A book review of Brien Foerster’s recent book about the Paracas Culture, his pseudoarchaeological ideas, and his plagiarism.
Beyond the Black Sea: the Mysterious Paracas of Peru
Author: Brien Foerster
Since I have a Kindle Unlimited membership and Foerster’s book is listed among the titles I can read for free, I thought it might be fun to take an opportunity to critique one of his books. I must say, I was extremely disappointed.
To say that the book suffers greatly both technically and academically is a gross understatement.
Technically, the plagiarism in the book probably approaches 90%. The vast majority of the text, particularly in the first 3/4 of the book, appears to be lifted directly from Wikipedia and other similar sources without required attribution or acknowledgment. One might be tempted to defend Foerster by pointing out that Wikipedia is considered Creative Commons and that such behavior is acceptable, but one would be wrong. First, it is a fact that copy/pasting entire passages in the manner that Foerster has is, without question, plagiarism. Plagiarism is the act of taking original work and passing it off as new or as your own. In Foerster’s case, it would even be legal had he bothered to adequately provide attribution to Wikipedia and other sources where he copy/pasted the material from. He did not.
Instead, Foerster has even plagiarized the in-line citations used by the various Wikipedia authors, renumbering them and passing them along as if he actually read these original sources and synthesized the data to arrive at the various descriptions of Paracas Culture, textiles, ceramics, stone tools, mitochondrial DNA, etc. After a few pages, it quickly becomes easy to detect where he plagiarized versus the apparently rare moments where he had his own thoughts. Typically, these few thoughts were illogical, unfounded, and without citation to data.
In addition to copy/pasting text, Foerster occasionally changed certain data within the passages that he disagreed with to suit his own apparently preconceived notions. Also, he used many images without proper attribution. Certainly, many of the images were probably his own, but there were many that obviously belonged to WikiCommons or elsewhere and did not have the proper attribution. The lack of attribution to entire passages of text and to images is a violation of copyright, even if the images are considered Creative Commons. Under CC BY 3.0 US terms, which is what most of Wikipedia text and Wikicommons images fall under, “you must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made” (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/).
The one place where it seems Foerster attempted to provide proper attribution, he failed. This was where he says, “the following is an excerpt from Thor Heyerdahl.” What he doesn’t do is give much if any indication on how large this “excerpt” really is. He doesn’t change the font or highlight the text in anyway. But rest assured, the excerpt goes on for 1534 words! And he never provides attribution to which work of Heyerdahl it was from. Instead, Foerster provides a link to a third-party website that has Heyerdahl’s entire article posted.
There are many technical errors scattered throughout the book as well, which range from misspellings, grammatical inconsistencies, misuse of terms, wrong scale of measure (cm instead of mm in one case), etc., and at least one instance where an entire Wikipedia passage is copy/pasted twice. The technical problems with the book alone are so significant that it cheapens what it means to call oneself an “author,” which Foerster does so unhesitatingly on his websites and public appearances. The rampant copy/paste passages throughout the text seem to be evidence of incompetence or an indication of a lack of basic understanding of the very material he seeks to be considered an expert on.
Either way, it’s a direct insult to his readers.
Foerster makes some claims throughout this book that can be objectively evaluated.
For instance, he states, in one of his apparently rare original passages, “other cultures in Peru and nearby Bolivia, prior and even after the Paracas did perform cranial deformation, but none have been shown to have been culturally or genetically related to them.”
When it comes to genetics and the collection of ancient DNA (aDNA), the reader would do well to discard outright much of what Foerster claims. In addition to the statement above, he also claims that there just isn’t any research going on in the last 50 years that explores Paracas Culture. You’re about to see how that is completely and utterly untrue. In a recent aDNA study, it was found that the genetic distance between the people of the Paracas Culture in Peru and the Yaghan Culture of nearby Chile to be extremely small. So much so that the most likely explanation understood to date is that it’s a function of the initial peopling of the continent (Fehren-Schmitz 2009; Fehren-Schmitz, et al 2010). In addition, the overall genetic makeup of the Paracas Peninsula to Nasca is described as “very homogeneous,” due in large part to climate changes that forced demographic mobility and migration within the Rio Grand de Nasca Drainage region (Fehren-Schmitz, et al 2014). These data are contrary to what Foerster attempts to convince his readers, ultimately that the Paracas people were white Europeans, a sub-human species, and left by boat to Easter Island. Sorry. Spoiler alert.
