Special Pseudoarchaeology and Pop-Interest Issue of the SAA Magazine

The SAA Archaeological Record has a new online edition out for November/December 2019 and it’s a special pseudoarchaeology edition that includes articles from six different writers.

“Y not a Pacific Migration? Misunderstandings of Genetics in Service to Pseudoscience

The first article is by Jennifer Raff. In it, Jennifer discusses how some recent discoveries in the field of ancient DNA (aDNA) are exploited or misinterpreted by purveyors of pseudoscience, such as Graham Hancock.

The “Y” of the article title refers to an ancient Australasian-related population and comes from the word ypyku’era or ancestor in the Tupi language spoken by people of the Amazonian region (Karatiana, Xavante, and Suri). Essentially, an aDNA signal was found by two different research teams that show people of the Amazon are more closely related to people of Australasian decent that are other Native American populations. Just the sort of potentially sensational news Hancock, et al love to hitch a ride on.

The Cerutti Mastodon, Professional Skepticism, and the Public

The second article, was written by myself. In it, I use the sensational news of 2017 that surrounded the Cerutti mastodon site, published in Nature, to discuss how Hancock and others tend to leverage this sort of news to their benefit. Specifically, I note that the science is cherry-picked from skeptical views within the discipline, without addressing the concerns of professionals related to the field.

I end that piece with a call for action directed to professional archaeologists to engage more effectively with the public.

Whitewashing American Prehistory

The third article, by Jason Colavito. As one expects from him, Jason presents a detailed, but concise, outline of the history behind modern pseudoarchaeological arguments and how they’re really a revival of old, often theosophical notions of reality that do not conform to modern scientific principles. They do, however, find favor with modern racist and nationalist ideas presented in modern media.

The Mysterious Origins of Fringe

The fourth article, by John Hoopes. In it, John dives more deeply into the theosophical origins of modern pseudoarchaeological works by Hancock and others. He compares and contrasts the many ways Hancock and others present pseudoarchaeology as “speculative metaphysics, in the realm of religion.”

John walks the reader through the evolution of these ideas: from the “dawn of esotericism, to the Victorian revival, and finally to the modern appeal through mass media.

America Before as a Paranormal Charter

The fifth article is by Jeb Card. It leans hard into the stark differences between professional archaeology and its fringe counterparts. As Jeb notes, “alternative archaeology is a result of the professionalization of archaeology.” In other words, the minutia of detail brought to bear by professional archaeology has little to do with the popular notions of “lost civilizations and mythic origins” found in pseudoarchaeology.

“I don’t Believe, I Know”: the Faith of Modern Pseudoarchaeology

The last article, by David Anderson. Here, David does a much better job saying some of the things I tried to say. Like many of our articles, he looks at the works of previous authors in fringe archaeology, most notably Erich von Däniken. David shows how von Däniken’s pretensive style of writing shows up in mass-appeal television shows like Ancient Aliens.

David compares and contrasts the successes of mass-media pseudoarchaeology and the efforts of professional archaeologists with some hard figures. And he ends by saying something I completely agree with: public engagement needs to be a central value to our profession.

Acknowledgements

I feel privileged to be included with such a stellar lineup of writers, so thanks to each of them for their own contributions. My own meager offering is but a distraction compared to these. It was, however, John W. Hoopes that organized everything and put it all together with Chris Rodning, the editor at the SAA Archaeological Record. Herding cats would have probably been an easier task.

Just so you don’t have to scroll back up to the top, here’s the link again: The Society for American Archaeology Archaeological Record, 19(5), 2019.

About Carl Feagans 364 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.

