Book Review: The Lost History of Ancient America

Editor-Joseph, Frank. (2016). The Lost History of Ancient America:How Our Continent Was Shaped by Conquerors, Influencers, and Other Visitors from Across the Ocean. Wayne, NJ: New Page Books. 288 pp., ISBN: 978-1632650689 (paperback). $16.99

Frank Joseph, editor of The Lost History of Ancient America, this collection of very short articles from the fringe magazine, Ancient American, proudly states in his introduction that “skeptics no longer have an academic leg to stand on.” He then predicts in the same breath, “but must fall back […] on argumentum ad hominem and argumentum ad verecundiam. That is to say, he predicts those that do not accept the un-sourced claims of the largely anonymous writers in this poorly edited volume will attack the character and authority of the claimants. Or, at least, skeptics will rely on the authority of others rather than the writers within the volume.

Frank Joseph Collin (“Joseph” is his middle name) is a former editor, now correspondent, for Ancient American magazine, a fringe, hyper-diffusionist periodical that features many articles about how ancient peoples in the Americas had contact and help from smarter, more technologically advanced, white people from places like Europe well before Columbus arrived. In the early 1980s, prior to his gig at Ancient American, Joseph/Collin served time for child molestation, which was probably the reason he lost his leadership position in the Illinois Neo-Nazi party (Steiger and Steiger 2012). This is the kind of revelation by a skeptic that Joseph/Collin was poisoning the well about in his introduction, but I mention it because the racist perspective of the Neo-Nazi party may not be far removed from that of the many hyper-diffusionist arguments presented in his book.

The book itself is comprised of 42 articles from the Ancient American magazine, divided into 11 sections such as “Underwater Discoveries” and “Giants.” The cover of the book is very nicely done and appealing. The binding, page weight, and typeface are likewise very well done. New Page Books has done a very nice job putting the physical product together and they deserve credit for it. From there, the best compliment I can give Joseph is that there is an index and an attempt to provide chapter notes. The index is 8 pages and, with 266 pages of content, that equates to about 1 index page per 33 content pages. Personally, I thought this was okay. But the chapter notes were a clear deficit. Even though the chapters were short, roughly 4 pages per chapter (this was also a deficit given the complexity of the topics they purported to raise), notes were often missing for some very specific, and notable claims. Six chapters had no notes at all. The writers within this volume were making some very hefty claims and absent were the most rudimentary of notations to cite the sources of the claims.

As an example for a lack of sourcing and general incompetence of the writer and editor, I offer chapter 17, “America’s Oldest Rock Art.” The contention that this is the oldest rock art probably isn’t in dispute. First, the incompetence. The writer, Wayne N. May states that the oldest examples of rock art in North America is near Pyramid Lake in Nevada. This is true. He goes on to describe the rock art, which is probably accurate (a single photo accompanies the chapter). Then he writes, “[a]lthough not duplicated anywhere else in North America, related etchings came to light earlier at Winnemucca Lake, in Oregon, evidence that the culture responsible for the Pyramid Lake rock art was not confined to a single site in Nevada.”

The problem for May and, by extension his editor (Joseph), is that Winnemucca Lake isn’t in Oregon. It’s in Nevada. Near Pyramid Lake. They’re the same set of rock art.

The lack of sources presented is also a problem. Any good editor of a volume that claims to shake the foundations of academia, as Joseph is wanting to claim, would insist that statements of fact have some sort of reference. May writes that the rock art was “dated by radiocarbon testing of a carbonate layer underlying them to roughly 12,800 BCE. This time signature was supported by geochemical data and sediment and rock samples from adjacent Pyramid Lake, which show they were exposed to air from 13,200 to 14,800 years ago.” May isn’t wrong with this information, but it’s insulting to the researchers (Benson et al 2013) not to give them credit and insulting to May’s readers not to allow them the opportunity to obtain more in-depth writing on the topic. Benson et al conclude that these petroglyphs share qualities with petroglyphs in Long Lake, Oregon, undoubtedly what May intended to write originally. May also seems to think that the dates somehow overturn the very fabric of North American archaeology, which they do not at all. Indeed, they offer a fine-tuning of data. Somehow, academia is to people like May and Joseph, a religion with a dogma. It is, however, anything but this. Through out my own undergraduate and graduate studies, professor after professor taught the same thing with regard to the peopling of the Americas: the dates are what we currently have evidence for; go out there and find evidence for older dates.

In the very first chapter, “Horses in America Before Columbus,” the writer, Steven E. Jones, insists that he has data to show bones of modern horses that were in North America after the Pleistocene and before Columbus—essentially between 11,700-458 years ago BP. He cites The Wyoming Archaeologist and a radiocarbon date range of 1426-1481 CE “using AMS methods, long before Columbus. The authors express difficulty in explaining this early date,” but he doesn’t include the rest of the data, which includes a second data range of “1400-1633 CE (2 standard deviations)” (Eckles et al 1994: 56). In other words, they did more than a single test and one of the tests included an upper range consistent with Spanish exploration. Jones also spoke of Pratt Cave, where two horse bones were recovered (a metapodial and a portion of a phalanx), both on the surface of the cave interior. Radiocarbon dating of samples at strata below the surface revealed the oldest date in the cave to be 2820 +/- 180 years BP (Lundelius 1979: 242, 246). That didn’t keep Jones from stating that there was a date range of 6020 to 5890 BCE for bones deposited on the surface after the samples below that dated to a maximum of about 870 BCE! Ludelius states in his paper on Pratt Cave that the surface bones were from a “small form about the size of an ass” and, although he couldn’t be sure if it was domestic or feral, it was certainly modern and likely introduced to the cave by a predator. It would seem that Jones is pulling data from thin air since he offers no citation that explains the extreme age he claims. Lundelius certainly didn’t use that age.

One of the underlying themes in Ancient America is a bizarre support of the LDS Church and Mormon mythology that essentially equates to “white people came here and built all the cool stuff we give brown natives credit for.” This sometimes-not-so-subtle racist agenda manifests itself in the chapter, “A Gnostic Presence in Prehistoric Michigan” in which the writer, Steven A. Wilden, presents a set of stone “relics” created by hoaxers in the early 20th century as evidence that Gnostic-Christians were responsible for some if not all the “Moundbuilders” activities—at least in Michigan. Wilden spends little time actually discussing the history of the alleged artifacts (like who found them, where, when, what contexts, etc.) and most of the chapter of eight pages (one of the longest in the book) is devoted to his perspective on Gnostic-Christian lore. Honestly, my eyes glazed over a bit. The real story is that around 1890 James Scotford, who later teamed up with Daniel Scoper, manufactured a collection of “artifacts” that would eventually number at least 797 pieces! They undoubtedly made sufficient money creating these forgeries, but never confessed their work. However, no additional pieces were ever found after their deaths and Scotford’s stepdaughter later admitted in an affidavit that she observed him making the things. The LDS church was briefly interested, but even they eventually denounced the objects as frauds and forgeries (FARMS 2004). In other words, one of the writers that Joseph is sure will remove all legs of skeptics is continuing to pander a well-documented hoax.

