National Geographic News
According to the Lakota, or Sioux, Indians' "Water Monsters of the Badlands" legend, the rugged and eroded lands of southwestern South Dakota were the stage for an epic battle between water spirits and thunder and lightning spirits.
The water sprits were embodied by giant water monsters known as the Unktehi. Thunder and lighting spirits took the form of thunderbirds known as Wakinyan.
In the battle myth the Wakinyan torched the Badlands forest and plains with thunderbolts. An inland sea boiled and dried, and the Unktehi burned. Only the dried bones of the Unktehi and Wakinyan remained.
Today paleontologists know the Badlands are full of bones of mosasaurs (giant marine reptiles that plied an inland sea there during the Cretaceous period) and pterosaurs (giant flying reptiles). The Cretaceous is the geologic period spanning from 144 to 65 million years ago.
Adrienne Mayor is an author and independent scholar in Princeton, New Jersey. She says the "Water Monsters of the Badlands" legend was inspired in part by these fossils, which the Lakota undoubtedly encountered in their travels.
"It would have been logical and very rational to imagine these great sky and water creatures might have been enemies, and the reason they're all dead is they had battled," Mayor said.
Mayor tells the legend of this battleand the science behind itin her book, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, which was published in May.
The book builds on her theory that the fossils influenced, contributed to, and inspired many of the greatest myths and legends ever told.
"Granted, not all legends are based on fossils, but I'm pretty convinced some are," said Peter Dodson, a vertebrate paleontologist and professor of veterinary anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Dodson encouraged Mayor to develop her theory.
Mayor describes herself as a folklorist who studies the earliest inklings of scientific inquiry. She focuses on legends and myths largely because the scientific knowledge embedded in them is often overlooked by the academic community.
"Oral traditions contain natural knowledge but couched in mythological terms," Mayor said. "So those myths and stories are seen as products of imaginative storytelling rather than actually conveying real knowledge."
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