40 Comments

  1. I would love for you come to the SDNHM to “Question the Hell” out of the purported evidence for human activity at the Cerutti Mastodon Site. Assemble a team of experts and falsify it. Armchair critiques are usually very inaccurate as evidenced by the absolute BS of PM Ferrell’s “analysis” that everyone jumped on. I excavated that solidly emplaced vertical tusk preserved 70 centimeters into the underlying fine grained D Bed sandstone below the E Bed along with the other material over the next 5 months and can testify that none of the activity described in PM Ferrell’s article actually occurred. No 5 ton dump trucks driving over the site hundreds of times smashing things up, in fact there was no truck haul at all as it was not needed and to say the least, rediculously expensive. All that was needed for the job was a lone multi ton approximately 88,000 lb Caterpillar 235c excavator parked on top of the Sound Berm. There’s a nice picture of this on the Museum’s web site. Check it out. The Caterpillar 235c spent it’s day reaching down to scoop up 3 cu yards of material, lifting it up and over the Sound Berm, spinning 180 degrees and dumping it where the scrapers could haul it off to the fill. No excavator bucket as per the PM Ferrell article could have flipped the tusk to the vertical, force it vertically into the well consolidated Pleistocene sediments without totally ending it’s career. That would have been the end of the tusk to say the least. When ivory meets steel, ivory is the loser, fragmenting into thousands of tiny white pieces. I see this frequently. The videos, still pictures and extensive notes that you and your team would have access to would help in your critique. Some of this documentation is on the SDNHM website by the way. The CMS site with the exception of the extreme NE edge where the excavator bucket damaged the tusks was solidly preserved in well consolidated Pleistocene sandstones and siltstones undisturbed by heavy equipment contrary to what the armchair boys have reported. The Sound Berm is merely an “erosional remnant” of the original formation that is still protecting the unexcavated southern half of the CMS with 3 meters of undisturbed material. When this area is excavated we will have people of all relevant fields present. The Sound Berm was not built up from fill material as described by many. Most of the broken rock and bones were coated with pedogenic carbonate concretions and preserved by up to 3 meters of undisturbed well consolidated fluvial sediment that had no problem supporting the 88,000 Lb excavator 3 meters above the CMS. None of the breakeage was caused by compression from modern construction equipment. No scattering of the CMS material by machines occurred. The Nature Letter reported only what was necessary to get the point across. Much more documentation is needed as there’s much more to examine such as micro fragments of bone, teeth and rock scattered throughout the Bed E siltstone, In addition, there’s another example of a sharply broken refitting clast several meters away from the concetration 2 fragmented Pegmatite clast described in Nature. This time it is one of andesite consisting of 6 lithic refits found scattered undisturbed in concentration 1. One of these looks like a small bifacially flaked projectile point while another has a bifacially flaked pebble tool look, complete with the original rounded cobble cortex at the other end fitting nicely into one’s hand. All of these were encrusted with carbonate. I’ve discovered or worked on hundreds of large mammal sites since 1981, many of these are of proboscideans. None of these sites have this crazy taphonomy of high energy breakeage within an extremely low energy siltstone, the lithics occupying the same exact foot print as the highly extremely fragmented spirally fractured femoral diaphysis with impact notches and cone flakes while small bone elements such as ribs and vertebrae remained intact. Other large mammals discovered in the same low energy siltstone at or near the same horizon less than 30 meters from CMS, mostly horses, were preserved in a much more normal taphonomic condition as partially articulated skeletons with no rocks associated. Outside of CMS foot print absolutely no rocks were encountered within these fine grained sediments. Hope to see you at the SDNHM with all cannons blazing!

  2. Mmmm….someone here is about to be labeled a “pseudo-scientist” pretty quickly. Even now, by the last glowing embers in his Bong, James Ford is getting the “Big S” brand heated to a white hot temp….

  3. I guess my response disappeared into the ether from 11/27/19. Build a team come to the Museum and falsify the Cerutti site by actually studying the actual material, videos, stills and extensive notes. Ferrell’s analysis if you could call it that is complete nonsense. If you are positive that the CMS is not an archaeological site, that bit of effort would give huge weight to your critique.

  4. In reality, it doesn’t matter whether CMS is archaeological or strictly palaeontological, most of the reasons given by many in the archaeological community against it are not accurate and have been discounted, however some are accurate such as there being no cut marks or easily recognized tools. Speaking of tools, several times on the jobsite I witnessed modern man using a primitive tool technology pound a grade stake vertically into the ground with a nice rounded 6″ diameter cobble when he he left his hammer 25′ upslope. Afterwards I observed wood fragments from the grade stake circling the newly vertical grade steak from which they were derived and also the expedient cobble tool located few feet away, complete with tiny crushed wood fragments within it’s recesses. Modern man has waaaaaaay better tools than this! That’s similar to what our earliest tool using ancestors had. Can’t be an archaeological site. Write carefully on that label and don’t burn yourself. I love the crazy taphonomy of this site.

