Pic: Image from Jason Colavito’s blog discussion on a 2017 study into American beliefs by Chapman University
**Update 2021: It has been several years since I wrote this blog post, and since then I have written much more about pseudoarchaeology! I’m not changing anything in the original post below, because the information and examples still stand. But I wanted to add a couple of links to some of my more recent blog posts, to build upon/add to the discussion in this original post. First, to look at a more specific definition of pseudoarchaeology that helps us recognize pseudoarchaeology as a type of conspiracy theory, take a look at my recent CAA presentation (which includes a link to the paper I’ve posted on ResearchGate). I’ve got a paper coming out hopefully by the end of the year that examines this conspiracy theory concept in much more detail, but until then you can learn a bit about it in my presentation. And second, to see a recent and dramatic example of pseudoarchaeology in action, take a look at my blog post about the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. I’ve focused my conversation on one individual who was quite visible in the insurrection and the way he has embraced pseudoarchaeology into his QAnon worldviews. But I am also working on a paper diving into the connections between QAnon generally and pseudoarchaeology in more detail (that I think will be available next year). Anyway, happy reading and thank you for your ongoing support!
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If you’ve read about the new blog series I’ll be starting in 2018, “Digging in the Wrong Place”, than you definitely saw the word ‘pseudoarchaeology’. Maybe you’ve even heard of it from other sources, or under other names (fringe archaeology, alternative archaeology, cult archaeology). Simply put, pseudoarchaeology refers to archaeological theories and/or interpretations that are rejected by the majority of the archaeological community. And yes, they’re racist. Even the Southern Poverty Law Centre has very recently discussed the racist base of pseudoarchaeology, calling out the History Channel for its repeated promotion of these ideas in numerous shows.
Pseudoarchaeology revolves around a set of core characteristics which sets it apart from a new-but-initially-rejected ideas (identified by William Stiebing Jr.):
- Lacking in use of the scientific method.
- Simplistic answers to complex questions.
- Presenting itself as being persecuted by or at odds with the archaeological community.
Along the same lines, Robert Park identified seven warning signs of pseudoscience, which are also easily applicable to pseudoarchaeology as Carl Feagans has described:
- The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
- The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work.
- The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection
- Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal.
- The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries.
- The discoverer has worked in isolation.
- The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation.
Anderson and Card (2012) have discussed three general themes under which most of the huge variety of pseudoarchaeological theories fall (often with overlap between them):
Ancient Alien Theories
Yes, we’re referencing the History Channel television program, “Ancient Aliens”. These theories are centred around the idea that ancient human constructs (e.g. Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, the Nazca lines) were too advanced for human cultures alive at the time and had to have been built by “others” (aka aliens). Perhaps the most famous proponent of these is Erich von Däniken and his book “Chariots of the Gods?” (1968), in which von Däniken asserts that early human knowledge came from alien visits to earth (yes, he really thinks that). Intentionally modified human skulls (a legitimate human practice archaeologically observed all around the world**) are argued to be alien skulls and not human.
One of the most famous examples of an ancient alien theory is that of the Starchild Skull. The Starchild Skull was reported to have been discovered in a mine shaft in Mexico in 1930. The erupted maxillary dentition (the teeth in your “upper jaw”) determined the skull belonged to a child aged around 5 years old, with a cranial capacity dramatically larger than that of a full grown adult. Ask any rational bioarchaeologist (myself included) or physician and we’ll tell you that this child likely died as a result of congential hydrocephalus (or possibly progeria). Unfortunately, this skull caught the eye of pseudoscientist Lloyd Pye who claimed that it belonged to that of a non-human alien species. Despite DNA evidence and many experts having determined that this child was human, it is still widely believed that this skull belonged to an alien. Check out the Project Starchild Website and compare it to the identifying traits of pseudoscience/archaeology I listed above. You can also look forward to a future post of mine debunking their debunking page.
Religious and Nationalist Movements
Archaeology has unfortunately been manipulated many times to support various nationalist movements. For these, archaeology is used after a religious or nationalist theory is constructed in an effort to locate evidence to support that theory.