There is also much cherry-picking of data in Ancient America. In the chapter, “Ancient Old World Axes in Pre-Columbian America,” J.S. Wakefield is quick to quote Petrie (1917: 8) when he compares and contrasts Egyptian ax technology to that of Peru, noting the absence of the style in Europe or elsewhere. Wakefield makes the leap that this is a sign of hyper-diffusion, ignoring the rest of what Petrie had to say on the same page in the very same paragraph. You see, Petrie gave a very reasoned explanation for the absence of the style in Europe:

“The Egyptian, like the Peruvian, was inventing his form in the copper stage, when hammering was the process rather than casting; hence both went on the natural lines of lengthening the blade along the handle, to give a larger bearing and means of firm lashing.”

Even without Petrie’s wonderful explanation, it is ludicrous to conclude two independently developed styles equates to Egyptians of the 12th Dynasty (1991-1803 BCE) sharing their technology with Peru nearly 500 years later. Particularly without much, much more evidence.


Frank Joseph’s (a.k.a. Frank J. Collin) Ancient America is not groundbreaking, earth-shattering, or at all significant in the telling of any realistic truth about the archaeology and history of the Americas. I could easily go on and an on with each and every single chapter in this “edited volume,” but I’ll leave that for other critics who I’m sure will have a few words to offer about “giants,” “Vikings,” and assorted other nonsense.

Most of the book didn’t even seem to directly challenge what Joseph said it would, which was that people other than Native Americans visited the New World before Columbus. Much of the book presented the most spurious of evidence if any. Very little was sourced and when it was it was often insufficient. In the opening of my review, I said that the writers of the chapters in this “edited volume” were mostly anonymous and it’s true. And this is also part of why I include inverted commas around “edited volume.” A good editor would have highlighted each writer with a short biography that gives the reader confidence in the writers’ experience as well as a way to look for other works they’ve written. It’s a pretty decent honorific to contributors as well. He does, however, ensure that their titles are displayed in their by-lines, though this is curious since few actual edited volumes do this as doing so is viewed as pretentious.

But that is what sums up works of pseudoarchaeology: pretentious. For all their claimed disdain for academia’s “dogma” and the “mainstream” of archaeology, pseudoarchaeologists and pseudohistorians want the appearance of doing science and academic work. They manufacture conferences, edited volumes, and pretend-journals, but all to house their preconceived conclusions to which they accept only that data which are supportive.


Benson, L.V.; Hattori, E.M.; Southon, J.; and Aleck, B. (2013). Dating North America’s Oldest Petroglyphs, Winnemucca Lake Subbasin, Nevada. Journal of Archaeological Science, 40(12), 4466-4476.

Eckles, David; et al (1994). An Early Historic Period Horse Skeleton From Southwestern Wyoming. The Wyoming Archaeologist, 38(3-4), 55-68.

FARMS (2004). The Michigan Relics Revisited. Insights, 24(5).

Lundelius, Jr., E. L. (1979). Post-Pleistocene mammals from Pratt Cave and their environmental significance. in H.H. Genoways and R.J. Baker (eds.), Biological Investigations in the Guadalupe Mountains, National Park, Texas, National Park Service, Proc. Trans. Series. 4: 239-258.

Petrie, W.M. Flinders (1917). Tools and Weapons. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt.

Steiger, Brad; Steiger, Sherry (2012). Conspiracies and Secret Societies: The Complete Dossier, 2nd ed. Visible Ink Press (p. 18).

Travelogue: Cahokia October 2016

It was Columbus Day weekend. Or, as several states and cities have already begun calling it, Indigenous Peoples Day. I set out for Cahokia, Illinois, just a few miles from St. Louis, Missouri. The drive was mostly on Interstates 24, 57, and 64–just about 1/2 tank of gas for my Ford Fusion. Not a bad drive, especially since I listened to a few podcasts there and back: ArchyFantasies, This American Life, and The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.

The approach I took brought me past Monks Mound first, then turned left into the state park area to the Interpretive center. Right away, I noticed the borrow pits on the left side of the parking area. Today, they’re ponds or wetlands, but this is where much of the soil was carried basket-by-basket to the mounds scattered around the Cahokia complex.

Borrow pit just across the street from the Interpretive Center and parking lot
Borrow pit just across the street from the Interpretive Center and parking lot

The Interpretive Center itself was very, very well done. Lighting was great in that it wasn’t overly bright, collections were appropriately lit, and some displays had lighting that came on as you approached. I thought they worked well with my Sony DSLR. Word of caution, if you intend to photograph interpretive centers at sites like this, they don’t like you to use flash. And, to be honest, the display cases will reflect it back and ruin the shot anyway.

Interpretive Center as seen from the middle of the Grand Plaza
Interpretive Center as seen from the middle of the Grand Plaza

Right away, the visitor is greeted with a mural of the Cahokia complex and one of its signature artifacts, the Birdman Tablet found in Monks Mound and dating to about 1300 CE. This small (about 4″ x 2″ if I had to guess) sandstone tablet is the icon of the modern Cahokia park.

The Birdman Tablet, sandstone, ca. 1300 CE.
The Birdman Tablet, sandstone, ca. 1300 CE.

The people of Cahokia traded far and wide. Amazingly, only about 1% of the site has so far been excavated, but already many, many examples of trade goods from neighboring cultures. The people of this city had trade connections that reach as far north as the Great Lakes and as far south as the Gulf Coast.

Traded pottery examples
Traded pottery examples

Their own pottery, clay and stone figures, and copper goods are among the few materials that allow us to discern their past as a culture. Without written records in the way the Maya left behind,  determining things like what caused the decline and eventual abandonment of the Cahokia complex. But at its peak, the city was home to over 6,000 people, perhaps as much 40,000, and the city was situated on over 6 acres of land with at least 80 mounds, the largest being Monks Mound.

Examples of local pottery and clay figures
Examples of local pottery and clay figures above and below


Anthropomorphic figures and images give us much insight into how the Cahokian people may have viewed themselves and others. What sort of clothing they wore; how they sat; how they held their tools; what sorts of jewelry, decoration, or eve how they tattooed themselves.

The figurine below is often called the Birger Figurine and it shows a woman kneeling with a hoe (much like the one in the next photo down), tilling the soil. Except it isn’t soil, it’s the back of a “feline-headed serpent” with his tail splitting to reveal flowers of gourds and their fruit. This figure slowly turns in its display to show all sides and is utterly fascinating in both workmanship and style.

Anthropomorphic figure
Birger Figurine
A hoe much like the one the woman holds in the Birger Figurine
A hoe much like the one the woman holds in the Birger Figurine

The Chunkey Player Figurine was actually found in Muskogee County, Oklahoma, but it is definitely a Mississippian style figure, made in the same flint clay as others. This one is a pipe, measuring about 8.5″ tall and he’s about to roll a chunkey stone with his right hand. In his left (not shown), he’s holding two chunkey sticks. “Chunkey” was a Native American game where you rolled a stone then threw a spear to try and get close to it.

