Pseudoarchaeology is a broad term, with definitions varying in past works (Anderson & Card 2012:2–3). Due to such definitional disagreements, the author defaults to the only correct definition, based in etymology: pseudo is defined as ‘having the appearance of, false, fake, not genuine’. Thus, pseudoarchaeology is herein defined as something that is not archaeology but is masquerading as archaeology. The term has become overused as effortless dismissal in place of detailed rebuttal to fringe ideas. However, fringe archaeology is definitionally mutually exclusive to pseudoarchaeology, with fringe literally defined as ‘the outer edge, margin, or periphery’. The very nature of being designated a fringe theory inherently legitimises it as actual archaeology, just unaccepted by the established paradigm.
The proliferation of works decrying pseudoarchaeology has ramped up significantly in recent times, with many publications devoted to exploring the phenomenon, and how best to consolidate control over the public narrative (Fagan 2006; Card and Anderson 2016). Stoczkowski (2007:473) distinguishes two typical approaches to pseudoarchaeology; ‘missionary criticism’, seeing it as a ‘scandal that should be abolished’, and ‘anthropological comprehension’, seeing it as ‘a cultural difference that should be understood’. Most vocal academics take the ‘missionary’ stance, with some even advocating a ‘crusade against pseudoscience’ (Levitt 2006:278).
This essay offers somewhat of an ‘anthropological comprehension’ approach, and an alternative view of pseudoarchaeology by exploring the approaches and motives of archaeologists who deem them as such. The author wishes to disclose that they are only familiar with Graham Hancock and the works he synthesises in his books, and not the works of other prominent pseudoarchaeologists. The author does not endorse any particular non-scientific views held by any pseudoarchaeologist in the public sphere.
It should be stated from the outset that merely being designated as ‘pseudoarchaeology’ has no bearing on whether or not a theory is correct, just as with fringe theories. This is equally true regarding prevailing scientific paradigms; the fact that the prevailing paradigm is seen as the truth has no bearing on whether it is indeed true. Science is merely a constant cycle of falsehoods presented as truth before being disproven and replaced with new truths, and thus it is arrogant to claim certainty of anything, especially concerning prehistory. Given this fact, the author will not offer commentary on the particulars or veracity of the wilder claims presented by Hancock in any of his books. Finally, the author acknowledges that there genuinely are some pseudoarchaeological theories that intend to harm certain groups, and disavows such theories, noting Hancock’s work is not among them.
Conflation with Ancient Aliens & Other Fallacies
There is an abundance of alternative views of the past in the public domain, ranging in credibility from absolute lunacy with zero evidence to plausible science-based arguments that conflict with the current paradigm. It is common to lump all of these theories together as “bunk” despite their incredible diversity of both content and veracity (Anderson and Card 2012; Derricourt 2012). Interdisciplinary science-based inquiries by tenured academics that conflict with archaeological dogmas, such as the erosional nature of the Sphinx enclosure (Schoch 1992) are conflated with tales of aliens building the pyramids (Culotta 1992). If a scientific argument is made, it should be countered point by point with stronger science rather than character assassinations and other smears. Failing to do so signals to the public that the established argument is not that strong, even when it is. Genetic fallacies, where a claim is evaluated on the basis of someone’s previous claims or claims of their associates rather than the claim itself are commonplace, such as in Culotta’s article (1992).
The conflation of pseudoarchaeology with fringe science, especially in recent years, is clearly intended by the accusers to delegitimise fringe scientific theories unfavoured by them for whatever reason by fallacy of association. This has been demonstrated to the author in no uncertain terms by Professor John Hoopes from the University of Kansas in a twitter discussion. Hoopes deemed a comprehensive bibliography, compiled by the author (Young and Howard 2018) of the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis, a specific scientific hypothesis first published in 2007 (Firestone et al. 2007) to be biased. The basis for his claim was that it did not include previous pseudoscientific or fringe works concerning Atlantis, the biblical flood, and vague narratives of cataclysm at the terminal Pleistocene (Hoopes 2019a).
