The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Glenn Beck's Pseudo-Archaeology - Part 2

So, following on from the previous entry, I wanted to talk about Beck's references to 19th century books that claim connections between the monuments and artifacts of the Old World (Africa, Europe, Asia) and those of the New World (the Americas)*, and his apparent confusion over why these claims began to vanish from later works. His exact quote:

Here's a book, this is from 1885. This talks about the mysterious similarities between mounds in America, mounds in America, Indians and the Chinese. This one says there are similarity to ancient artifacts from other part of the world and the American Indian. But they have no idea what it even means.

This one is ancient. This is from 1883, I think — 1891. This one is just about how the Indians are ancient. They're not savages. But most of this stuff was erased and hidden.

Although Beck may be picking up volumes of pseudo-archaeology (there are more than a few that date to the 19th century), it's also entirely possible that he isn't. There actually are legitimate archaeology books from the late 19th century that claim connections between the Old and New Worlds. However, rather than support his assertion that there was some sort of cover-up, his use of these books is yet another mark of ignorance of both archaeology and history (Edit to add: It also shows that he thinks his audience is ignorant of history - by the late 19th century, the U.S. had spread across North America, and the concept of Manifest Destiny had fallen into disuse several decades earlier, making these books irrelevant to his argument). In order to explain what's going on here, I have to explain some things about the development of archaeological theory.

Archaeology really began to take its form in the late 19th and early 20th century. There had been various different strands of what would become archaeology previous to this, but it's really during this period that archaeology begins to gel as a discipline. Like most academic disciplines nascent during this period, it was concerned with both describing and explaining the world. To this end, in addition to digging up and cataloguing artifacts from various sites, methods for developing explanations of the meanings of these artifacts and monuments began to develop - and modern archaeological theory was born.

A very strong strand of early archaeological theory was diffusionism - the notion that most innovations (agriculture, pottery, animal husbandry, architecture, etc.) probably were developed in one place and diffused out from there. Based on this, it was generally thought that there were direct-line connections between different parts of the world through which innovations were passed either through space or through time. So, for example, it might be argued that as both Egypt and Central and South American cultures have pyramids as part of their monumental architecture, there must be a clear link between these cultures. Likewise, all cultures that practice agriculture must have some sort of a link with the Fertile Crescent where agriculture was thought to have first developed.

It is based on this type of thought that many archaeologists of the late 19th and early 20th century wrote papers and books arguing for connections between the peoples who built the pyramids of Central and South America as well as the earthwork monuments of North America and the "advanced" civilizations of Greece, Egypt, Asia, etc.

But as time went on and further data was gathered, it became increasingly clear that, while diffusion does occur, so does independent invention. As archaeological technique was refined and dating methods become more advanced, it became obvious that pyramids and earthen mound monuments appeared in different regions at different points in time with no connections between them. In other words, just because two cultures have superficial similarities doesn't mean that there is actually any connection between them.

And so, diffusion-based explanations for cultural development began to fall out of favor. While diffusion is still used as an explanation in some cases, this occurs now when clear connections between cultures can be demonstrated - in other words, it is used as an explanation only where it makes sense and there isn't discomfirming evidence.

Concurrent with all of this, a model of cultural development was dominant in which it was assumed that all societies passed through certain stages from "savagery" to "civilization" - with 19th century European/Euro-American culture being the end-point, of course. In this model, little room was given for cultures to "slide back" to "previous states" (some archaeologists allowed for it, but not many), and so it was assumed that the low-tech cultures who occupied North America could not have built the rather amazing earthen mound sites that were spread across the eastern half of North America. This model of cultural development was, itself, based not on actual observation or evidence, but on the rather racist and ethnocentric notions common in Europe from the Renaissance through the early 20th century.

Again, though, as more data was gathered and archaeological technique refined, it became clear that there wasn't a strict linear progression from "savagery to civilization", but that cultures tended to develop based on a variety of ecological and social factors. Based on this new framework, a cultural history in which factors such as war, disease, and the intrusion of foreigners into an area might cause a socially complex society to fragment was acceptable. In short, more data and better technique led to archaeological theory better reflecting reality. To accuse archaeologist of "covering up the truth" for not holding to 19th century ideas about cultural diffusion and progression is akin to accusing physicists of "covering up the truth" for no longer believing that space is full of Luminiferous aether.