Anthropomorphic figure
Chunkey Player

The Keller Figurine, below shows a woman with a cranial deformation kneeling at a basket that may be incised to resemble ears of corn. She’s thought to be representative of fertility and farming, but it’s the cranial deformation I find interesting. Head-shaping is a practice that’s found all over the world in many, many cultures. For some it was apparently aesthetic, for others it may have been a method of showing kinship or ancestry. In other cases it may have been an indication of societal status. But for many, it was simply accidental, a result of cradle-boarding. Mothers would fasten their infants in a wooden “backpack” of sorts, with the infants’ head bound to the board for protection. Through to about age 3, children are still very much developing their cranial bones, and are very susceptible to deformation with consistent pressure.

Keller Figure
Keller Figure
Small (1-2
Small (1-2″ tall) anthropomorphic figurines

Here are a few photos of the mounds themselves. At its peak, Cahokia was the most developed, most populated urban center of the Mississippian culture. The site flourished from about 600 – 1400 CE, reaching its peak of perhaps 40,000 people in the 13th century.

A view of Monks Mound from the front
A view of Monks Mound from the front
A view of Monks Mound from the east.
A view of Monks Mound from the east.
Mound 60
Mound 60
Map of the mound complex
Map of the mound complex

I plan to post more travelogues, so if you like this one or have suggestions, let me know.  Other sites I have photos of are the Etowa Mounds and Ocmulgee Mounds in Georgia, Serpent Mound in Ohio, and the Parkin Site in Arkansas. I’m hoping to visit Wycliffe Mounds in the very near future. I’d like to write travelogues like this one for each to share what I saw, promote visitation to these sites, and get the impressions of others who have visited them.


Review: Finding the Truth-Worlds Biggest Pyramid

Producer: Said Sefo

An apparent promoter of the Bosnian pyramid hoax who posted in a Facebook group I frequent lately offered to send me a $2.99 Amazon gift card in exchange for a review of the documentary, Finding the Truth: Worlds Biggest Pyramid, which I agreed to and watched via my Amazon Prime account after renting the SD streaming version of it. The rental allowed me to have access for 7 days—I could watch as many times as I like in that period. So I took my time and made some notes.

First, I’d like to point out that the documentary was clearly low-budget but, aside from a few small details, the production value wasn’t that bad. I did notice right away that the title was missing an apostrophe, and expected many more errors. Thankfully, I noticed very few after that. The music seemed appropriate, the camera quality was sufficient, and there were a few artistic methods used that let me know the producer and camera operators knew what they were doing.

There was an effort to present the documentary as an unbiased reporting, but I’d have to conclude that this was anything but in the end. While there were some scenes where the narrator made an effort to seem interested in “finding the truth,” such as when he mentioned the efforts to revoke or remove Osmanagic’s permits to excavate; and while there were many inclusions of opponents to the overall Bosnian pyramid hoax itself, there were also clear indications of bias to a preconceived “truth” that the documentary itself had little intention of straying from.

For instance, there were lines similar to, “Osmanagic broke the archaeological code and outraged…”which popped in on occasion. Much of the bias was subtle, but some was not so subtle. In the last third of the documentary, the narrator takes note of a geologist that shows up after the tour has started and apparently makes his opinion in a manner disagreeable to the narrator:

“Geologist Dr. Anbaawy from Cairo University comes a little late to hear the information about the ancient cement. Unlike his colleague, Dr. Abubakr Moussa, without taking an analyzing samples, makes up his own mind within seconds.”

Anbaawy looks at the sediment layers and describes it as a conglomerate within a calcium carbonate matrix. Almost as if he was a professional geologist who might have seen such a thing before. The camera operator made sure to capture Bakr taking a sample just before declining to make an on-the-spot conclusion. And the narrator fails to mention for the viewers that Moussa isn’t a field geologist; rather, he’s an historic conservationist.

The narrator and the documentary also fail in exploring just about any rabbit hole that might actually show the hills near Visoko in Bosnia in a bad light. As example, Osmanagic is shown while home in Houston, TX to be going over some “energy results” on his computer screen. He says that a “British scientist” named “Harry Oldfield” did some “advanced measuring” of the area with “electromagnetic equipment” and concluded that there are “energy lines” (whatever that means) which go up vertically and that the hill “behaves like a living being” (whatever that means).

Were this an unbiased documentary, the producer had a golden opportunity to explore Semir Osmanagic’s true rationale. Though I must admit, Osmanagic said quite enough to put himself on the side of kooky and hardly deserving to be “excavating” an archaeological site. Osmanagic mentions on his own his space-alien idea, and goes on to say that he believes people 15,000-30,000 years ago used mental frequencies to move or lift objects as a kind of “high technology.”

Perhaps the producer and narrator felt sorry for Osmanagic, and didn’t wish to cause him further embarrassment. But the “British scientist” Osmanagic cites as a source for his “energy” was still an obvious direction for a truly unbiased documentary to take at this point. A little investigation into Harry Oldfield would have shown Osmanagic for what he truly is to the viewers: someone who covets the idea of “being scientific” but rejects the consensus of science when it disagrees with him. This is also evident in the way Osmanagic assembled a large group of authority figures, many of them scientists, as he bamboozled them and sold them the “used car” of archaeology—essentially a hoax and a fraud.

But what about Oldfield? Had the producer been sincere in producing an unbiased documentary, a quick look into Harry Oldfield would have earned some questions and elucidated his qualifications. Oldfield probably isn’t a scientist at all, but—much like Osmanagic—makes a pretense of doing science. No where on Oldfield’s website is any sort of vita listing his credentials or education, but there is much on his work using pseudoscientific methods of electro-crystals and auras.

The most interesting glimpses into real archaeology came when the producers and narrator had the camera operators focus their attention of the work of archaeologists working in Donje Mostre and Okaliste, both neolithic sites just up-river from Visoko. Unfortunately, the producer allows only a taste of what the real archaeologists are doing with Neolithic sites, and makes every attempt to pigeonhole archaeologist Robert Hofmann into saying that a small, terracotta figurine portion is a model of a pyramid. It was “pyramid shaped” in it’s broken form, but very likely the bottom half of a female figure from the waist down. The “pyramid” portion being a dress. One can make out the sash incised along the top and there is considerable broken material at the top. The size (13 cm) is consistent with a portable figure of a goddess, but also of the base of a small offering dish or vessel, the rest of which is detached from the base.

However, when you have a conclusion (that a hill is actually a pyramid), then you only look for that data which are supportive.

I give the documentary, Finding the Truth, two stars. One for production value. And one for pretty scenery. I offer thanks to Ma Ida for the gift card.

How Does an “Alternative” Archaeology Work?

Google “alternative archaeology” (with the quotes) and you’ll get about 17,000 hits. The first of which might be the Pseudoarchaeology entry for Wikipedia, but the next few seem to be related to books on the topic with at least one link to a fringe site that discusses how “spirituality and alternative archaeology” are “becoming a profitable market.”