  5. sir! gleaner!63! Persuado Scientist here. When you come to the Museum, check out our collections on display filling the research collections on the 3rd floor as well as the Fossil Mysteries exhibit that thousands of people come to see every year. Thousands and thousands…. of incredible fossil specimens. Many of these are brand new to science such as the 3 new species of Eocene primate recently described in refereed scientific journals. Nearly all were collected and prepared by museum hominins such as myself. In addition we have revised a large percentage of the coastal San Diego geology that contained these fossils. So there!, gleaner…63.

  6. Gleaner “but what about clovis first” 63 never fails to get his facts wrong. It was that old chap Graham who kept a bong puffing away like the Little Engine that could for almost 30 years while dreaming up most of his crap, not me.

    Cue some lame Gleaner line about a famous scientist who would partake of the herb from time to time in order to deflect from Hancock’s decades of self-admitted drug abuse.

  7. James Ford: You talk about the “Clovis First” model as if it didn’t exist; it did. It wasn’t Hancock that came up with it, or defended it, rather it was “mainstream archaeology” (Carl will hate that term) that did so. As always, you seemed to be heavily engaged in a type of tribalism without even knowing it. Archaeologists often get things wrong, not by just a few years, but tens of thousands of years; is that what you are trying to defend here? You shouldn’t get so agitated when others point that out; in fact, you should direct your assaults toward archaeologists, not GH. Anyone and any profession, including archaeology can be criticized; after all, that’s part of the scientific method which you *claim* to understand. It does your case no good at all by pointing GH error’s to deflect the errors of your own. As for “who would partake of the herb”, I’ll leave that to you as you sound like an expert on such matters. Now, back to your basement, and keep looking for those imaginary “research papers” you wrote and that degree from that phantom “university” you attended…

  8. Gosh, that’s quite the diatribe in response to someone simply stating the fact that you were incorrect as well as that Hancock had/has major drug issues that likely clouded (get it, “clouded”) his thought processes when it came to research and writing about his non-existent lost civilization. Now, ladies and gentlemen, do we get an even longer diatribe from Gleaner in response to this? Does he go nuclear option by evoking the dreaded history degree from, uh, uh, uh, what was the name of that school again?

    Pop the popcorn and break out the Orange Fanta ’cause methinks that Gleaner is about to put on a show for us. Almost exactly like Hancock’s show where he responded to SFAA criticism by whining about the fact that he was criticized and playing the deflection game instead of making any intelligent attempt to counter specific criticisms.

  9. James Ford: …don’t you mean “break out your high school era bong” as opposed to the Orange Fanta? Please tell us where I was wrong about the “Clovis First Model”. If you can, I’ll mail you a 1 pound bag of “pure Colombian gold” for your next “research paper”….

  10. For the love of god quit feeding the troll. You’ve got someone who probably thinks that Monte Verde is a popular Latin American boy band trying to pretend that he has intelligent insight into the Clovis business that for most people hasn’t been a real issue for three decades and was probably never a major issue for many anthropologists to begin with. Gosh, for about 40+ years the evidence suggested small numbers of foragers were in the western hemisphere at a certain point until evidence moved the timeline back several thousand years for small numbers of foragers being in the western hemisphere. Damn, the foundations of all archaeological knowledge must come tumbling down now, and professionals have no right to point out the glaring flaws with every aspect of Hancock’s work. Not. Its just the usual deflection game. If you are arguing with someone over a non-issue like Clovis then it draws attention from the actual errors pointed out in the review. Its a common tactic used by the likes of Gleaner63 all over social media.

  11. Dead Horse whisperer states: “….If you are arguing with someone over a non-issue like Clovis then it draws attention from the actual errors pointed out in the review. Its a common tactic used by the likes of Gleaner63 all over social media…”.

