The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

American Wanderings

I recently had a conversation with a fellow who was convinced that the Celts had made it into North America before Columbus. His evidence? Well, he proudly told me about a megalith structure found in North America (megaliths are the large-stone structures such as Stone Henge and some other types of architecture from Europe). I pointed out to him that I was already aware of the types of structures that he was talking about, they were used as a sort of cellar away from the house, and instructions on how to build them were commercially available during the 19th century. In other words, his "proof of ancient Celts in the Americas" was, in fact, a vegetable cellar built by a farmer in the 1800's.

And, you know, I have had conversations like this with five different people in the last two weeks alone.

But this sort of belief is very common. Many people believe that the Egyptians, Israelites, Celts, black Africans, Japanese, Chinese, and so on and so forth all arrived in the Americas before Columbus. What these claims have in common is that they are all lacking evidence, and that fair examination of the evidence (as opposed to people selectively looking at certain aspects of the evidence to support their particular claim) has, to date and with the two exceptions discussed below, always gone against the claimant.

People hold to beliefs about alleged links between the Americas and Europe, Africa, the Middle East, etc. for various reasons. People will likely believe what they believe, and I am not trying to have at anyone. But, as an archaeologist, I feel that I have a responsibility to represent the record as it is. Also, this gives me a chance to write about archaeology, which is just plain fun. In other words, it's nothing personal, but if you hold beliefs that are in contradiction to the evidence that has been're probably not going to like this entry.

Oh, and this is not simply my own personal opinion of these matters, though certainly I do think that the views represented here are correct. These views are based on the results of almost two centuries of research by many different archaeologists and antiquarians, so if you have a problem with them, at this point, the burden of proof is on you.

Now, with that out of the way, let's look at a few lines of evidence.

1. The American Body

One of the most basic places to look for evidence of human movement is in the biological makeup of the people themselves. In the past, this meant examining both living descendants and the bones of ancestors for evidence of heritable traits (essentially, looking for genetic traits without looking at the genes themselves). These studies have routinely found that the traits found in Native American populations are consistent with a few waves of early migration from Asia, but not with what would be expected had later populations from the Old World (consisting of Asia, Europe, and Africa) arrived in even moderate numbers.

Occasionally you'll hear stories of "Indian tribes with blue eyes" or something of that sort, usually claiming that these traits are proof of commingling with Old Worlders, and you know, they may be evidence of that - but remember, it is known that many Europeans, Asians, and Africans arrived in the Americas AFTER the year 1492, and it is also known that many of them had children with native peoples. So, people noting "blue eyed Indians" in 1850, or even 1750, 1650, or 1550 doesn't mean that anyone from Europe or elsewhere arrived in the Americas earlier than 1492.

Thanks to modern technology, we are now actually able to examine the genes themselves. This is neat stuff, and it is forcing us to refine our views of how the Americas were settled, but to date, all data collected has been consistent with early migrations from Asia. Although many people hold out hope that this new tool will reveal migrations from Europe, the Middle East, and so on, so far they haven't, and I wouldn't place any money on that result coming up - it is decidedly a low probability outcome.

Okay, so the bodies of the Americans don't reveal any evidence of these alleged other migrations. What about their tools, art, jewelry, and so on?

2. Their Stuff

Negative Maverick, the pattern is full.

The only clear similarities between the artifacts of the New World and those of the Old World (be it architecture, tools, weapons, art, jewelry, or anything else) are purely functional, and are pretty clearly due to convergence (meaning that two different, unrelated groups make tools for essentially the same purpose, and therefore create remarkably similar tools because, well, THEY SERVE THE SAME DAMN PURPOSE!). Where there is no functional link, there are no real similarities (that is, there are only so many ways that you can make an arrowhead, so they're all going to look pretty similar, no matter where they come from - but there are all sorts of ways that you can decorate your home, so there is loads of variation between groups of interior decorators from different cultures).

Most of the claims that artefactual evidence indicates links between the Americas and elsewhere are based on misinterpretations of evidence - sometimes honest mistakes, sometimes intentional lies.

A good example of this comes from art. There is a series of large stone heads carved by the Olmecs in Mexico. Now, these heads have what could be stereotypically considered African features. Based on this, a large number of pseudo-scholars have claimed that this proves that Africans arrived in the Americas and are responsible for the great civilizations of Central and South America.

