The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, August 23, 2010

Glenn Beck's Pseudo-Archaeology, Part 1

There is a fair chance by now that you have heard of Glenn Beck's new forays into the wild and woolly world of pseudo-archaeology. To this end he has begun bringing up 19th century tomes arguing for similarities between the mound structures of North America and similar types of monuments in other parts of the world, as well as a chunk of nonsensical numerology and bizarre site lay-out comparisons that would make Graham Hancock Blush. Beck's argument is made to support a revisionist history with the goal of showing that the "godly" Founding Father's intentions were de-railed in the 19th century by a conspiracy of business, government, and science in order to justify the expansion of the United States under the guise of "Manifest Destiny." Or, as he puts it himself:

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.


The history that has been erased in our nation and, in particular, with the Native Americans, happened because it didn’t fit the story they created – manifest destiny. It only works if the Indians were savages. And they had to have savages for commerce and government to expand. The ancient artifacts prove otherwise. Why aren’t we looking into those?

Or, if you prefer your pseudo-science in video form:

There is nugget of truth buried deep inside of Beck's delusions. The reality is that, up through the early 20th century, the expansion of the United States required that Americans view the native peoples of the midwest and west as a nuisance at best and sub-human at worst. Yes, there was some intentional propaganda (begun during the earliest colonization of the Americas, not during the period of Manifest Destiny - although the promoters of westward expansion certainly made use of what was, by that time, some very old prejudices), but there was also the reliable force of good, old-fashioned xenophobia at work. It was easy for the Europeans and their descendants in the Americas to view the hunter-gatherers and early farmers of the Americas as "primitives" or "savages" - they had been taught this since the end of the 15th century - and so there really was no need to convince most people that the native peoples of the Americas were savages - most of these people already believed it due to centuries of programming.

The irony, of course, is the Beck is claiming that the Smithsonian and other institutions of American archaeology and history intentionally covered up the truth of the American past in order to justify violent and often genocidal policies. In fact, the Smithsonian was the very institution that began to hammer the nails in the coffin of "science"-based "white superiority." the mound monuments, for example, had long been assumed to be the work of more advanced people, as "the savage Indians could not have built them!" The Smithsonian commissioned archaeologists and anthropologists to study the mounds and the people who had historically lived in their vicinity and demonstrated conclusively that yes, these were the very same people responsible for these very impressive monuments. Further, it was American archaeology and anthropology, largely through the persons of Franz Boas (a Jewish German emigrant) and Alfred Kroeber who really began the systematic study of the Native Americans that provided the perspective that we have today - that these people were not "savages", but rather were intelligent people who had adapted well to their environments.

What's more, even if the Smithsonian had been in on a cover-up (which, as anyone who has bothered to actually look at it's output could tell you, it wasn't) this wouldn't result in the "truth" being hidden. As I have pointed out before, academic research is a cut-throat occupation, and anyone who can overturn the accepted theories and models has just ensured that they will have a successful career, so there is no incentive to stick with the "official story" if the evidence strongly points elsewhere. And even if there had been a succesful attempt to silence the archaeologists and anthropologists of the United States, a good deal of work with the Native peoples of the Americas was performed by anthropologists and archaeologists from Europe, who had no impetus to follow an "official" U.S. government history, and who were very vocal about their findings.

So, in fact, it was institutional science (and especially the Smithsonian) that showed that these people weren't savages, and there was no cover-up. As to Beck's question "The ancient artifacts prove otherwise. Why aren’t we looking into those?" I can only say - buddy, I've got a room full of those artifacts in the back of my office building, and I have spent years studying them. If you have to ask "why aren't we looking into those?" then you are so astoundingly ignorant that I don't even know where to start explaining your problems.

Okay, so this is the first of a few installments, the next will focus on why a 19th century volume would be making comparisons between the Americas and Asia, Africa, and Europe. Later on, I'll get into how Beck's religious views have more to do with his thoughts on archaeology than any actual research that he's done.


Brooke Hoyer said...

I think the real irony is that pseudo science (conclusions at the behest of industry) has been perverting the mainstream scientific narrative for centuries. Seems to me that Beck is cherry picking his expose. Why isn't he exploding the government/industry collusion regarding climate science or the financial system?

Anthroslug said...

Simple - he's in favor of the collusion regarding climate science, and has even taken part in it (with a series of CNN specials years back), and I rather doubt that he cares overly much about the financial systems.

Richard said...

Keep in mind that Glenn Beck is a Mormon, so he's approaching all of this ancient American history stuff with the teachings of the Mormon church in mind. That is, they talk a lot about how a group of Israelites came across the ocean, various stuff happened, and the American Indians were descended from them. Well, the claim about descent has shrunk a bit, now that genetic tests have shown that Native Americans aren't really related to Jews.

Anthroslug said...

Oh yes, I have kept that in mind. In fact the post that will drop on Friday morning is all about how Glenn Beck's religious beliefs influence his thinking about history and archaeology.

Anonymous said...

Columbus Dispatch had an article about this today. 6 of the archaeologist interviewed for the documentary he cites in the segment came out and called it a fraud