In other words, Hoopes sees a bibliography of peer-reviewed, evidence-based scientific literature as biased because it does not include non-peer reviewed pseudoscientific literature about topics that are unrelated. In his mind there is no distinction between peer-reviewed, hard scientific data in scientific journals and the works of Donnelly, Velikovsky, and others; if both the scientists and the pseudoscientists are saying vaguely similar things, then it must all be dismissed as pseudoscience.
The Sceptic Industry
From the outset, the author wishes to make it perfectly clear that scepticism is healthy in science, and few ideas should be accepted at face value. Likewise, ideas should not be dismissed at face value when supporting evidence is presented. The evidence should be explored carefully, rather than dismissed superficially based on its’ disagreement with the current prevailing paradigm. This is not the view of most sceptics, however, with two prominent professional sceptics recently having to recant previous statements regarding the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis after actually examining the existing evidence for it (Shermer 2020; Defant 2020). If sceptics only spoke on a subject when they have examined it in detail, this would not be necessary, though they would likely be looking for a new job. It is the opinion of the author that if this behaviour continues with impunity, many more valid, paradigm-changing hypotheses will suffer, and false histories entrenched in dogma will prevail.
A common criticism of pseudoarchaeology is that proponents make their career selling books based on a certain theory. However, there is another side of the same coin – professional sceptics. These are people who make their career by deriding and sneering at other people’s work solely for the reason that it does not mesh well with existing models and paradigms. Often professional sceptics are those who flunked out of their field into journalism, preferring to fling faeces from the sidelines of science like angry chimpanzees rather than actually contribute. The author opines that those who make a career of discrediting and circumventing legitimate scientific inquiry by labelling as or conflating with pseudoscience are at least equally as pernicious as those who posit alternative theories. If you’re going to criticise, criticise the ideas, not the person promoting them, not their previous ideas, not the ideas of their associates.
Hancock did not explicitly set out to criticise the archaeological community when he released Fingerprints of the Gods (Hancock 1995). He presented oral histories of various ancient cultures alongside discredited titbits from academics like Posnansky’s work at Tiwanaku (Posnansky 1945) and Hapgood’s work on ancient maps (Hapgood 1966). Yet simply discussing the possibility of undiscovered secrets at Tiwanaku was enough to have him labelled a Nazi propagandist equivalent to one of Himmler’s scholars (Pringle 2006). This is just one example of many vicious attacks along these lines over the 20 years between Fingerprints and Magicians of the Gods.
In no small part due to these attacks, Magicians of the Gods and America Before (Hancock 2015, 2019) include criticisms of certain areas and aspects of archaeology, many of which are valid, and thus draw ire. Preservation of archaeological dogma for dogma’s sake is Hancock’s main hang-up and is detrimental to scientific progress. The quintessential example of this is the Clovis First dogma in the Americas, which has been dead for some time, but to this day is still adhered to by its acolytes. Archaeologist Jacques Cinq-Mars was laughed out of conferences by these dogmatic zealots for presenting strong evidence of human occupation at Bluefish Caves 24Kya (Pringle 2017), twice as old as Clovis. Clovis First has taken several more fatal blows over the years (Erlandson 2013; Waters and Stafford 2013; Dillehay 2015; Halligan 2016; Henige 2019) and is now accepted to be dead, but its corpse is still paraded around like Weekend at Bernie’s by the most devout (Morrow et al. 2012; Fiedel 2017a; Fiedel 2017b).
In America Before (2019), Hancock provides another detailed example of South American archaeological knowledge being crippled. Earliest accounts of the New World such as Carvajal’s journal (Medina 2010) tell of a flourishing society with vast cities throughout the Amazon rainforest supporting millions of people, but these were dismissed as fiction by the archaeological establishment. They did not believe these cultures were capable of the technology needed to sustain such a large population in the harsh rainforest. Then, terra preta (Lima et al. 2002), a bacterially diverse (Kim et al. 2007) anthropogenic fertiliser that supercharges agricultural yields was discovered, forcing prior claims to be revisited. Recently, the remnants of these vast cities have been discovered using LIDAR technology (de Souza et al. 2018), and once again, the paradigm is changing.