    I love it: a troll shows up at the end of the thread and starts shouting “troll!”. Did you dream up that response all by yourself, or did your mom have to help you? Surely a “common tactic” used by people like you. Further, like others here, it’s you that is playing the “deflection game”, not me; I’ve not once said no one should point out the glaring errors of Graham Hancock, not once; if I have, point it out in the thread. Clearly, you don’t want to admit that a theory, in particular the “Clovis First Model”, invented and defended for decades by mainstream archaeologists is now dead….

  12. So, Clovis first is a theory that was based on prevailing evidence of the time and defended by some until better evidence overturned it. You think that this is some sort of remarkable revelation and open to debate? What’s next on the agenda, enlightening us on the act that grass is green and water is wet or that archaeologists no longer buy into the fact that the Earth is older than 5000 years. Seriously, this guy is a troll and not even a good one at that. Time for me to follow my own advice and say bye, bye.

    For anyone interested, Hancock and his supporters evoke Clovis First on a regular basis and it has been done repeatedly in discussions here. So, yes a common tactic and kind of a shibboleth when it comes to identifying people who are aggressively ignorant when it comes to archaeology.

  13. Dead Horse Whisperer asks: “..So, Clovis first is a theory that was based on prevailing evidence of the time and defended by some until better evidence overturned it. You think that this is some sort of remarkable revelation and open to debate?..”.

    I don’t think it’s remarkable; why would I? Do you? What “debate” are you referring to? The Clovis First model is now known to wrong; is that what you’re having an issue with? What’s next on your agenda, telling us that archaeology cannot be questioned and is some sort of sacred cow? You’re engaging in quite an amazing amount of projection here, yet again a “common tactic” from “types” like you and your “supporters” (hint, hint, cough, cough)….

  14. Horse Whisperer stated: “..and professionals have no right to point out the glaring flaws with every aspect of Hancock’s work…”.

    I asked in a previous post if you could point out where I said that or agreed with it; well, I’m waiting, because you’ve avoided answering it. So is lying and making false assertions just another “common tactic” with people like you? Judging from your fellow komrads here, I think the answer might be a bog ole yes…

  15. So…I’m willing to call a truce; I’ll make no further comments about anyone’s alleged drug use and no one can rib me about being born and raised in South Carolina….whatta ya say, James Ford?

  16. I don’t recall ribbing you about being born and raised in South Carolina. Doesn’t matter to me if you want to continue to try to conflate research and publication on drug use and drug use. Just as long as everyone is clear that you are speaking in terms of an unsubstantiated claim when it comes to your comments about me as a deflection mechanism, whereas I am speaking in terms of actual documented heavy drug abuse when it comes to Hancock and the implications of such behaviors for many of his more outlandish statements. So fire away, it just makes my point(s).

    Now, having said that and making it clear I am now backing away from your little rabbit hole, back to relevant discussion with others here. In the course of surfing various sites frequented by Hancock supporters I have noticed that since the reviews were published it appears that few if any of them have even bothered to read the articles in the SFAA newsletter. They have just read his comments on the matter and are parroting them. Or they are parroting what others have said after reading Hancock’s response. Not much of any attempt to actually engage with the criticisms. For people who are always preaching that scholar and critics of Hancock should be openminded they certainly seem allergic to the notion of carefully reading both sides and making an objective informed assessment. But, that’s why Hancock has made millions, so seems to be working for him.

  17. James: in a prior post you used a derogatory term that referred to SC; further, I only ribbed you about your “drug research” because you first accused GH of being a drug addict (without a source) and you kept referring to your background in “drugs” as if somehow it had some bearing on the topic of archeology; stop being so obtuse. And your latest snark is “your little rabbit hole”, “Hancock supporters”, “parroting”, and “Hancock has made millions”. Wow, you really can’t help yourself can you? Try making an actual argument…

  18. James Ford states: “…whereas I am speaking in terms of actual documented heavy drug abuse when it comes to Hancock..”.

    Could you cite your source for this? I’m assuming your not going to say “Fred’s Archaeology Blog”?

