SCIENCE fiction, or PSEUDOSCIENCE fiction?

I’ve recently been reading, and enjoying immensely by the way, a series of science fiction novels written by the team of David Weber and John Ringo. In the third installment, entitled March to the Stars, I encountered a surprising and disturbing reference to archaeology.

The principal characters in the book, admirably brave and intelligent folk, claim that ancient Phoenicians carried the cult of Baal far and wide around the Pre-Columbian world. They even suggest the influence of these intrepid sea-farers was responsible for the Aztecs’ adoption of their extreme form of human sacrifice. The characters refer to the 27th century discovery of ancient ship’s logs that finally and conclusively proved that Phoenicians traveled throughout the world and had significant contacts with the Americas. These astounding tablets had to be rescued from a professor of archaeology intent on destroying them, because this evidence would (and did) overturn the orthodoxy to which he was irrationally devoted. According to our heroes, this discovery finally ended the “reign of the Land-Bridge Fanatics in anthropology.” At another point in the story, one of the characters noted that archaeologists got a deservedly bad reputation for arguing that the pyramids of Egypt and the pyramids of Mesoamerica were a “spontaneous serial development,” rather than the result of direct cultural exchange.

Science fiction is a wonderful genre that allows authors to extrapolate fascinating tomorrows based on the implications of projected changes in science and society. I don’t object to Weber and Ringo exploring the implications of Phoenician sailors reaching the Americas centuries before Columbus, even though there isn’t a shred of data to support the idea. On the other hand, I do object to their characterization of archaeologists as “Land Bridge Fanatics” who would even consider the willful destruction of evidence to prevent any changes to the academic status quo. Such notions derive from and appeal to the silly conspiracy theories of some proponents of Pre-Columbian contacts who believe that mainstream scientists are afraid of challenges to academic orthodoxy and are busily covering up all the data that might undermine their carefully constructed view of the past. Certainly, there is some inherent conservatism in academia, but contrary to this dismal view of modern (to say nothing of 27th century) archaeology, scientists are rewarded for making discoveries that shake up the received view of things. Finding a lost library of Phoenician ship’s logs demonstrating ancient visits to America would get any scholar on the cover of National Geographic. It is absurd to think someone would destroy the evidence that would make them famous and lead to lucrative book contracts and appearances on TV shows.

As for “Land Bridge Fanatics” – the evidence indicating that the first Americans arrived in this hemisphere from Asia by crossing either the land bridge that was exposed during parts of the Ice Age, or the waters of the Bering Straits in boats, is massively overwhelming. Moreover, there is no credible archaeological, genetic, skeletal, linguistic, or other evidence that any Africans, Asians, or Europeans had any significant contact with established American cultures until the Vikings made landfall in Newfoundland at around AD 1000 and, possibly, a few visits of Polynesian voyagers to the western coast of South America as much as a century or two earlier. The fact that European diseases decimated American Indian populations only after AD 1492 is a compelling argument that there can have been no significant or sustained contact between the so-called Old and New Worlds prior to that time, else those diseases already would have been present in America and those populations would have possessed a greater degree of immunity to their ravages. Hence, the post-1492 epidemics would have occurred much earlier — at the time of the first sustained contacts — and could not have occurred again in 1492.

Regarding the presence of pyramids in both Egypt and Mesoamerica, there really isn’t much to explain. These monumental structures are only superficially similar and they served very different functions in these very different cultures. The main reason they are similar at all is that, without the arch, the only way to make a tall, stable, stone structure is by piling stones on top of each other into an almost inevitably conical or pyramidal mass.

I close with a relevant passage from an article written by the early archaeologist Gerard Fowke in 1888. It was published in the second volume of the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society Quarterly. He was responding to those who claimed that Ohio’s wonderful earthworks had been built, not by the ancestors of American Indians, but by a mysterious lost race of European or Asian origin, such as the Phoenicians or Hebrews.

“The truth of the matter probably is, that all this misconception is due to the readiness of the people to accept notoriety and bombast for authority and learning; to believe the false, rather than the true, so long as it appeals strongly to their love of the marvelous.

And this credulity is, in turn, fostered and encouraged by shrewd empirics who see in it something that may be worked to their own advantage; or stimulated by the honest but mistaken enthusiast who wishes to believe, and to have others believe, that these mounds of earth indicate for ancient America a dominion and glory like that shadowed forth by the stupendous ruins of half-forgotten empires of the East.”

It is not “fanatical” to follow the data where they lead; and the folks who dismiss archaeologists as, for example, “Land Bridge Fanatics” tend to be ignorant both of the current data and a basic understanding of how science works. For these reasons, it was disappointing to see this pseudoscience championed in a novel of “science” fiction.

For further reading

Brace, C. Loring
2002 Background for the peopling of the New World: Old World roots for New World branches. Athena Review 3(2):53-61, 103-104.

Dixon, E. James
1999 Bone’s, boats, and bison. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

2002 How and when did people first come to North America? Athena Review 3(2):23-27, 99. Available online at: http://www.athenapub.com/10Dixon.htm; site last viewed, 9 February 2009.

Feder, Kenneth L.
2008 Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: science and pseudoscience in archaeology. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Lepper, Bradley T.
2008 Largest-ever survey of Native American genes sheds light on First Americans. Mammoth Trumpet 23(2):12-14, 19.

Meltzer, David
1993 Search for the First Americans. Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C.

Schurr, Theodore G.
2002 A molecular anthropological perspective on the peopling of the Americas. Athena Review 3(2):62-75, 104-108.

Ubelaker, Douglas, editor
2006 Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 3: Environment, Origins, and Population. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

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One Response to SCIENCE fiction, or PSEUDOSCIENCE fiction?

  1. bglotzhober says:

    Great article. However, nowhere does it say who wrote it!

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