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.

About Carl Feagans 397 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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