It’s no secret that far more people watch TV shows like the History Channel’s ‘Ancient Aliens’ than attend lectures by professional archaeologists and historians. Millions of people tune in to watch TV series and docu-dramas with a questionable grip on facts about the past. The stories spun by producers and writers may have some basis in truth, but they’re largely stories — they’re compelling stories, though, and they’re aimed at a general audience the way that most academic output isn’t.
People are also reading books about ancient aliens and other forms of pseudoarchaeology, according to archaeologist Donald Holly. He starts a recent open-access book review section in the journal American Antiquity by asking archaeologists to entertain the idea of pseudoarchaeology — just for a little bit — so that we can create better teachable moments, whether we’re talking to students or to anyone interested in our jobs.
People who read these books are not ignorant or obstinate, he points out, but rather undecided about alternative archaeological explanations and clearly interested in understanding the past. ”It’s time we talk to the guy sitting next to us on the airplane,” Holly asserts. In collecting nine reviews of popular-on-Amazon pseudo-archaeology books by professional archaeologists, Holly hopes that this will both “offer the silent and curious majority that is interested in these works a professional perspective on them” and give archaeologists unfamiliar with the books a pseudoarchaeology primer.
The article starts out with two reviews of books whose main premise is that we need advanced humans — or nonhumans — to make sense of past developments. First up, Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization, reviewed by Ken Feder, an archaeologist famous for his anti-pseudoarchaeology book Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. The gist of Fingerprints is that an extraordinarily advanced civilization roamed the seas thousands of years ago, giving advice to the people they found in places like Egypt and Peru and helping them establish their own civilizations. In return, these advanced peoples were treated as gods, particularly after some cataclysmic event wiped them out. Feder’s main problems with Hancock’s book include the fact that he cherry-picked his data, not bothering to address all the evidence; that he relies on very old and discredited fringe thinkers; and that he can’t conceive of cultural evolution.
In the second review, The Ancient Alien Question, archaeologist Jeb Card points out, as does Feder, that the origins of this idea lay in Victorian mysticism and Theosophy, a movement that “blended hermetic magic, spiritualism, Western curiosity about Eastern religion, colonial racism, and misconceptions of evolution into a worldview of root races, lost continents, and ascended masters who originated on Venus or other worlds.” The author of The Ancient Alien Question, Philip Coppens, was a regular on the Ancient Aliens TV series and presents academic research as if science itself is mysterious. Most problematic, Card finds, is Coppens’ invocation of “the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and other book burnings as suppression of ancient truth without recognizing his own call for the destruction of the scientific order, replacing scientific investigation with a new history of mysticism and myth.”
Other books in the review section focus on specific sites or cultures and illustrate that the popular author has artificially selected which information to present. Andrew Collins’ book Göbekli Tepe: Genesis of the Gods, reviewed by archaeologist Eric Cline, deals with the Neolithic site in Turkey that Collins tries to connect to the biblical Garden of Eden by treating the Bible as incontrovertible fact. Black Genesis: The Prehistoric Origins of Ancient Egypt by Robert Bauval and Thomas Brophy, reviewed by archaeologist Ethan Watrall, misunderstands both astronomy and the Bible to show that the Egyptian state was “black African” yet also manages to accurately point out that academic archaeology has for a long time ignored sub-Saharan Africa.
The southwestern U.S. is covered by Gary David’s Star Shrines and Earthworks of the Desert Southwest, reviewed by archaeologist Stephen Lekson. While Lekson admits that David is onto something with his “loose, journalistic style,” the “content [of the book] is fantastic, it is phenomenal, it is flabbergasting, it is… a mish-mash.” Archaeologist Kory Cooper tackles Iron Age America Before Columbus by William Conner, which suggests that there is evidence of iron smelting sites in prehistoric North America.