To support this pseudoscientific and, some would say, racist position, Foerster brings up the alleged “white skinned, red-haired” Inca that Francisco Pizarro was alleged to have encountered in the 1500s. He cites the racist and semi-fictional accounts of Thor Heyerdahl who wrote of it in his 1957 (depending on the edition) book, Aku-Aku. This was a conversation Heyerdahl had with his aku-aku, or spirit guide, that told him about how white people were awesome and how stone walls and grand architecture are proof of white people because brown people obviously couldn’t do it.
Of course, Foerster likes to show off all the mummies with red hair as proof. Never mind that red hair is a recessive gene in about 1-2% of all humanity. Never mind the fact that in death, much happens to the body. Cells begin to cool immediately, bacteria begin the process of decomposition. The chemical reactions and interactions might vary from interment to interment due to humidity, acidity, temperature, air flow, etc. In short, the body itself may act as a bleaching agent for the hair, oxidizing the less hardy eumelanin, leaving intact the more resilient pheomelanin with its red pigmentation (Houk and Siegal 2015).
Foerster writes… well… copies and pastes from Antigüedades peruanas written by Mariano Eduardo de Rivero and Johann von Tschudi in 1851 an account that details finding a Peruvian female mummy that allegedly had a fetus in her womb with an elongated skull. And, of course, he shows the image. An image which is a very fine drawing of what is described by Rivero and Tschudi as a “7 month old fetus.” At this point we can assume this is a fetus or a toddler. One would be in the 7th month of pregnancy the other 7th month post birth. The drawing, listed as Plate VI in Rivero and Tschudi, is detailed but definitely not of a 28 week fetus. It even looks too robust to be a 7 month old infant. If the Rivero-Tschudi account is accurate, then it’s far more likely that they misidentified the interment. The infant and mother may have died together or close to each other in time and were interred together in a way that presented to the untrained observer to be “in the womb” after years of interment. Regardless of what the good doctor’s celebrity and qualifications were, it’s more likely he simply got it wrong if the drawing is in any way accurate. Tarsals, carpals, cranial bones, and joints at wrists, ankles, knees, and elbows would not be so articulated in a 28 week old fetus. And Foerster tried this same shtick in one of his videos where he consults with “Ken the radiologist” who says they’re looking at a fetus one moment and in the next, Ken is saying it could have been an infant as old as 9 months. Good thing he’s got a radiologist to consult.
Foerster also likes to cite the lack of a sagittal suture and placement of the foramen magnum as evidence for “not human” or “sub-species.” Cranial sutures obliterate over time. Even though he states, it’s “not that the suture is fused, it is simply not present at all.” Well, Brien, that’s what “obliterate” means. Not present. Cranial sutures in older humans can completely obliterate to the point that they are not present. Gone. Poof. This happens with age but it also happens prematurely due to pathological reasons. Natural craniosynostosis is a condition that affects infants from time to time–the sutures fuse early and a deformity occurs. But artificial cranial deformation will also cause sutures to prematurely close. Artificial cranial deformation can also cause facial prognathism that affects the mandible and/or maxilla shape and size as well as that of the eye orbits. Foerster mentions all these as being evidence of an alleged “genetic cause” for cranial deformation. It isn’t. Nor is the position of the foramen magnum a problem. In his book, Foerster shows a side-by-side photo of a normal skull and an “elongated skull.” He claims the elongated skull’s foramen magnum is too far to the back of the head and that the foramen ovale are missing. Neither is true and can be seen in his own photographs. Rather than compare the foramen magnum to the back of the skull, compare it instead to the basal portion of the occipital bone that resides between the vomer (roughly where the roof of the mouth starts) and the foramen magnum itself. In other words, measure the big hole where the spine goes from the teeth side instead of the backside. It’s in the right spot.