The Treatment of New Ideas
A barrage of criticism towards ostensibly reasonable ideas only further validates the ideas in the minds of a public that increasingly distrusts the establishment, sowing further seeds of distrust. This is especially true when the criticism does not stick to the evidence presented and debunk it point by point, instead relying on poisonous rhetoric and transparent logical fallacies to persuade. The public sees through this, and it is the wrong approach if the goal is to affect change in the public opinion.
Between the populist uprising of 2016 (Brexit and Trump) and the public response to Covid-19 are dozens of examples that demonstrate public distrust in the establishment. This distrust is evident not just in partisan politics and the medical sector, but also food regulation (Lofstedt 2011), climate policy (Rafaty 2018), and the media (Verma et al. 2017) to name a few. Kabat (2017) notes that claims of non-existent scientific consensus on controversial issues is one of the driving forces of this distrust, and the author agrees. Kabat (2017:1054) makes a cogent observation: “In the public debate, a question of staggering complexity has been reduced to a binary choice between two extremes: either climate change is a hoax, or is an unquestionable certainty”.
These false dichotomies permeate all areas of public discourse today and are directly applicable to pseudoarchaeology. If a claim is made that contradicts the established dogma, it is a hoax, while the established dogma itself is unquestionable certainty. Of course, the answer always lies somewhere in between, which is why the outright dismissal of all aspects of Hancock’s work and the implication that nothing is worth pursuing is particularly troubling; because some of his claims are almost certainly true. Conflation of each individual claim creates this false dichotomy, which is unhealthy for discourse and fuels distrust. The people see ostensibly reasonable ideas under attack, and it validates conspiracy theories, driving them away from arms of the establishment. “If you’re catching flak, you’re probably over the target” – This accurately summarises how Hancock and his fans interpret this obscene gatekeeping from those the public trusts to disseminate the story of humanity.
A 27-page salvo led by – big surprise – none other than John Hoopes, against prominent pseudoscientists and various fringe scientific theories in the Society for American Archaeology’s journal (Hoopes 2019b; Raff 2019; Feagans 2019; Colavito 2019a; Hoopes 2019c; Card 2019; Anderson 2019) is a prime example of this kind of attack. During the screed, one author notes that Hancock claims his opponents quibble, misrepresent, and engage in other logical fallacies (Feagans 2019:13) to debunk them, and ironically this is proven demonstrably true throughout the entire piece. Hancock is correct, as was proven to the author both personally by John Hoopes, and thorough analysis of the literature on pseudoarchaeology.
This particular screed is also an excellent example of the conflation of pseudoarchaeology and fringe science, by devoting 7 pages to debunking fringe scientific theories. One article is devoted to debunking Pontus Skoglund and colleagues who claim to have detected traces of Australasian DNA in founding South American populations (Skoglund et al. 2015), implying trans-Pacific migration or contact (Raff 2019). Another is devoted to debunking the Cerutti Mastodon site in California (Feagans 2019), where a prolific team of scientists claim evidence of human presence at 130Kya (Holen et al. 2017). These hypotheses were targeted in this screed because they are both explored in Hancock’s America Before (Hancock 2019).
The problem is, both of these hypotheses are science-based arguments published in prestigious journals, with varying levels of evidence supporting them (Gruhn 2018; Gorman 2015), making them fringe theories rather than pseudoarchaeology. The act of using these fringe theories to support pseudoarchaeological theories does not discredit the original theories, yet this is how Hoopes and his goons present it. Additionally, the authors of the Cerutti site, many of them very influential, have successfully rebutted all standing evidence-based criticism. Turnbull (2019) takes a decolonising approach to understanding why the Cerutti Mastodon is so vehemently rejected and offers various reasons it should be considered legitimate.
Derricourt (2012) takes a somewhat ‘anthropological comprehension’ approach to pseudoarchaeology, examining it from a post-processual perspective and noting that alternative theories are somewhat validated by postmodernism, which attributes value to multiple concurrent narratives. Derricourt (2012:527) compiled several pertinent quotes from post-processual thinkers that will be repeated below. These interesting points, when applied to pseudoarchaeology, give the author pause for thought regarding the relationship between processualism, post-processualism, and pseudoarchaeology.
