December 10, 2005 Adrienne Mayor,  "Fossil finds and legends in New Spain".

    Independent Scholar Adrienne Mayor presented her December 10th talk on fossil finds and legends in New Spain, which demonstrated that Native Americans recognized and revered fossils as the remains of life forms that no longer walked the earth. This contradicts the view of U.S. paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson who believed that Native Americans had no role in American paleontology. He stated, in 1946, that they viewed any fossil remains they came upon with idle curiosity.

       Beginning her account in Mexico, Ms. Mayor cited Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a captain in the army of Hernando Cortes, as the author of the first documentation of Native American fossil finds by a European. He states that he and his fellow soldiers were astounded by preserved bones of ancient giants displayed by the Tlaxcatecas, in 1519. The fact that these were most likely Mastodon femurs would have been difficult for 16th century men to discern, as they were most often found without more easily identified skulls. Mammal skulls are much thinner and more fragile, and thus much less likely to survive in fossilized form. Cortes was said to have sent one of these fossilized bones to Spain, but there is no current record of it in Madrid.  The former Cortes Palace, now Cuauhnahuac Museum in Cuernavaca, Mexico, has many similar mammoth fossils.

       Two later Spanish chroniclers followed Diaz. The first, Father Jose de Acosta, investigated legends about giant bones and teeth fifty years after Cortes. Local legends stated that the first native people who crossed the Sierra Madre into Tlaxcala encountered and slew giants who ate only grass and acorns. The Florentine Codex of Bernardino de Sahagun later related a tale of the travels of Quetzalcoatl, who was reputed to have left the imprint of his hands upon a rock on which he rested. Despite the fact that the legendary site of this rock in Temacpalco, just outside of Mexico City, has not been rediscovered, descriptions indicate that the prints are most likely fossilized dinosaur tracks, which have been found throughout Mexico. The Aztecs also believed that the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacan were obviously built by giants whose remains had been found in the area.

         In South  America, Pedro de Cieza de Leon recounted legends of giants in his 1553 Chronicle of Peru. In his account, one of three telling the same tale, giants destroyed all vegetation and animal life on the now barren coast, until they were finally immolated in a terrible fire sent from the heavens. Even the deputy governor of Trujillo, Peru, Juan de Olmos, verified the supposed giant remains, finding huge thigh bones, ribs and teeth in a series of excavations. Nineteenth century naturalists Alexander Von Humboldt and Georges Cuvier and twentieth century archaeologist Helmut de Terra have all verified the existence of these fossils, and the Native Americans role in their recognition and preservation.

             Those who wish to explore the work of Ms. Mayor in depth may consult her most recent book, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, published by Princeton University Press, which includes the areas addressed in this talk. Also of interest are her previous works on the roots of ancient folklore: The First Fossil Hunters (Princeton, 2000), depicting parallels between Greek and Roman myths and classical paleontological studies,  and Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs (Overlook, 2003), tracing the early development of chemical and biological weapons.

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