Foerster says, “when we see a dramatic change in the positions of cranial elements, it usually indicates either a cultural manipulation of the skull or a change in the DNA structure.”
Really? “Usually?” This is a statistically scientific claim yet he supplies no data to back that claim up. This is how pseudoscience works: it sounds all science-like but real data are not to be found.
But what of the DNA results which Foerster uses to inform his decision to put the words “Black Sea” in the title of his “book?”
He states, in the third person, “the mtDNA results obtained by Brien Foester on a number of Paracas point to a European ancestral origin.”
You can take him at his word.
He provides no adequate description of methods or materials used to collect his data. In particular, he says nothing about the control samples or dangers of contamination. He says nothing about consultation with potential living descendant populations before sampling. Nor consultation with appropriate Peruvian authorities before allegedly sending physical specimens of Peruvian cultural remains out of the country. In the very BEST of conditions, acquiring aDNA samples is not a task for the inexperienced. Contamination isn’t just a risk, it’s an expectation even with in situ remains. These samples came from skulls of desecrated remains put on display in a small, private museum and have probably been handled by curious visitors for decades.
And because of his lack of understanding of how bioarchaeology works, how real science works, how to do basic research and synthesize the information into something readable, Brien Foerster concludes with, “We are likely looking at a sub-species of humanity.”
A sub-species of humanity. That’s how he sees the wonderful, marvelous people of Paracas. The rich diversity and artistic depth of their textiles, ceramics, and way of life are reduced to being a “sub-species of humanity.”
References and Further Reading
Carmichael, Patrick (2016). Nasca origins and Paracas Progenitors. Ñawpa Pacha Journal of Andean Archaeology, 36(2), 53-94.
Cadwallader, Lauren Cadwallader (2012). Investigating 1500 Years of Dietary Change in the Lower Ica Valley, Peru Using an Isotopic Approach. Dissertation submitted for Ph.D. at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge.
Canziani, Jose (2013). Arquitectura, urbanismo y transformaciones territoriales del periodo Paracas en El Valle de Chincha. Boletin de Arqueologia PUCP, 17, 9-29.
Cook, Anita (1999). Asentamientos Paracas en el Valle Bajo de Ica, Perú. Gaceta Arqueológica Andina 25: 61– 90.
DeLeonardis, Lisa (1991). Settlement History of the Lower Ica Valley, Peru, Vth –Ist Centuries, B.C. M.A. thesis, Department of Anthropology, Catholic University of America.
DeLeonardis, Lisa (2005). Early Paracas Culutral Contexts: New Evidence from Callango. Andean Past, 7(7), 27-55.
Fehren-Schmitz L. 2008. Molekularanthropologische Untersuchungen zur präkolumbischen Besiedlungsgeschichte des südlichen Perus am Beispiel der Palpa Region (Molecular anthropological investigations on the pre-Columbian colonization history of southern Peru using the example of the Palpa region). Goettingen: Ph.D. thesis, Department of Biology, University Goettingen.
Fehren-Schmitz L, Reindel M, Cagigao ET, Hummel S, Herrmann B (2010) Pre-Columbian population dynamics in coastal southern Peru: A diachronic investigation of mtDNA patterns in the Palpa region by ancient DNA analysis. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 141(2):208–221.
Fehren-Schmitz L, et al. (2011). Diachronic investigations of mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal genetic markers in pre-Columbian Andean highlanders from south Peru. Annals of Human Genetics 75(2):266–283.
Fehren-Schmitz L, et al (2014). Climate change underlies global demographic, genetic, and cultural transitions in pre-Columbian southern Peru. PNAS, 111(26), 9443-9448.
Houck, M.M. and Siegel, J.A. (2015) Fundamentals of Forensic Science, 3rd ed. New York: Academic Press
Unkel I, Kromer B, Reindel M, Wacker L, Wagner G (2007) A chronology of the pre-Columbian Paracas and Nasca cultures in south Peru based on AMS C-14 dating. Radiocarbon 49(2):551–564.