This is, of course, bullshit.

The features that are pointed to on the statues are also evocative of the native populations of the region, who, as discussed above, are pretty clearly descended from early Asian migrants. Also, aside from these statues, there is no artefactual evidence to indicate a link, and if African settlers were responsible for the great civilizations, then there would HAVE to be artefactual evidence, no way that you can make that kind of impact and not leave any signs of it. In fact, there is plenty o' evidence that the locals are responsible for this stuff, and not the Africans.

Taking a different tact, I have had several fans of the "lost tribes of Israel" hypothesis point to artwork found in Central and South America and claim that it shows illustrations from various holy books (although most folks will think this means the Mormons, the truth is that they are only one of the many groups who make claims about Israelites arriving in the Americas, and I have personally met representatives of other groups) .

The problem is that if you look at this artwork in its context, and don't cherry pick it to look for something that could be twisted into supporting a particular claim, it becomes pretty clear that the artwork doesn't show the events it is alleged to show, but shows something else altogether.
These same patterns hold true for other items that are claimed to be evidence of some incursion or another into the Americas - they may sound convincing until you learn more about the archaeology of the region, and then the actual nature and purpose of the item in question becomes clear. Mind you, that doesn't make this stuff any less interesting, in fact, when you know what these items really were and how they came about, they're usually much MORE interesting.

So, that's the story for misinterpretation, but you also have to consider hoaxes. Throughout the 19th century, people would produce items ranging from artifacts to the alleged writings of the ancients (my personal favorite being the alleged "runes" found in North America that have alot of the basic errors that you would expect a hoaxer to make, but not someone who was a native speaker and writer of the language), to stories about Native American groups speaking Hebrew, and so on. In each case, when you begin to examine the stories or items, their origins as hoaxes become clear - but this hasn't stopped many people (including some who really should know better) from believing these stories and passing them on.

There is one other thing that should be discussed here. Usually, you can be safe sticking to the motto "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Usually. But not here, and there is a reason why.

Many of the peoples of the Americas had an economy that was heavily dependent on trade and prestige - and prestige was typically gained by having an item for trade rather than keeping the item. The archaeological record shows a spread of items throughout the Americas that is consistent with this type of economy throughout much of prehistory. Also, bad relations between groups might not even stop exchange - trade appears to have occurred even occur between groups who were enemies (a fact that came into play in my Masters Thesis, in fact), and it was common in many cultures for there to be multiple village-level polities within a larger ehtnolinguistic territory - and just because one village had an enemy didn't mean that the other villages (or bands, in some cases) would view the same group as their enemy. So claiming that the Old Worlders would not have traded because they had bad relations with the locals doesn't hold water.

In prehistoric American economies, the more exotic an item is, the more prestige attached to it as a trade item. So, if you can get access to exotic items, you want to, and then you want to trade them. It is worth noting that artifacts from the Vikings, the only Old World peoples who clearly DID show up in north America before Columbus, were traded far and wide - and there were a relatively small number of Vikings who stayed for a relatively short period of time, not the case for the various other groups that it is claimed visited the Americas.

Yet, there are no artifacts from the Old World (other than a few Viking items). Given the nature of the prehistoric American economy, this is inconceivable. So, though I am loathe to admit it, in this case, absence of evidence really is evidence of absence.

And again, keep the Vikings in mind. They were present for a short period of time in very small numbers and THEY made an impact. How could other, larger and longer-lasting migrations not leave evidence?

There is one other point that I want to get at here. The archaeological record indicates culture change throughout prehistory. However, culture change shows continuity (except in cases of clear invasion, where the origin of the invaders is known), and culture change appears to coincide with specific, traceable events - major shifts in the climate, massive changes in population levels, and so on. The Old-World migrations that people like to claim never seem to coincide with actual episodes of culture change, which they really should if the various activities claimed by the proponents of these views were actually happening.

Again, this is one of the few places were absence of evidence really is evidence of absence...

3. Linguistics

Okay, so the artifacts and the biology show that there were no migrations, but what about reports that various Native American groups spoke, or at least had some words from, Hebrew/Gaelic/Latin/etc.?

Well, these fall into two categories: bullshit, and utter bullshit.