Cooper’s highest praise is that it “would make a useful reference for an Introduction to Logic course because the book is a veritable catalogue of logical fallacies.” And archaeologist Benjamin Auerbach reviews The Ancient Giants Who Ruled America: The Missing Skeletons and the Great Smithsonian Cover-Up by Richard Dewhurst, who uses old newspaper articles to claim that not only were the skeletons of giants found in the U.S., but that the most well-known science museum in the country tried to hide the evidence. Auerbach points out that he personally has studied many of the skeletons Dewhurst mentions and “none had statures over six feet.” The selective evidence in these books is clearly problematic, but not as problematic as the motif underlying many pseudoarchaeology books.
The primary theme among these popular pseudoarchaeology books that professionals have a major problem with is ethnocentrism, or the idea that we can judge other cultures based on the yardstick of our own. But racism figures in here too. Archaeologist Larry Zimmerman reviews The Lost Colonies of Ancient America by Frank Joseph, who insists that mainstream archaeologists are the ones ignoring information on transoceanic voyages and that any number of past civilizations may have colonized the New World first.
Zimmerman, though, notes that “Joseph echoes half a millennium of speculation geared toward inventing a deep Old World history in the Americas, thereby challenging the primacy of American Indians in the hemisphere, or at least implying their inferiority, their poor stewardship of the land, and the need to civilize them, all in the service of Manifest Destiny and justification for taking their land.”
Similarly, John Ruskamp’s Asiatic Echoes: The Identification of Chinese Pictograms in Pre-Columbian North American Rock Writing, reviewed by archaeologist Angus Quinlan, puts forth the idea that pictograms found in North American rock art are Chinese script characters left by an otherwise archaeologically invisible trip across the Pacific. The similarity is substantial, Ruskamp insists, but Quinlan calls it “another illustration of deductive thinking at its worst.” Further, Quinlan points out that these sorts of interpretations that try to shoehorn in foreign visitors to explain New World culture are “disrespectful of the Native American cultures that used rock art in their sociocultural routines.”
Archaeologists are trained as anthropologists to recognize and celebrate the diversity of humanity, both today and in the past. Eric Cline succinctly explains this in his review, noting “pseudo archaeologists cannot accept the fact that the mere humans might have come up with great innovations such as the domestication of plants and animals or built great architectural masterpieces such as the Sphinx all on their own; rather, they frequently seek or invoke divine, or even alien, assistance to explain how these came to be.”
Pseudoarchaeology books are problematic for archaeologists for a number of reasons. First, of course, they tend to present misinformation, cherry-picked from legitimate (and not-so-legitimate) sources that is often taken as fact because it’s presented as fact. Archaeologists, as scientists, can no more select what data to consider than a chemist can select which laws of chemistry to follow. Second, pseudoarchaeology seems like a legitimate body of scholarship because authors tend to cite one another, creating a body of information that, however outlandish it sounds, fits together. Archaeology also does this, but as scientists, we are invested in improving our understanding of the past rather than in protecting our own theories the way pseudo archaeologists do.
But these books are perhaps most problematic for archaeologists because, as Lekson notes, “alternative archaeology is more interesting than the stuff we write… more interesting to more people, that is.” Academic archaeologists are not trained to write readably, which means there is a large opening for authors to connect with the “guy on the airplane.” Archaeologists like Brian Fagan who do write more approachable books have to walk a fine line between making data interesting and not making extraordinary claims.
Unfortunately, tales of ancient aliens and extraordinary humans creating the Pyramids as a communication device are often more fascinating than slow cultural change. We as archaeologists need to find a way to showcase the humanity of the past and get across the idea that ancient humans were intelligent, capable, and innovative — that those of us alive today are the product of that long history of innovation, and that we are continuing the tradition of our early ancestors by inventing cars, computers, and, yes, even pseudoarchaeology.
For more on pseudoarchaeology books, you can read the American Antiquity book reviews here, or check out the fantastic blog by Jason Colavito, the “skeptical xenoarchaeologist,” who critiqued Hancock’s recent appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast. And if you want to take a class in pseudoarchaeology, Ethan Watrall has put his fall 2015 Michigan State University course online, with all course material freely available to anyone who’s interested.