Ian Hodder (1984:467–468) noted “statements about the past are about the unobservable and they are unverifiable… different pasts will be constructed within different but limited sets of social interests”. Shanks and Tilley (1987:195) observe that “There is no way of choosing between alternative pasts except on essentially political grounds, in terms of a definite value system, a morality.”, and “Criteria for truth and falsity… require judgements in terms of the practical consequences of archaeological theory”. These quotes are especially true for deep prehistory. Derricourt (2012:529) calls for a new, revamped term to describe pseudoarchaeology, noting that from the perspective of these authors, academic consensus is the true fraud.
Spiritual and Intellectual Oppression
Anderson and Card (2012:2) proclaim that it is a necessary role of professional archaeologists to control the public perception of archaeology, seeing the proliferation of alternative views as a scholarly failure. So why could this be? Well, George Orwell (1949) put it best in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four; “Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past, control the future”. Bassett (2013:61) claims that the popularisation of archaeology, or ‘simplifying for the masses’ is one of the greatest threats to archaeology. Anderson (2016:69) proselytises that contrary to enlightened academicians, the general public’s view of the past is inherently tinged with racial undertones. Luckily, those who subscribe to this derogatory view of the general public and see it as their duty to socially engineer them are the minority, despite having the loudest voices.
One common criticism of Hancock by detractors such as Jason Colavito (2015) is that he just rehashes old material and hawks them for personal gain (pot, meet kettle). He is correct on some level; selling books (or for him, throwing tomatoes), does equate to personal gain, and citing precedent through the retelling of ancient stories and esoteric theories can be boiled down to recycling material. However, these myths and legends are based in the oral histories of ancient cultures all around the world. To the native people of these cultures and their descendants, these were not myths or legends, but rather their story, their history, their culture, their truth. These oral histories survived until colonialism only to be scoffed at, ridiculed, and sidelined as myth, legend, fantasy, by the very people who decimated these cultures. The descendants of those people are now victimised by proselytizing academics who deny their truth, dismissing it as myth, or worse, attacking it as pseudoscience.
Hancock presents pseudoarchaeological theories alongside fringe theories in order to show how they mesh together, but often the most criticised theories are those of the Indigenous descendants of the cultures who built these monuments. In Magicians of the Gods, Hancock presents a theory by Jesus Gamarra and his deceased father. They are descendants of the Inca, and after decades of field research, they claim the great megalithic walls of Sacsayhuaman were sculpted in a plasticised state and built at a time of lower gravity (Hancock 2015:367–392). Hancock empowers Gamarra and others by providing a platform they would never be given by academics, allowing their ideas, their truth, to see the light of day, and granting their ancestors the agency that academia denies them.
The obsession with dictating what people should believe is tantamount to spiritual and intellectual oppression, especially concerning the beliefs of Indigenous people. Why are the Indigenous descendants of these cultures not permitted to speak on the capabilities of their ancestors? Why is it up to privileged, mostly white academics to ridicule them, tell their story for them, dictate their truth to them? Why can’t Hancock’s evidence for a lost civilisation and other interesting alternative theories be considered for what they are; an interesting compilation of unexplained mysteries from the ancient world, instead of literal Nazi propaganda (Pringle 2006)?
The religious zeal with which vocal members of the mainstream archaeological community criticise works they deem to be pseudoscientific is harming their cause, and further alienating the very public they appeal to. Their exigent compulsion to be in control of the archaeological narrative among a public they scorn as incompetent and unworthy is the very thing that erodes their control. Academics need to abandon their preoccupation with controlling the narrative and accept that the public will always flock to the more mysterious, esoteric aspects of the human past. They must understand that the average person does not care about what the prevailing paradigm says, and never will, especially when it is boring.
Absolute claims based on constantly evolving scientific ‘knowledge’ are doomed from the second they are made, and fuel distrust when eventually proven incorrect. Academics should be open with the public about the fact that their ‘knowledge’ does not necessarily equate to ‘truth’, especially regarding deep prehistory; the only truth is that we cannot know the whole truth. Instead of acting like everything is worked out, with just the gaps waiting to be filled, a little humility goes a long way. One thing is certain; unless the archaeological establishment learns to be more delicate with alternative theories, they will be responsible for losing further control of the public discourse regarding their field, and thus, control of the future.
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