Add to this that there were plenty of forces outside of archaeology that tried to draw false connections between the Old World and the New World. For example - There was the old notion that the people of the Americas were the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. While many people believe that this notion began with Joseph Smith's founding of the Mormon Church, it had actually been in popular circulation since the 16th century. Many people viewed this as evidence for the truth of the Bible, so long before Joseph Smith, clergymen and religious scholars were searching for any evidence to support this claim, and many hoaxers were more than ready to supply false evidence.

And so we have many examples of people over the course of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries finding evidence that are claimed to show connections between the ancient Israelites and the Native peoples of the Americas. Some of these things are honest misunderstandings - superficial linguistic similarities and the like - while others are flat-out unquestionable hoaxes. None of them have stood up to scrutiny. And the flood of archaeological, linguistic, ethnographic, and DNA evidence pretty conclusively kills this hypothesis.

The same is true for claims that the people of the Americas are descended from Egyptians, Celts, etc. etc. There are two clear connections between the peoples of the Old World and New World - the first came between 13,000 and 10,000 years ago, when people from Asia migrated to the Americas, the next came during the Medieval period when Vikings formed short-lived colonies on the Northeast coast of North America. There may have been other short-lived interactions, but if these occurred, they left little evidence, and don't appear to have had a significant impact on the peoples of the Americas.

So, we shouldn't be surprised to see 19th century books and papers that argue for connections between the Old World civilizations and the New World. Glenn Beck claims that these connections are valid, asking why we claim that there aren't connections when:

"The ancient artifacts prove otherwise. Why aren’t we looking into those?"

All that can be said is "umm, Glenn, we have been looking into those, for well over a century. And the ancient artifacts are what prove that the connections that you're trying to draw don't actually exist. Idiot."

It is worth taking a bit of time to look at Beck's presentation here, because it bears more than a small resemblance to another form of pseudo-science that most of us are familiar with. If you haven't, go back to yesterday's post and watch the video. I know, it makes you feel dirty to watch Glenn Beck, but trust me, it's worth seeing. Notice that it begins with him comparing the measurements of the side of one of the mound monuments with the measurements of the pyramids of Egypt. Now, there are hundreds of mound monuments, that one of them would have measurements comparable to a pyramid in Egypt is not too terribly surprising (and as A Hot Cup of Joe Demonstrates, Beck's measurements aren't even accurate to begin with). He then follows this on by comparing the angle of the side of this pyramid with the angle of a monument when compared to due north. Again, assuming that his numbers are right (which they aren't - follow the link above), I can only ask, so what?

This is a common pseduo-science approach, and one often seen among young Earth creationists - through a whole bunch of out-of-context data at someone, make it look impressive, and hope that they are confused enough to just bob their head and go along with you.

He follows this up by quoting from the Annual Report from the Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology, and quotes one line out of an entire volume in order to try to make it look as if the claims that Beck supports were dismissed out of hand. Of course, the volume is quite large, and was one of many such volumes, and was part of a long, on-going discussion in anthropology and archaeology that is still continuing today. To quote one line in this manner is nothing but quote mining, another tactic often employed by young Earth creationists.

And then we have the artifacts that he briefly discusses (again, go to A Hot Cup of Joe for a closer look at these). All without discussing the controversies surrounding them, the complete context in which they were found, or even who examined them (aside from vaguely referencing "some rabbis" and the evil institutional scientists(TM)). These artifacts are not much different from the Paluxy footprints that used to be celebrated by young Earth creationists.

And finally, after bashing on "institutional science", he has his guest on, who he makes a point of addressing as "Doctor." Again, this is a classic play straight out of the young Earth creationist playbook: institutional science and research is to be bashed and vilified, except when you can get it to suit your agenda, in which case it is to be bragged about and put on a pedestal.

Of course, Beck couches all of his claims in a paranoid conspiracy theory, so he can dismiss those of us who actually have bothered to learn something as being in on the alleged conspiracy. A common theme of much pseudo-science, including young Earth creationism.

Next up, why these claims have more to do with Glenn Beck's religion than his politics. Stay tuned.

*The Old World/New World distinction is a relic of the period of American colonization. As meaningless as it seems now, the terminology was dominant enough until the early 20th century that is has remained in many disciplines that study the natural and social world as a way of dividing Europe, Africa, and Asia from the Americas and Australia (Australia sometimes being further segregated into Oceania - which include Australia and the surroundign islands).

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