Michael Cremo for years has marketed his book and accompanying shtick about “forbidden archaeology” in which the so-called “mainstream” oppresses, suppresses, or otherwise seeks to ban discussion and thought about his version of old-Earth creationism. One of the first links in the search is about his ideas. But what Cremo and most of the proponents of these “alternative archaeologies” seem to have in common is that they decry their mistreatment by the “mainstream” and their lack of acceptance. Often they claim that the evidence is being suppressed or hidden by various entities like the Smithsonian Institute.

What, then, is an “alternative” to archaeology? What theoretical underpinnings does an “alternative archaeologist” employ in order to make sure he or she is discovering the truth? What methods are used to eliminate those ideas which are bad or wrong? This is something that can easily be answered in any scientific research. The methods are nearly always explicitly laid out and the theoretical approaches are very often obvious from the way findings are introduced or in the literature review that any good scientist describes when reporting their findings.

Much thought is given to “how can my idea be disproved? What research already speaks to this concept and how does it impact my own work?” Criticism is often invited by peers long before publication, particularly if the idea departs from any established norm. And publication doesn’t happen unless all the critical points can be answered. A scientist–a true researcher–seeks to falsify his own work first and foremost. But, perhaps most of all, archaeological research, like any true scientific endeavor, begins with a research question about which data are sought in order to arrive at a conclusion.

This is a stark contrast to the way in which pseudoscientific and pseudoarchaeological claims are made. There appears to be no theoretical underpinning. Methods used seem to favor beginning with a conclusion then seeking data which are convenient to a pre-existing narrative. Rarely does the person with an “alternative” explanation invite criticism.

How, then, does “alternative archaeology” work? Why is any one “alternative” idea better or worse than another? Many “alternative theorists” will say that all ideas are of equal merit, no matter how wildly speculative they are.

It seems that the only factor that needs to be present for acceptance, in many cases, is the ability to astonish or show significance in unexpected ways. Roman swords out of place and time in Nova Scotia; lost tribes of Jews arriving before Columbus; hidden cities in the Grand Canyon; “game changing” DNA found in ancient skulls of Peru; nephilim giants roaming the earth; largest pyramid right under European noses; and so on…

Faked photo that depicts alleged “nephilim” -noticed the missing shovel blade of the worker.

But through it all, and strangely enough, these “alternative archaeologists” seem to mimic the real science they see being done, like a toddler imitating a parent using the telephone. They want to be seen doing science the same way the toddler wants to be seen doing what his parent does. Instruments of science are used like portable XRF. Samples are taken (albeit with very poor methods) for DNA testing. Expeditions are mounted. Conferences are had. And grand shows are made of ‘doing science’ just like their mainstream, would-be  parents.

This pretense is called pseudoscience and pseudoarchaeology.

Review: Expedition Unknown and Josh Gates

My first exposure to Expedition Unknown, a series on the Travel Channel, was the episode where Josh Gates, executive producer and host of the show (who “has a degree in archaeology”), went to Yonaguni, Japan to investigate the “ruins” there. I’ve written on these in the past and I’m probably due for an update, but I haven’t noticed any new data on them. They’re still just underwater geology that has curious shapes, angles, and patterns.

I started the episode expecting to shout at the television and ultimately turn it off before my head exploded from the stupid. Instead, I was rewarded with a fairly interesting show. Gates started out seeming to accept the claims of ruins at face value and even dove on them with a camera crew. He spoke with true believers and at least one skeptic and ended the program by saying (I’m paraphrasing) that he found the formation under the waves to be completely fascinating but that he couldn’t accept that they were man-made.

The show itself was well-produced, it had humor, good travel video, exposure to native cultures and peoples, and a core purpose (explore the underwater formation). Not only did I not turn the TV off or shout at gates, I then resolved myself to seek out other episodes. Since that time, I’ve followed Gates to Nepal where he looked at the legend of Shangri-La, to Mexico where he explored Teotihuacan, to Norway in search of Viking sun-stones, and even Cambodia in search of linga stones. Each of these episodes was interesting, colorful, and rich with fun travel video of distant places my bank account prohibits visiting myself. I found myself continually surprised at the fair shake Gates gives each of the legends he investigates, though a few times I was a bit put off by his humor at the expense of locals which was almost cliche for the arrogant American. But most of the time, the locals appeared in on the joke and seemed to be having fun themselves, so I forgave his antics pretending to be an ice cream vendor in Mexico or trying on hats in some shop.

However. I’m glad I didn’t start with the first episode of season 1, which was the search for Amelia Earhart. I was disappointed that he didn’t follow up on a bone discovery under a house in Fiji–and that he was poking around there willy-nilly to begin with. And I was also disappointed that he didn’t follow up on the Gardner Island lead where an aluminum panel that matched her plane was recovered along with other artifacts. But, as Jason Colavito mentions in his review, perhaps Gates was unable to get to the island because of budget, timing, or red-tape.

Another episode that rankled me a bit was the one of the ones where he visited Peru, “Secrets of the Nazca.” Overall, it was interesting but there was a moment when he was with Brien Foerster, the pseudoarchaeologist/tour guide, that made me throw up a little in the back of my throat. I have to give Foerster some credit however, at least he put the human skull he so casually and callously picked up from a local cemetery back on the ground and gently covered it with soil.

All in all, I’m a fan of the series. As long as Gates doesn’t go too over the top with the silliness at the expense of locals, continues to keep a skeptical view, and remains ethical in his “expeditions,” I’ll continue to watch as time permits.

Pseudoarchaeology – What’s the Harm?

What is the harm in allowing pseudoarchaeological beliefs to proliferate and propagate? It isn’t as if it exposes children to life-threatening measles the way pseudo-medicinal beliefs about vaccines can cause. There isn’t even a great risk of victims being conned out of their life savings in the way psychics and “channelers of the dead” do by cold-reading their marks. But there is definitely money to be made by those that promote pseudoarchaeological ideas, television shows like “Ancient Aliens” have high ratings and books of similar topics pollute the shelves of the history and archaeology stacks of book sellers. Neither of these things would be possible if the market didn’t allow for it.

The market for these wrong and bad ideas about archaeology and history are driven by people who are naturally curious and have a hunger for the sensational. When driving past even the most minor of vehicular accidents on a freeway, most drivers and often their passengers lament the delay—complain that the slowed speed of the traffic is caused by “rubber-neckers” who can’t mind their own business and keep moving! But who among us doesn’t also look with curiosity as we pass? We share something with the accident victims: we’re all drivers on the same road. Therefore we have questions. “Do I know them?” “Was anyone hurt?” “How bad?” “How did it happen?” “Could it happen to me?” And so on.

Like the victim of the fender bender, we have something in common with people of ancient cultures: they’re people. Their cultures are often long since disappeared, either with little trace or subsumed into cultures that followed. So we have questions: “Can we know them?” “What happened to them?” “How did it happen?” “How did they live their lives?” “Could it happen to me?” And so on.

