust of the blood, the flesh, and the bones” of our ancestors and relations.

The sense that the earthly remains of past lifeforms should be respected by leaving them in place was evident in each Native culture discussed in this book. People took notice of fossil bone beds, marked their locations, revisited the sites, and speculated on their identity and meaning, but generally refrained from taking away large bones except in special cases. This core belief was expressed by the Oglala leader Johnson Holy Rock in 2002: “Fossil bones should be left in the ground as they were found. It is not good to take them away and put them in a museum. If we want to understand them, shouldn’t we go to see the animals where they lived and died?” Clifford Canku, a Dakota teacher, declared, “It is madness to take a dead creature from the earth and set up its bones in a building as if it were still alive!” The Navajo spiritual leader Harry Manygoats warned that it courts environmental catastrophe to tear fossils out of the realm where they now “live” in a kind of suspended animation.9

The fact that weathering causes mineralized bones to disintegrate is not disturbing to traditional cultures, for that seems good and natural, a way of returning a lifeform’s energy to nature’s “hoop.” This holistic worldview, with its nonlinear idea of time and appreciation of the sacred nature of the earth, differs profoundly from the Euro-American approach to science. Many paleontologists regard Native misgivings about sundering animal fossils from the earth as superstition and ignorance, and they wince to think of exposed fossil skeletons crumbling away uncollected and unstudied. Yet in the case of common species already well described in the literature, how many more plaster-jacketed specimens are really needed to further science? Numerous historical examples can be found of compulsive overcollecting in numbers that far exceed what is justified for scientific study.
The cultural disinclination to unearth creatures long dead is only one factor in the tensions over fossils, though. Compelling historical reasons underlie Native Americans’ distrust of paleontological work.

Paleontologists commonly complain that Indians tend to conflate archaeology and paleontology, and worry about digging up human ancestors along with dinosaurs. But these fears are neither irrational nor unfounded. “The Indians connect paleontology with archaeology,” explains Mike Flynn, a paleontologist who works on the Crow Reservation, “because they have had bad experiences with archaeologists who took human bones.” Beginning in 1868, U.S. soldiers were ordered to collect Indian skulls for “science,” and over the next decades, more than 4,000 heads were taken from bodies in battlefields, fresh graves, burial scaffolds, hospitals, mission cemeteries, and abandoned villages struck by smallpox and starvation. This deplorable episode in the history of science continued into the 20th century, as the skulls of Native men, women, and children were amassed by archaeologists and anthropologists—and paleontologists.

Field paleontologists today repeatedly assure Native people that they are only interested in animal bones millions of years old, not in recent human remains. But some Native Americans, such as the Shoshone and Bannock, believe that ancient animals buried in the earth should be accorded the same respect as human ancestors. Others, like the Navajo, fear that dinosaur excavations might interfere with ancestors’ bones. Scientists often attribute such concerns to ignorance of geochronology. But, besides the fact that the early paleontologists saw little difference between robbing fresh human graves and excavating fossilized dinosaur specimens, burial customs are another reason for anxiety about paleontology.

A third reason for distrust of paleontological activity is the systematic removal of significant animal fossils from Indian lands without consent, often faciliated by the government despite treaty obligations.

As I gathered research for this book, some paleontologists who work in the West expressed fears that publishing the extensive evidence for Native fossil traditions not only would encourage tribes to ban fossil hunting on their lands, but also might inspire tribes to use NAGPRA to request the return of fossils now in museums. “The days of the wild and free-roaming paleontologists are over,” one BLM paleontologist lamented. Traditional Native folklore about fossils may be an interesting subject, I was told, but it has ominous implications for the discipline of paleontology. 10

We need fossils to understand our place on this planet, observes paleontologist Mark Norell (American Museum of Natural History). “Without fossils we would have no indicator of our own species’ relative insignificance even during the time that humans have occupied the planet. If this does not strike one as a revelation concerning our place in nature, then it is best to look to mysticism for answers.” “All organisms are interrelated through our evolutionary heritage,” continued Norell. Everything alive is reciprocally related and even the “extinct species are not isolated entities from Earth’s past. They, like we, are all integrated actors in the drama” of life.

These ideas resonate with Native American insights that everything on earth is intricately imbricated: nothing is without life and nothing exists in isolation. “Seeing in a sacred manner,” explained Lame Deer, means perceiving this dynamic interrelatedness and vitality and not interfering with its flow. Norell’s impassioned perspective shows how creative scientists are developing similar holistic conceptions of nature.11


Adrienne Mayor, excerpt from the book Fossil Legends of the First Americans (2005, Princeton University)