  19. James: So I’m wondering, especially since you are such a great admirer and defender of the late, great, Carl Sagan; are you aware Sagan was a heavy, habitual, life-long user of illegal drugs? Even smoking weed with his son? If so, why only attack GH for his alleged drug use, while giving others a free pass? Also, as you made clear earlier about your
    personal feelings on your own drug use: “…whereas I am speaking in terms of actual documented heavy drug abuse when it comes to Hancock…”, your own drug use being “unsubstantiated”. So I take it you are against it, even when a hero does it? Just for the record, I’m against all drug use, unless medically necessary, and I don’t even drink alcohol. But I fail to see how GH’s alleged drug use could affect his views: is he smoking pot while he writes?

  20. I did a brief google search for Graham Hancock’s “alleged heavy drug use”:

    1.) He used some type of hallucinogenic when during research for his book “Supernatural”; this I was aware of…

    2.) Hancock believes some drugs should be legalized; this I wasn’t aware of…

    3.) But so far, nothing else….

    4.) Of course, my scientific search results should be considered “provisional”, and I might have missed something……

  21. My children are grown and neither has yet made me a grandmother. Therefore I am very rusty when it comes to attempting to communicate complex concepts to toddler-level intellect. Could someone in better practice try to communicate to certain parties here that Carl Sagan was not an archaeologist and evoking his use of marihuana to defend Hancock’s pseudoArchaeology is not an effective debate strategy. My late husband used to start off his evening writing sessions with a double Scotch on the rocks. If instead of that he had started each writing session with a fifth of scotch I would have been leery of anything that he produced. Hancock’s substance misuse is well documented and easily falls into the category of the fifth of scotch. Maybe someone can interpret this into toddlerese and pass it in to der kinder here.

  22. Patrice: I haven’t taught 8th graders in about 25 years now; so, like you I’m a bit rusty, but since you come across as an 8th grader, I’ll try to relate to you as one: I’ll put numbers in front of my points so you can keep up better:

    1.) Now matter what you say, or how witty your friends think you are, an insult is NOT AN ARGUMENT.

    2.) You might be further unaware, but an Ad hominem is a logic fallacy.

    3.) Carl Sagan was not an archaeologist; yes, probably even you are aware of that. No one here has ever claimed that he was. However, Carl often weighed in on things archaeological, even theological.

    4.) Sorry that you and your husband can’t cope with life without altering your mind; I don’t drink, but to each his own.

    5.) Hancock’s well documented drug abuse: please cite a source.

    6.) Finally, as to what point “drug use” is in this debate, I would refer you to James Ford and others here, they are the ones who thought it was pertinent enough to bring up. I didn’t raise the issue and I wouldn’t have.

  23. James Ford stated wayyyyy back in April, 2019, in a post on this blog on Hancock’s “America Before”: “…Hell, in the summer of 1994 I risked my life during a Phase One survey in the Tunica Hills. But that wouldn’t stop my colleagues from treating me as a crackpot if I claimed that smoking massive amounts of pot allowed me to commune with some sort of spiritual guide that revealed that the Tunica Treasure was actually 5000 years older than we know it to be….”.

    James Ford was, I think, the first poster here, but certainly not the last, to “insert” the drug angle into this debate; so, Patrice, if you need further info on the drug thing, he’s your guy, not me…

  24. James Ford states: “…For people who are always preaching that scholar and critics of Hancock should be open minded they certainly seem allergic to the notion of carefully reading both sides and making an objective informed assessment. But, that’s why Hancock has made millions, so seems to be working for him…”.

    Well, in reading “America Before”, Hancock certainly wasn’t shy about engaging with well-known, peer reviewed, highly trained archaeologists, including Dr. Albert Goodyear, from the University of SC. There are numerous reasons why Graham Hancock is a successful author, none of them nefarious; as others have noted, he is a gifted writer. He knows how to tell a story, even if you disagree with him. Perhaps, James, if *you* were such a writer, you might “make millions” as well.

  25. Dazed and Confused: You honestly believe the only time Carl Sagan got high was with or in the presence of his son? Really? Wow, just wow. And you think the only drug that Sagan abused was maryjuwana? You are either ignorant, naive, or more than likely just an apologist for Sagan. Also, you’re going to cite a known political hack like Jasson Cobluto who on his blogs writes things like “F#ck Tucker Carlson”? But let’s just say you’re 100% correct, that GH and Sagan both abused drugs; does that invalidate their arguments?