And not unlike the fender-bender, the more sensational the event, the better story there is to share. You hardly ever hear someone mention at the water cooler about the Ford Fiesta that bumped into the Chevy pickup at the off-ramp, especially if it didn’t block traffic. But you’ll hear every time about the minivan on fire while a soccer-mom and three kids look on from a safe distance. Likewise, a story about “high-civilization” with monumental architecture has more intrinsic glamor than a narrative of early agriculturalists farming on a hillside terrace. We naturally find ourselves interested in the sensational but also in the mysterious, and it isn’t until we truly begin to understand how archaeology works that we also understand what is truly sensational as well as how sometimes it is the smallest mystery that will keep you asking questions.

I’m reminded of a recent excavation I participated in where members of the public were invited to observe or even help screen dirt if they so desired. I was inspired by their enthusiasm and encouraged by the fact that they clearly began to appreciate the science that underpins any archaeological investigation. The work was slow and tedious as we sought to determine the validity of a small patch of ground as an historic cemetery. The only evidence brought forward was that of local informants, much of which was second hand, so we designed a research model to trench north-south into the site to an arbitrary depth of 30 centimeters (about 1 foot). Graves in this region for the expected time period nearly always run east-west, so it was hoped that we might find evidence from the back-fill of their shafts by excavating a 10 meter long trench.

As the members of the public milled about they asked great questions and talked among themselves. As is often the case with non-archaeologists who are interested in archaeology, it soon became apparent that there were “arrowhead” collectors among them and their conversations revolved around the various excavations they’d observed elsewhere. At one of these, the archaeologists apparently found a few thousand broken “arrow heads… nothing whole though.”

Another observer shared his experiences from an excavation he attended: “they found seventeen stone-box graves, but they didn’t find anything.”.

I was already aware of the site where a “few thousand” broken points were recovered (they actually had quite a few intact points and blades) and the data that came from it is pretty cool. I think my heart skipped a beat at the words “seventeen stone-box graves,” which are of the Woodland period, but it seemed meaningless to our non-archaeologist observers when you consider he concluded it with, “but they didn’t find anything.”

I actually stopped what I was doing and said aloud, “seventeen stone-box graves! They found a lot!” Here was a man who was a non-archaeologist, but clearly had an interest in archaeology, early people of the region he lives in, and their technology. But, in that moment, it was also clear that it wasn’t the culture of the people that fascinated him. In spite of spending probably a lifetime collecting “arrow heads” (he could no doubt type a point faster and more accurately than most trained archaeologists, this author included) the graves of the people from the very cultures he collected artifacts from did not merit his interest. “They didn’t find anything.”

The collector in that anecdote is not much different than the archaeologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More aptly described as antiquarians, these early archaeologists sought the treasures and portable works of art from ancient cultures the world over. Much of their loot (and I use the term in its most accurate context) is still available to be viewed in museums around the world. Gradually, in the last decade or so, many of these collected pieces of “art” are beginning to find their way back to their home countries. Or at least the countries that occupy the geographic positions of the sites that were once home to the cultures that produced the antiquities to begin with. Oft cited examples of such antiquities are the Elgin Marbles, so named for 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, who purchased sections of this frieze—a long, horizontal span of sculpted marble near the roof of a temple—from the Ottoman Empire in the early 1800s. And this wasn’t just any frieze. It was the frieze of the temple of the Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens. Once Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman empire in 1833, they began restoration of the Parthenon and requested the return of the frieze sections. Almost 200 years later, they still remain in the British Museum.

These material remains of the Classical Greek period, some 200 years spanning the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, are marvelous works of art. The Elgin Marbles, more appropriately referred to as the Parthenon Marbles, tell a story that has been interpreted in a variety of ways. But the objects that antiquarians of the 19th century, like Thomas Bruce, or of the 21st century, like the trustees of the British Museum, hold to be “works of art” are valued points of data into a culture for which there are many questions. And for Greece, they are part of a national and cultural heritage. For all its majesty and prestige, I would highly doubt that the British Museum has a display of the pollen found in archaeological levels excavated from the same period. Yet the data gleaned from placing a bag of dirt in a bucket then skimming off the stuff that floats to the top tells more about the culture’s diet, subsistence, and trade than perhaps the most valued of marble statues.

The real treasure of an archaeological site is information: whether that information comes from the story told on a frieze or the pollen found at the same depth and in the same unit as a marble statue. 

The “harm” of pseudoarchaeology, therefore, is the sacrifice of information about a culture for the sake of promoting bad and wrong ideas, often at the expense of the very cultures that are central to them. Some pseudo archaeological claims actually disenfranchise or marginalize the people responsible for wonderful achievements ranging from pyramids in Egypt, to stone temples in Peru, to magnificent mounds of in North America. There is much to learn about ancient human cultures and their narratives deserve to not be clouded and obscured by claims of “giants,” space-aliens, or lost tribes of Israel, especially when evidence for these are spurious to non-existent.

Open Minds and “High Civilizations”

Two more buzz-terms among those that propagate pseudoarchaeological ideas are “Open Minds” and “High Civilization.”

Open vs. Closed Minds
Having an open mind is a good thing. I think this is something that most people would have little trouble agreeing on. It would seem, however, that, for some, they only want minds open to those things they believe and not the beliefs of others. Ideally, an open mind is one that is receptive to new ideas or new information. On the other side of the coin is the closed mind, which is shut off from new ideas or new information. Colloquially, being told to “have an open mind” is almost like being told “you probably won’t believe this, but hear me out.” The skeptic, therefore, is often accused of having a closed mind.

Strictly speaking, having an open mind is not a bad thing. Philosophically, it simply means that you are willing to entertain new ideas that are worthy. You’ll listen, evaluate, and then chose to discard the new idea or embrace it—or perhaps set it aside for further evaluation. This method of open mindedness is very much in line with being a scientific skeptic. In fact, anyone that claims to do science must have an open mind since they’re also claiming to be swayed by evidence, regardless of the direction the evidence points. Even when that evidence points in a direction that is uncomfortable. If only our politicians were open minded in this way!

It is ironic that those who propose pseudoarchaeological ideas are often the first to accuse the mainstream archaeologists of not being open minded. Indeed, mainstream (if we can accept this term for a minute) archaeologists are very often accused of being out-right closed minded for not being willing to accept a fantastic or extraordinary claim presented very often without even the most mundane of evidence.

Contrary to what most pseudoarchaeological proponents are willing to believe, archaeologists are as human as anyone else and we would love to find evidence of many of the things they claim to be true. We are eager to revise our positions and our conclusions with but one condition: evidence.

High Civilization
This is a term that is almost meaningless to archaeologists, but apparently has great meaning to many who promote or believe in many fantastic archaeological claims about ancient peoples. Very often, the term is closely associated with an argument from ignorance or incredulity, a particular logical fallacy that basically says “I can’t figure it out, therefore…” followed by a claim that more readily fits that person’s understanding of the world. Brave the jungle of Google links by searching for “Machu Picchu” and you’ll eventually come across links that point to the notion that this 15th century Inca site in Peru was built by a “high civilization” that had technology that met or exceeded our own.