One example of nationalist archaeology is that of the Nazi Ahnenerbe archaeology in the 1930’s. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis believed that the German people (but only the blond-haired, blue-eyed people) were the descendants of a superior culture, the “Aryans”, who were the only people with the knowledge to develop human civilization. Nazis sought out archaeological evidence, ahnenerbe (“something inherited from forefathers”) to support their claims. In reality, “Aryan” as the Nazis used it was a made-up idea, and the archaeological evidence used to support this was just as made-up. It was used in part as justification of and distraction from some of the worst atrocities committed in human history, resulting in the deaths of millions of people.
A second example of religious and nationalist pseudoarchaeology is that of the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA) and the legal battle over the Ancient One (colonially dubbed Kennewick Man). After being mistakenly labelled as “Caucasian” by archaeologist James Chatters, the Ancient one became the first major test of NAGPRA when it was discovered he was actually a nearly-9000 year old Indigenous man. Almost immediately the California-based AFA, a white nationalist group masquerading as a religion, loudly asserted their belief that the Ancient One was in fact one of the ancestors of their European “religion”. They demanded access to the remains for study and DNA tests, arguing that the label of “Caucasian” by Chatters supported their theories that their ancestors had traveled to North America from Northern Europe. Luckily, the AFA failed to gain access to the remains. After 21 years in storage, the Ancient One was finally sent home in February, 2017.
Hyper-diffusionist theories are those which suggest contact occurred between cultures with extreme distance between them, resulting in a transfer of cultural traits from one culture to the other (deemed to explain the “advancement” of a culture). These theories are often based off one piece of misinterpreted evidence.
One example of a hyper-diffusionist theory is that of architect Paul Chiasson. Chiasson hiked up a mountain in Nova Scotia in 2002 and found some stones, which he argued were evidence of a 15th century Chinese settlement that had culturally influenced the Mi’kmaq people already living there. Despite rejection by archaeologists that the stones belong to a Chinese settlement (and actually belong to mid-20th century structures), Chiasson still believes, as he has published, twice, in his theories.
A second example of a hyper-diffusionist theory is the Solutrean hypothesis. The Solutrean “culture” is defined by a style of stone tool-making from the Upper Paleolithic era in Spain, Portugal, and France, from 22,000 to 17,000 years ago. These tools also happen to resemble the Clovis tools of North America, which were in use around 13,000 years ago. These similarities led some archaeologists to suggest that humans had traveled from Europe to eastern North America by boat across the Atlantic Ocean. This theory rests entirely on similarities between stone tools. There is no evidence from the known Solutrean sites in Europe that they were involved in any sort of seafaring, and it ignores the 4000 year time gap between the Solutrean and Clovis cultures. It also ignores DNA evidence which has shown that North American Indigenous peoples have genetic links to Asia, not Europe. Solutrean supporters refuse to acknowledge its legitimacy and instead come up with alternative explanations for DNA results. Despite the majority of archaeologists rejecting the Solutrean Hypothesis, mainstream media sites like the CBC still believe in giving it the benefit of the doubt.
So, what are archaeologists to do in the face of pseudoarchaeology? Paraphrasing Anderson and Card (2013), we need to speak up and call it out. Archaeologists need to understand firstly how and why pseudoarchaeological theories exist and persist. We also need to be conscious of how we present the human past and we need to look at the ways in which non-archaeologists engage with and understand what we present of the human past. We need to be willing to speak out against pseudoarchaeological theories as they arise, and we need to be willing to share our work in a way that satisfies public curiosity while also accurately educating them (i.e. blogs). The human past is exciting enough on its own. No aliens needed.
Anderson, D. and J. Card. 2012. The Varieties of Pseudoarchaeology. Presentation at the 77th Society for American Archaeology Meeting
Anderson, D., J. Card, and K. Feder. 2013. Speaking Up and Speaking Out; Collective Efforts in the Fight to Reclaim the Public Perception of Archaeology. SAArchaeological Record. 13(2): 24-28.
See Also (Discussing Pseudoarchaeology and Pseudoscience)