Giants in the Earth

I stumbled on this in an autobiography of Buffalo Bill Cody (p. 207):


While we were in the Sand Hills, scouting the Niobrara country, the Pawnee Indians brought into camp, one night, some very large bones, one of which a surgeon of the expedition pronounced to be the thigh bone of a human being. The Indians claimed that the bones they had found were those of a person belonging to a race of people who a long time ago lived in this country: That there was once a race of men on the earth whose size was about three times that of an ordinary man, and they were so swift and powerful that they could run alongside of a buffalo, and taking the animal in one arm could tear off a leg and eat the meat as they walked. These giants denied the existence of a Great Spirit, and when they heard the thunder or saw the lightning they laughed at it and said they were greater than either. This so displeased the Great Spirit that he caused a great rain storm to come, and the water kept rising higher and higher so that it drove those proud and conceited giants from the low grounds to the hills, and thence to the mountains, but at last even the mountain tops were submerged, and then those mammoth men were all drowned. After the flood had subsided, the Great Spirit came to the conclusion that he had made man too large and powerful, and that he would therefore correct the mistake by creating a race of men of smaller size and less strength. This is the reason, say the Indians, that modern men are small and not like the giants of old, and they claim that this story is a matter of Indian history, which has been handed down among them from time immemorial

As we had no wagons with us at the time this large and heavy bone was found, we were obliged to leave it.

With nothing further to go on, I have to assume for the moment that Buffalo Bill is telling the truth, and that his account should be taken at face value: The party was shown some very large bones, one of which the surgeon thought was human, and one or more Pawnee Indians related the story that is given here. Throughout the nineteenth century, newspaper account record a great many hoaxes involving giant skeletons, or sometimes mummies, but I have no evidence that this particular case involves any deception, either on the part of Buffalo Bill or that of his Pawnee informants.

As the bone was not kept, there is obviously no way now to determine it’s actual origin. Very likely it came from some species of extinct megafauna that could not be readily identified by either the Indians or the Buffalo Bill party. There are a number of conditions under which organic material such as bone can be preserved for many thousands of years. It was probably not a fossil, that is, a mineralized bone, since it is hardly likely that the fact that the object was made out of rock instead of bone would have been overlooked.

Giants, of course, are found in the traditions of an enormous number of cultures, from every part of the world. The same is true of world-destroying floods. In this case the two motifs are explicitly connected, with the giants all drowning during the flood. This juxtaposition is far also from unique, appearing in traditions as widely removed from one another as Chumash and Hebrew.

I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the Pawnee to speculate as to how this story connects to other narratives, or what role it may have played in Pawnee culture. Most of the ethnographic information I’ve studied comes from peoples west of the Rocky Mountains; in California, the Great Basin, or the Southwest. Timothy Pauketat has argued* that at least some nineteenth century Pawnee religious rituals might have been derived from practices carried out at Cahokia, but I can’t say what relevance, if any, that connection might have for this story.

Since there is no indication that this story has any particular religious significance, I would tentatively classify it as an example of what I’ve been calling fantastic ethnobiology: cultural information regarding plants, animals, and intelligent beings that do not exist in nature, and which are not functioning in a religious context. (Yes, I know there are some problems with this definition, but it’s the best one I’ve got at the moment. I’ll go into it in more detail in a future blog post.)

As I said, I only stumbled on this account by accident. It’s from a culture that’s outside my area of limited expertise, but I nevertheless found it interesting enough to be worth thinking about.


* In Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi

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