The reasons offered by advocates of this alleged “high civilization?” It always seems to boil down to the fact that ancient people couldn’t possibly have figured out ways to build monumental architecture with the level of precision that they apparently did. Whether it was because they quarried massive stone blocks they couldn’t possibly have cut with “laser-like” precision or transported such great distances, or because they aligned with stars they couldn’t have seen unless they did it 10,000 years earlier than “mainstream archaeologists” are willing to admit, or because their oral histories and artwork show a likeness to modern technologies.

The reason the high civilization (or high technology, etc.) argument is generally one from ignorance is because it generally assumes that ancient cultures are somehow less intelligent than individuals of modern cultures. We have to consider that ancient inhabitants of what are now Peru, Egypt, India, etc. had their own Einsteins, Hawkings, and Emeagwalis (if you’ve never heard of Philip Emeagwali, click the link for a fascinating read). Smart people are sprinkled throughout the populations of modern cultures and they often do great things. There is no reason to think that ancient people were any less intelligent or had any less reason to do great things. Like inspire the math required to cut precise corners in stone blocks or think of ways to move heavy objects over relatively great distances.

Indeed, experimental archaeology has shown methods of cutting sandstone, diorite, andesite, and granites through the use of copper tools along with quartz sand and water to cut very precisely. Moving stones great distances with log rollers and even boats constructed of reeds! Experimental archaeologist Paul Harmon wanted to see if he and his team could create a method of moving a 9-ton stone from it’s resting place, across Lake Titicaca, and to the shore near Tiwanaku—an ancient site often attributed as one that was build by a lost “high civilization” using “high technology.” Advocates of this claim have said that the stones were too hard to cut, too heavy to move, and too precisely lain, to have been done by anything less than heavy machinery, diamond cutting tools, or laser beams. Paul Harmon proved them wrong in 2002 by moving that 9-ton stone from a hillside with ropes, levers, and the lubrication of locally available fish oil to a reed boat which then sailed across the lake to the far shore near Tiwanaku. Just because the average person can’t fathom how something was done, doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been done.

Did the builders of Tiwanaku have a “high civilization?” If your definition of “high civilization is one that includes clever people that can do clever things, most certainly. If it means that the civilization of the time had to have help from aliens or a technology that has left behind no evidence (diamond studded drills and saws, laser cutting tools, helicopters or spaceships to lift stones…) then your definition of “high civilization” is one that is offensive to the memory of a culture long passed.

Mainstream: Usually a Hint That What Follows is to be Read Skeptically

Whenever you hear or read the word “mainstream,” especially right before a branch of science, it would be wise to take in the remainder of what is said with some skepticism.

Pseudoscience proponents make liberal use of this adjective to set themselves apart from what they perceive as scientists or researchers who are closed minded or refuse to “think out of the box.” In nearly every single instance that the word is put in use, it’s by someone who is decidedly not a scientist or even someone who has completed a formal education on the subject they’re speaking about. A classic example is “mainstream medicine.” The implication being that there is somehow a form of medicine that is alternative to the norm, yet still effective. Were this true, it would no doubt simply be called… medicine.
Another common application of mainstream as an adjective is with the term “mainstream media.” Again, here the implication is that there is an alternate media source that is more truthful, reliable, or trustworthy over that of the mainstream. In nearly every application of this term, one can see a clear political bias toward the left, the right, or some anarchical perspective. This is not to imply that news media are inherently without bias; nor is medicine always without flaw. But they have their checks and balances which create generally reliable outcomes. News media give the public at large the types of stories they want information on, which range from the utterly trite to the ridiculously sensational. If one “mainstream” news outlet doesn’t serve your needs, another will. Medicine has the scientific method and evidence-based efficacy. It either works and the benefits outweigh risks or it doesn’t.

The adjective mainstream also finds itself adjacent to the words archaeology and archaeologists with some frequency. While a search of “mainstream medicine” on Google produced 302,000 results, “mainstream archaeology” or “mainstream archaeologists” only resulted in about 9,000 hits each. Clearly medicine has more impact in the daily lives of average people than archaeology, but when compared with other branches science, archaeology scored relatively more Google hits, meaning that while there aren’t as many discussions or perspectives on “mainstream archaeology” as there are with “mainstream medicine,” it is more popular than other branches of academia. With the notable exceptions of history and physics, though I would argue that many of the links Google presented in “mainstream history” also found relevance to archaeology since they concerned long-dead civilizations like the Sumerians, the Maya, or ancient Egyptians.

Search Term                           # of Google hits

  1. mainstream media               9,090,000
  2. mainstream medicine          302,000
  3. mainstream history              50,000
  4. mainstream physics             21,100
  5. mainstream archaeology     9,150
  6. mainstream geology            8,930
  7. mainstream chemistry         7,480
  8. mainstream biology             6,830
  9. mainstream astronomy        2,840

Table 1. Google ranking by # of hits with “mainstream” as an adjective.

The values above were valid in early 2016 but I’d wager they are still relatively similar as you’re reading this unless some major revelation in one of these disciplines has made world news. I think this is a useful sort of exercise that shows just how many people are forming opinions about these disciplines, with archaeology concerning us the most in the context of this blog.

As a term, “mainstream archaeology” is one that implies there is an alternative perspective of archaeology, one that doesn’t follow scientific methods or modern theoretical frameworks familiar to most archaeologists such as processual archaeology (which seeks to answer questions about humans and human society in a way that is deeply anthropological) or even post-processual archaeology (a theory of archaeology that embraces the subjectivity of interpretations). At first blush, the “subjectivity of interpretation” might lead a skeptical reader unfamiliar with archaeological theory to see this a something outside the mainstream, but this would be a gross over-simplification of a growing theory of archaeology that may ultimately serve to compliment or augment processual archaeology—an extremely positivist approach which assumes that with scientific methods, a truth is obtainable. Post-processualists go a bit further and take into consideration the inherent biases of the investigator and often encourage perspectives that carefully consider gender, ethnic, or indigenous viewpoints.

So if these are mainstream notions of archaeology, what, then, are the alternatives? The answer to that question is probably any archaeological claim that is not based on evidence. In many—if not most—cases of pseudoarchaeological claims, the person or group making the claims appear to have started with a conclusion then looked for supporting data. In scientific terms, this is a form of confirmation bias: you have a preconception and find ways to confirm it, avoiding tests or results that show it to be wrong. All scientists are vulnerable to confirmation bias, which is why methods in science are generally strict and designed with falsification of a hypothesis in mind. That is to say, the best way to prove an idea is to first try to disprove it. If the idea withstands rigorous scrutiny and testing, then it is more likely to be a good one. If an archaeologist has an idea that people living in Western Kentucky during archaic times lived in upland regions and hunted in floodplains, then she designs a research plan that surveys upland and lowland regions of the same area. If the data collected shows that upland artifacts are dominated by spear points for hunting, stone tools for skinning or scraping, and assorted flakes; but the lowland regions are dominated by scrapers, awls, middens (trash heaps) of bone and shell, and grinding stones, then her idea–her hypothesis–was falsified. At least with the methods she used for survey. This is because the artifacts in the upland regions appear consistent with hunting stations or overnight camps, whereas the lowland artifacts are more like what would be expected in a domestic context where people are spending more than a few nights. In such places, living spaces can even be discerned where the ground was compacted, and small rocks and pebbles that are uncomfortable to sit or lay on are removed.