In the bullshit category, you can place the honest mistakes. These are places were certain words or syllables sound kinda' like words or syllables from another language. The problem with this, and ask a linguist (I did) you don't have to take my word for it, is that most languages have false cognates with other, unrelated languages. This is due to the fact that the human mouth and vocal chords are only capable of a certain range of sounds, and as a result, alot of sounds are repeated in many different unrelated languages.

However, these sounds rarely have the same meanings (or even similar or derivative meanings) across the different languages, and therefore aren't evidence of links between the languages.
In some cases, there is an odd similarity here and there, but these are almost invariably in "simple syllables" (a limited number of syllables that are easy to make and appear in almost every language because they are so easy to make), and the sheer number of languages that have been spoken throughout human history means that by cheer chance, a few of these syllables are going to end up meaning similar things in unrelated languages.

Then there is Utter Bullshit. These are the hoaxes, lies, and intentionally misleading stories that are told by people who, for a variety of reasons, feel that it is important that other people believe that the Americas were visited or populated by people from elsewhere. These are untrue and were intentionally made up, 'nuff said.

4. Lore

Some folks will claim that similarities that can be found between Native American lore and various Old World religions is proof of a link. There are three problems with this.

The first is that most of these similarities are thematic (such as death and rebirth) and can be found in religions the world over. Now whether this is evidence of the retention of some ideas from very early human belief, or is evidence of humanity processing certain types of information in certain ways and coming up with similar narratives, I don't know (though I am inclined to think that it is the latter).

The second problem is that many of the traditions where ties are claimed come from documents that were recorded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when most American Indians had been converted to Christianity and were living around Christians. As a result, given the nature of oral traditions, it is only natural that many elements of Christianity would leak into the legends and lore. When one examines earlier documents (such as those written by Spanish priests who were trying to convert people who had never seen a European before), these similarities "mysteriously" vanish.

The third problem is that the elements that are claimed to show links to Old World religions can often be tracked geographically, and show evidence of being "home grown." For example, in Southern California, there was a mythological figure appears among several groups, and is fairly clearly essentially the same figure - but in some groups he is messianic (God made flesh and then vanished), in others he is a culture hero (an important figure who is responsible for many things, but not a god), in others he is the chief god but not at all human, and so on. However, common traits are attributed to him, regardless of his divinity or lack thereof, and these traits rather importantly mark all of these figures as being variations on the same theme. When mapped out, it becomes clear that this being developed out of local legend, and is not evidence of Christian influence, but many people have claimed that he is nonetheless.

It would be necessary to show fairly definite ties in both form and content between religious traditions in order to establish a connection. To date, this evidence has been lacking. The sloppy reasoning that people use to try to connect the Americas with various Old World religions can be just as easily used to prove that Christianity is a bastardized form of Buddhism, which the historical record proves that it is not. So, these lines of alleged evidence tend to go nowhere fast.

The lore of the Native Americans tells use nothing about alleged links to the Old World, but the lore of the Europeans tells use a good deal about where these beliefs come from.

To start with, it must be remembered that many early European explorers believed the Americas to be part of Asia, and many of the claims about links between medieval and later Asia can be directly tied to these early misconceptions.

Also, the claim that the Native Americans were descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel (or other groups from the Middle East) are several centuries old. Claims such as this show up in early Spanish accounts of the Americas, as does the usually fabricated or misunderstood "evidence" for these claims. When various groups began proclaiming this loudly in the 19th century, they weren't saying anything that hadn't been floating around amongst Europeans in the Americas for a couple of hundred years (in fact, this very claim was made by a Spanish priest serving in California in the 1810's in a series of questionnaires sent out to the missions by the Spanish government, and that priest cited as authority an author who had died over 150 years earlier).

In fact, claims that another "race" must have been in the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans was quite common until the late 19th century. The belief came from the rather racist notion that the "American Savages" could not have constructed the many architectural wonders of the Americas, including the great mound structures of North America (which few people seem to be aware of today, but were widely-discussed int he 18th and 19th centuries), and the temples and cities of Central and South America.