  26. Plenty of people out there have hit the weed and other drugs over the years, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Edison and others and seems most of those folks turned out to be “okay”. I really think when some here bring that issue up in connection with Graham Hancock it’s just another mob tactic and a way to denigrate someone. Given that James Ford and others have expressed jealousy about Hancock being filthy rich, maybe some weed might be in order to enhance your readin and writin skills…:)

  27. Graham Hancock’s drug issues have already been discussed here at length in the past. Bottom line is that he started smoking a lot of pot and then started dropping hallucinogens; patterns of behavior which match up perfectly with the timeline for his starting to write nonsense about ancient lost civilizations and then his increasing paranoia regarding any and all criticism of this work. Unfortunately hancock cannot even handle prescription meds (see Graham’s little dance with sumatriptan) either. The lad has problems and bringing up the fact that others have smoked pot in no way takes the spotlight off of Hancock’s antics. The real issue is how much dope someone is smoking to even think that it is a good idea to defend Hancock and to not realize that they are showing their buttocks in a big way by trying to actually do it.

  28. Colavito is like some people on the left who are quick with labels like Nazi, Fascist, White supremacist when it comes to people that they think are mean. Just like some people on the right are quick with labels like Communist, socialist or Stalinist for anyone whose economic philosophy is anywhere to the left of Libertarianism. Lot’s of well-educated, smart people say silly things from time to time. Then there are people like Hancock who say silly things all the time. A moot point anyway. The write-up by Colavito included word for word quotes from Hancock about his drug use, anger, paranoia. Not much that one can say about Colavito to deflect away from hancock’s own self-disclosure.

  29. Graham’s Counceler: I guess then, following your logic, and since Hancock is not the originator of the Lost Civilization idea, that others before him must have been high on something? You know, back in High School I knew a couple of “potheads”, and in all that time I don’t think one of their ever said “..dude, last night when we were high, this kind of a “lost civilization thing” kind popped in my head”. LOL, when Carl Sagan was seeing pyramids on Mars and Ancient Aliens in Sumerian texts, is that good evidence he was high? Asking for a friend….

  30. Tucker: Carl Sagan, your sacred cow, said enough crazy stuff about religion, politics, oil well fires, nuclear winter, and UFOS to get him committed; and please, you’re actually going to defend Jason Cabluto’s political smears? My goodness…..

  31. Lot’s of people see and imagine things or are inspired in some way when they are high (step 1). But then they sober up and reflect objectively on them or even subject them to scientific testing (step 2). Hancock has made a career out of sentence one while avoiding sentence two. People like Sagan, who never admitted drug use anywhere near the level of Hancock, took both step one and step two and has been forthcoming about it. I’ve never seen any documentation of Sagan making a habit of screaming closeminded academics or howling conspiracy when the evidence just wasn’t there to support what may have seemed like brilliant insight while smoking a bong. On the other hand this type of behavior is a common play by Hancock and is what might be expected given his psychopathologies and chronic drug misuse for decades.

    Maybe in the future try defending Hancock’s pseudoarchaeology based on its own merits rather than trying to move the goalpost by bringing up someone who wasn’t even a professional archaeologist. You will still be wrong but may look a little less foolish.

    Case closed.

  32. Graham’s Counselor: 1.) You can’t make the connection that anything Hancock ever wrote is/was somehow connected to his drug use; not one ounce of evidence for that claim. 2.) What do credentials, in these two instances, really matter? Sagan over the years opined on politics, religion, the environment and archaeology; he was neither a Political Scientist, a theologian, nor an archaeologist; so why didn’t he just keep his yapper shut? Hancock is not a professional archaeologist but that shouldn’t rule out his opinions on the subject, unless you want to apply the same standard to Carl Sagan. And how do you know what Sagan’s real drug use was over the years? You don’t. His own son wouldn’t rule out LSD use by his father.
    Case closed…

  33. Graham’s Counselor: Your assertion seems to be this: “A history of drug abuse is the primary reason why Hancock believes in a Lost Civilization”. Is that what you’re saying?

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