If the archaeologist was not unafraid to falsify her hypothesis, she may very well have only noticed those few artifacts that support her idea—the scrapers, perhaps the occasional awl used for a quick repair of an item of clothing ripped while hunting, a small midden of bones, etc. She might also have ignored data that ran contrary to her expectations of lowland regions, perhaps by not doing a thorough search of previous literature on the subject, or by using flawed methods of choosing survey locations. Shovel tests probes can be rushed, artifacts overlooked or missed. It’s likely that she would have still collected real data, but the results can easily skew with bias that is not acknowledged or compensated for. Methods like consistency in shovel probe depth, hole diameter, and spacing help. The expectation of bias is also why most archaeologists prefer to start with research questions rather than hypotheses to test. The difference is subtle but important. A question is just that: did archaic people live primarily in upland or lowland regions? An hypothesis is a statement: archaic people lived primarily in upland regions. Hypotheses are generally born from research questions. If enough upland sites are surveyed to find hunting stations or camps but no living spaces, eventually the archaeologist will form an hypothesis that archaic people did not prefer to live in the upland regions but did hunt there.

A researcher in any discipline should not begin with a conclusion to which he or she then fits data. This is just bad science. In 1996, a German aeronautic engineer, Peter Belting, produced scaled up versions of at two of the Quimbaya artifacts discussed in an earlier post. They took some liberties with the designs, curvature appeared added to wings where the actual artifacts are very flat—that sort of thing, but overall the resemblance of the modern models to the original artifacts were true. And they could fly! Belting and his assistants added motors and propellers and remotely operated them as drones. This was proof positive among proponents of the ancient aliens idea that these artifacts were made by someone who had knowledge of airplanes.

I would have no way of knowing if Belting began with a conclusion that at least some of the Quimbaya artifacts were models of ancient airplanes without speaking to him. I’ve found no interviews or writings he’s done which mention them, only third party attributes of him as the lead engineer in creating scaled up models. But certainly it seems likely that his motivation for creating them was related to someone‘s conclusion that they were indeed models of ancient aircraft and not insects, birds, or fish. I find the experiment fascinating and it truly must have been a fun experience to create these modern, flyable replicas. But it seems unlikely to me, that their creation began with a research question like, are these artifacts replicas of insects, birds, or fish that can actually fly?

To paraphrase the ancient aliens proponents in general, “if mainstream archaeologists aren’t happy with the results, then it is up to them to propose their own hypotheses or tests.” This sentiment regarding the modern, up-scaled models that actually flew was repeated several times on webpages, on the “Ancient Aliens” television show, and in articles or books that cater to their audience. The implication is clear: “we’re doing science, and we have results.”

While I genuinely liked the experiment, the only results that can be confidently agreed on by anyone who wants to remain unbiased is that the Quimbaya people accurately enough captured in their art those qualities that allowed insects, birds, and fish to fly. And fish do fly, both in a manner of speaking and literally in the case of flying fish. Fish are streamlined and designed to use fluid dynamics much in the same way birds use aerodynamics to get lift and momentum, with fins that behave very much like wings on many species. When, however, one begins with a conclusion and only seeks data that are supportive of that conclusion, details like this are easily missed.

There are also those that fling the label of “mainstream” at archaeologists, but their real accusation is that we archaeologists have conspired together to withhold the truth (whatever that truth might be) from the rest of the world for reasons that are varied. Some have implied that it’s outright suppression of aliens, others have said we simply want to protect our jobs. Nearly all seem to agree that the archaeologist sits on some high seat in academia atop an imagined ivory tower, in agreement with all other archaeologists in some grand conspiracy to oppress those that are open-minded enough to speak out in opposition. But anyone who holds these notions of archaeologists to be true clearly has not sat in on the right panels at a Society for American Archaeology conference!

What is Pseudoarchaeology? Part 2: Out of Place Assumptions

Pseudoarchaeological claims are also marked by frequent mention of “out-of-place-artifacts” often called “ooparts” for short. The notion by those that see fantastic explanations for these out-of-place-artifacts is that because the “X” artifact is found in “Y” context, “XX” culture must have put it there at “Z” time. Sometimes the artifacts are intentionally planted so as to create the conflict–hoaxes if you will; frauds if you prefer. Sometimes they are genuine artifacts, genuinely out of place, yet completely and innocently misunderstood.

Piltdown Man

M0013579 Skull of the "Eoanthropus Dawsoni" (Piltdown Man) Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Skull of the "Eoanthropus Dawsoni" (Piltdown Man) Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 2.0
M0013579 Skull of the “Eoanthropus Dawsoni” (Piltdown Man) Credit: Wellcome Library,  London. Wellcome Images

Piltdown Man is a very well-known and thoroughly discussed example of an archaeological hoax. In fact, it is probably the most infamous of them all as one can hardly take a class in paleoanthropology, human evolution, or even archaeology 101 without reviewing it as a case study in bad science. The story of Piltdown has been told and retold so successfully else where that I’ll not attempt an in-depth discussion here. Instead, I offer a brief summary.

Originally named Eoanthropus dawsoni, (“Dawson’s dawn-man”), probably by Charles Dawson, who claimed the specimen was found by a gravel pit worker in 1908. Dawson presented it in 1912 to the Geological Society of London, who’s members were probably all-too-happy to have a major hominid find in the British Isles–particularly one that was just the “missing link” they expected. What made Piltdown unique, you see, was the combination of a human-like cranium with an ape-like jaw. It was thought, at the time, that the large brain came first with modern man and that the omniverous diet followed, making an ape-like mandible for grinding nuts and fibers necessary. As it turns out, the cranium and jaw were not just human-like and ape-like. They were exactly human and precisely orangutan! The cranium was finally shown to be from a person of medieval age and the mandible was that of an orangutan that died about 500 years before its alleged discovery in 1908.. The most likely culprit was Dawson himself, who had dozens of fraudulent specimens in his collection ranging from a fake Chinese vase made of bronze to filed down teeth alleged to be that of a reptile/mammal hybrid.

Ancient Bolivian Jet Fighters
Not all out of place artifacts were intended to be evidence of fantastic claims. As early as the 5th century and as late as the 10th century CE, the Quimbaya culture of Colombia produced magnificent works of art in gold, among them a series of pendants and pins that depict animals and insects. Some of the animals depicted are of fish, such as flying fish or sharks. Others are of crocodiles, lizards, frogs, and wild felines. Many are of insects, probably moths, butterflies, and dragon flies. Hundreds of these small figures were created by the Quimbaya culture, perhaps to be worn as jewelry; perhaps intended only to accompany the dead. Most if not all were looted by tomb robbers prior to the 1970 UNESCO resolution to prevent illicit trade of antiquities and ended up in museums and private collections all over the world.

Quimbaya pendants of insects, birds, or fish sculpted into small, gold, zoomorphic figurines.