When archaeology first began to become its own discipline, beliefs of this sort were common, and so, contrary to what many people who espouse them now claim, these ideas regarding Old World incursions into the Americas were widely entertained and discussed by archaeologists for quite a long time. In the late 19th century, the Smithsonian sponsored a series of studies of the North American mounds, and subsequent studies of the sites in Central and South America were also performed. The results? It was pretty damn obvious that the Native Americans had built them, after all. All claims tot he contrary were based on racist notions of "Native Savagery" or dip-shit ideas about how "human progress won't allow a culture to slip backwards!" (I can only assume these folks hadn't hear about the fall of the Roman Empire - and by the way, a friend of mine once actually tried using this line of reasoning on me to explain why the Native Americans couldn't have been responsible for these civilizations. I was so taken aback at the ludicrous nature of the argument that I had no idea how to respond).

5. Possibility vs. Probability

When someone has seen their claims of evidence for Old World incursions vanish, they will usually fall back on the old claim of "well, it's possible that these people could have made it here!"
Any number of things are possible. It's possible that I'll marry Gillian Anderson, but it's not very likely (being as how I don't even know Gillian Anderson and all).

In all scientific research, there is never certainty, only varying degrees of probability. It is always possible that some piece of evidence will come to light that will make what had previously seemed unthinkable into an obvious reality. However, while these things are possible, you have to look at how likely they are.

In this case, if there had been incusrions by Africans/Celts/Isrealites/Romans, etc., then you would expect changes in the biology of the peoples of the Americas, shifts in their material culture, changes in settlement patterns and procurement strategies that chronologically accompanying these incursions, linguistic changes, and so on. But not a single one of these things has happened! None. Zero. Zilch. Not a sausage.

So, the odds of a piece of information coming to light that causes all of this to be re-evaluated is pretty damn low. I can't even imagine what such a piece of evidence would be, AND IT'S PART OF MY TRAINING AND MY JOB TO IMAGINE THESE THINGS! I know what things would look like if none these things happened, and that is pretty much how things actually look. Moreover, as we accumulate more data, it forces us to re-evaluate many of our assumptions and conclusions, but it has to date not caused us to assume that late-arriving Old Worlders impacted the people of these continents, in fact the evidence has made that look increasingly less and less probable. More, many ealy researchers were convinced that these incursions had happened, but dropped these beliefs only after the evidence overwhelmingly showed otherwise. So, while anything is possible, I'd say that the chances that Celts/Africans/Isrealites/Chinese/etc. showed up and mucked about in the Americas is pretty damn low. This is not just a low probability hypothesis, it is a DAMN low probability hypothesis.

6. Actual Culture Contact

However, there has been real culture contact. As mentioned above, we now know that there was a small Viking settlement ont he East Coast of North America. While they had a low impact owing to both the settlement's small size and short duration, they did have a detectable impact nonetheless.

There is currently some discussion of the possibility that a small group of Polynesians may have made contact with prehistoric Californians. The evidence for this claim is pretty weak, but it is interesting, and it may eventually yield something. However, again, we're talking about a small number of Polynesians during a small duration of time.

Then there are the historical culture contact scenarios. What is interesting in all of them is that even a few hundred European (or in some cases, Asian or African) settlers moving into an area that had been occupied by Native Americans had a huge impact on the lives of the native peoples. Given what it seen during these contacts, it is inconceivable that earlier groups could have come and done great deeds and not left a mark, considering that even short and friendly culture contact had a huge impact.

...and so, that's my spiel, I hope you found it interesting. Now, one final word - it's common for many of the wingnuts who buy these claims to, when evidence to the contrary is presented, claim that the person raining on their parade is simply" parroting the establishment" and that "archaeologists want to hide the truth because they have financial ties to the belief that the 'old paradigm' is true!"


Those archaeologists who have managed to overturn long-held beliefs have routinely found themselves celebrated, and gaining recognition both among their colleagues AND int he popular press. In other words, when you can make a substantiated claim that something that seems outrageous is true, it's VERY GOOD for your career. Only someone who is woefully ignorant of how archaeology functions as a field woul claim otherwise.

Of course, only someone who is woefully ignorant of archaeology as a field would believe claims based on flimsy evidence, so there you go.


Kay said...

Is “Bullshit” an actual scientific term? Because that would be all kinds of cool.

FBI said...

If it is I worry about why half of them bother with formal scientific writing.