1. I use the terms Native Americans, Native people, Indians, First Americans, American Indians and Amerindians, and First Nations interchangeably, giving the names of specific cultural groups (often called nations in the east and tribes in the west), whenever possible. I use the term paleo- Indians for prehistoric, early cultures for which there is archaeological evidence, specifying Clovis, Folsom, Fremont, and so on whenever known.
2. David Hurst Thomas 2000, chapter 3, argues that the definition of Indians as natural history specimens like mastodon and dinosaur fossils began in 18th century America.
3. Weishampel and Young 1996, 51.
4. Sternberg 1990, 30-31. Each of Marsh’s Yale students hunting fossils in the Bridger Basin in 1870 received “full credit for all his discoveries, and the thought of having one’s name attached to some rare specimen in the Yale Museum led to sharp competition.” Lanham 1973, 108.
5. Kindle 1935 credited Indians with several important fossil discoveries, but was roundly criticized by Simpson, 1942 and 1943. Simpson referred to Native American involvement in some historic paleontological discoveries, but denied that their finds constituted “true” scientific discoveries. Simpson 1942, 132; 1943, 26-27. Occasional, brief references to Native American fossil traditons may be found in paleontological literature since Simpson. For example, Paul Semonin, in American Monster (2000), recounted some Indian interpretations of mastodon remains in the Colonial era, in order to show how such myths were appropriated by early Americans to create a national identity based on the mastodon as a patriotic totem. Claudine Cohen’s The Fate of the Mammoth (translated into English in 2002), focuses on European myths and theories about prehistoric elephants, with passing reference to American Indian legends. Native American scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., pits Native American worldviews against Euro-American science, with some paleontological examples, in Red Earth, White Lies (1997). Deloria also presents examples of Native knowledge excluded from orthodox science and history as superstition and fantasy. A few archaeologists have collected evidence for Native American interest in fossils. For example, rock art scholar Peter Faris presented a survey titled “Native American Paleontology: Fossils, Myths, and Imagery” to the Utah Rock Art Research Association in 2001, and continues his investigations. See also Jerry McDonald’s 1989 paper “A Collection of Fossils from an Adena Mound [Ohio] and Notes on the Collecting and Uses of Fossils by Native Americans.” An important article by Allison Dussias, “Science, Sovereignty, and the Sacred Text: Paleontological Resources and Native American Rights,” Maryland Law Review 55 (1996), surveys the history of legal issues surrounding fossils in the western United States since the era of Cope and Marsh, from the Native American point of view (thanks to Daniel Usner for this reference).
6. Barbara Mann, Interview, June 2002. Lowie cited by Thomas
2000, 99-101. Folklore scholars now generally accept that oral traditions about historical events endure for about 1,000 years, although some oral myths about geological and astronomical events can be reliably dated to about 6,000 years. On studies testing the antiquity and accuracy of oral history and traditions, see Roger Echo-Hawk 2000, quote 267. The processes of creating reliable oral myths about datable geological, historial, or astronomical events thousands of years ago are now analyzed in terms of linguistics and cognition by Barber and Barber 2004. These issues were broached by Deloria in 1997, 126-36, 39 (observation and accuracy), and 186 (Deloria believed the extent of human memory is about 3,000 years). See also Thomas 2000, chapter 10, on the history of the ethnological debate over whether oral traditions preserve “real history.”

7. Deloria 1997, xiv-xv. Juanita Pahdopony, Interview, April-May 2002. Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, per. cor., May 6, 2002. John Allen, Jr., Interview, September 6, 2000. Neeake, elected Principal Storyteller of the Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band, Interview, March-April 2002. I am grateful to Deloria, Pahdopony, Neeake, and Roger Echo-Hawk for valuable discussions of these issues.
8. Paleontological historian Martin Rudwick, in his preface to the 1985 editon of Rudwick 1976, characterized all paleontological knowledge before the “Renaissance of Western civilisation” as nothing but a “diffuse awareness of fossils.” “Irascible”: Peter Dodson, per. cor. July 13, 2003. Michael Novacek, per. cor., April 3, 1998.
9. Lame Deer and Erdoes 1972, 194-95. Wovoka and Curly cited on Indigenous Peoples Literature website. Holy Rock Interview, October 14, 2002. Canku Interview, July 28, 2000. Manygoats, Interview, see chapter 3. Dussias 1996, 97, see 100-107 on the inviolability of the earth. See Wildschut 1960, 90, on Crows leaving rocks and fossils in the ground, or collecting them for personal medicine.
10. Mike O’Neill, National Paleontology Program Director, BLM, Washington DC, per. cor., April 23, 2003. So far, O’Neill continued, “no tribal entity has officially identified fossils as sources of cultural or religious values.” Actually, in 1992 the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe claimed an interest in the disputed T. rex named Sue as part of the tribe’s cultural heritage, but this consideration was ignored by the courts, see below. I know of one repatriation under NAGPRA of a Navajo medicine bundle, or jish, that happened to include a small marine fossil, but the fossil was only incidental to the case (see note XX, chapter 3).
11. Norell et al. 2000, 96. Lame Deer and Erdoes 1972, xiv-xv.

Fossil Legends Of The First Americans by Adrienne Mayor