By the 1970s, perhaps earlier, some of these little pendants were being touted as evidence of ancient aliens. The fish and insects (truthfully, it’s difficult to tell them apart in some cases) look remarkably like jet airplanes. The Continuum section of Omni Magazine in the late 1970s even made the link to one of them being a rendition of NASA’s new space shuttle! In more recent times, the infamous Ancient Aliens program on the dubiously named History Channel featured at least one episode that linked these little gold pendants to proof of alien visitation in pre-Colombian times. Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, the bad-hair-guy pictured in all those memes you see on the Internet with the word “aliens” in quotes, said “about a dozen that are eerily reminiscent of modern day fighter jets.” Though he does admit the rest look like animals and insects.


An abstract, very stylistic rendering of a frog by the Quimbaya culture at perhaps around 1000 CE.

The Quimbaya people, of course, had no concept of 20th century fighter jets and space shuttles. What they did have knowledge of was their environment. They paid keen attention to nature and were clearly skilled artisans. The renditions of animals like frogs and jaguars were stylistic and included abstract elementssometimes in ways that were caricatures of their subjects: larger eyes, curly-cues on fins and feathers, large-bared teeth, and cross-hatch patterns on bodies and fins. There’s no denying the coincidence of a fish’s tubular body appearing to be similar to the fuselage of a fighter jet, the fins showing similarity with wing placements and proportions, or the tail fins showing similarity to the tail of a jet. But had a Quimbaya artisan shown his work for the first time to another Quimbayan, the recognition wouldn’t have been of a non-existent fighter jet. Rather, it would have been of a flying fish, a bull shark, or possibly even a sucker-mouthed catfish.

sucker-mouth catfish_a
A sucker-mouthed catfish

Occam’s razor states: among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Scientists and researchers use this principle as a way to guide them to develop explanations that are simple and straightforward, reducing the chances for errors and bias along the way as they discover, explore, and explain. When it comes to the Quimbaya culture, assuming they would have created little gold pendants of fish in the same way they did frogs, crocodiles, and jaguars is a far more simpler explanationone that requires so fewer assumptionsthan claiming that a small percentage of their art represents the “fighter jets” of ancient aliens who visited the Quimbaya. The alien hypothesis includes several assumptions that defy testing and create complications.

Some of these assumptions are:

1. Of the 100 billion or so stars in the galaxy, aliens chose to visit ours.

2. Somehow ancient cultures were of special enough interest to visit (expending what must be tremendous resources, time, and energy) and interact with, but not contemporary cultures.

3. Aliens visit the Quimbaya people and the only depictions of their visits by the Quimbaya are fish-like representations of their “fighter jets.”

4. The Quimbaya people were incapable of or at least chose not to create representation of fish, birds, or insects but were extremely talented enough to create figures of the rest of the animal kingdom.

Each of these assumptions must be true in order for the ancient alien hypothesis to be accepted with regard to the Quimbaya sculptures. One could argue that we’re being visited in contemporary times, but that evidence is lacking and, depending on what is believed about modern alien visitation, a whole new set of assumptions would be presented. One might also argue that the Quimbaya people represented aliens and their craft in other ways that have yet to be discovered, but why would a culture visited by aliens only make perhaps a dozen or so that show their ships but create hundreds depicting animals they see every day?. If the answer is that they held higher reverence for animals, would this not mean they are more likely to depict fish, birds, and insects? If even a single “fighter jet” is accepted as a fish, bird, or insect, then one must consider that all of them cold be.

Conversely, the hypothesis that the Quimbaya people represented the fish, birds, and insects they encountered every day really only consists of one additional assumption if we accept that they actually fashioned frogs, crocodiles, and jaguars. And that is that they were interested enough to do it. Not only is this a very parsimonious explanation, but it’s one that gives credit where credit is due: to the Quimbaya people and their artistic abilities. Their figurines of gold and other materials were stylish and often abstract, but they were gorgeous works of art whether or not they were intended to be. The Quimbaya people were consummate observers of nature and reflected what they saw in caricaturizations that we can still admire today.

From the perspective of true believers in ancient aliens, my words above are coming from the “mainstream” and I’m sure they would argue that I haven’t an “open mind.” These are among the many buzzwords and concepts to look out for with pseudoarchaeological explanations.

What is pseudoarchaeology? Part 1: Probably Wrong to Fantastically Charged

There are many who make a pretense of doing science, using scientific-sounding jargon and misplaced or misapplied scientific principles. In so doing, these people often begin with conclusions then fit data (or make it up) into explanations for these conclusions. Data that are not complimentary to this preconceived conclusion are often ignored completely -discarded as so much unwanted baggage. Such a practice is called pseudoscience.

When pseudoscience is done in the context of doing archaeology, we can call it pseudoarchaeology.

Pseudo- adjective. Not genuine; a sham; a fake.

Archaeology- noun. The study of human history and prehistory through the material remains of culture.

Pseudoarchaeology would, therefore, be a disingenuous or fake study of human history and prehistory through the material remains of culture. But this is a very simplified and terse definition. Pseudoarchaeology is a result of wrong ideas and gross misinterpretations of archaeological data, artifacts, and features in ways that create explanations that range from probably wrong to fantastically charged.

On the probably wrong end of the spectrum are ideas like those of Marija Gimbutas who propagated the Mother Goddess hypothesis that was so easily embraced by New Agers in the 1980s. Gimbutas spent countless hours cataloging, describing, and illustrating anthropomorphic figurines from around the world but primarily in southeastern Europe. Somewhere along her path of investigation, she developed the hypothesis that prehistoric Europeans all worshiped a common Mother Goddess and it would seem that this eventually became a conclusion to which she began to only notice that data which were corroborative. Metaphorically, her idea was a hammer and all figurines began to look like nails from her perspective. Later research would start to show that her hypothesis could not support her assumptions and even her analyses of figures that concluded their sex as female cannot always be supported. Figurines that were, for her, “clearly female,” are not so clear when described by other researchers. Indeed, studies have shown that, while nearly half of all anthropomorphic figurines are female, and less than 5% are clearly male, the remainder are of indeterminate sex. In other words, about half the time, the creators of figurines appear to have intentionally left the figure’s sex as a mystery.

On the fantastic and sensationalist side of pseudoarchaeology are ideas like those of Erik von Daniken, who postulated that the Great Pyramids of Egypt are a product of space aliens since ancient Egyptians couldn’t have been smart or clever enough to construct the monuments themselves. This was in spite of the very clear renditions of pyramid construction in murals and ancient Egyptian art, the discovery of worker-cities for the pyramids that even show how much bread was baked and beer was consumed, and the clear evolution of pyramid form that shows trial and error in angles. The earliest pyramids had steep angles and collapsed. Later pyramids had angles that were less acute and, thus, less challenged by gravity to reach great heights. There is even a pyramid for Sneferu, the Bent Pyramid, that began as a steeply angled monument only to be completed with a final angle that is more like the more recent Great Pyramid at Giza.

Tomorrow, I’ll post Part II: Out of Place Assumptions, which will look at the so-called “out of place artifacts (ooparts).”

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