Is pseudoarchaeology racist?
A common observation made by critics of Bad Archaeologists is that so many of their ideas have an underlying and unspoken racist assumption: the benighted savages of distant continents and ancient times could not possibly have been responsible for the remarkable ruined structures found in their lands. Thus the walls of Puma Punku (Perú), the pyramids of Giza (Egypt), the Great Enclosure of Zimbabwe or the Serpent Mound of Ohio (USA) must have been built (or at the very least designed) by outsiders, whether they came from a more “advanced” (but nevertheless contemporary and known) civilisation, a lost continent or outer space. And if those responsible were human, they are usually described in terms that leave us in no doubt that they were white-skinned.
Sometimes, mythology is used to justify these ideas. Bad Archaeologists are very fond of stories about Wiracocha in South America, for instance. We are told that he was a tall bearded man with white skin who came from overseas to bring civilisation to the Andean peoples before departing across the sea. What they fail to reveal is the source of these legends: accounts by the Spanish Conquistadores who used them to justify their conquests and to show the conquered people that a previous visitor from elsewhere had brought them nothing but good. The subtext is plain and it ought to come as no surprise that versions of the stories collected by more recent anthropologists and folklorists do not have the details that make Wiracocha appear to have European characteristics.
The case of Zimbabwe is well known. For many years, the British colonial government of Southern Rhodesia equivocated over the interpretation of archaeological evidence at the Great Enclosure, permitting a huge amount of damage to be done to the surviving archaeological deposits in the hunt for exotic artefacts that would prove its exogenous origins. Scraps of pottery from the Arab world were held up as evidence for outsiders and, when the colonial government made its Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, forming the state of Rhodesia, it became official government policy that the Great Enclosure was not built by the local Bantu-speaking peoples. Of course they were wrong and, on achieving independence and majority rule in 1980, the new state proudly named itself after its most famous archaeological monument. As a symbol of the Mwenemutapa (Monomotapa) kingdom, Great Zimbabwe provides an impressive witness to this powerful African trading state.
Occasionally, the racism has been even more overt. The work of the Ahnenerbe, the antiquarian wing of Heinrich Himmler’s SS, was designed to find evidence showing that the ancient Germans were responsible for just about every advance in human technology and society. Their particular brand of racism had little appeal outside Germany, unsurprisingly, and seems to have had little long-term effect on pseudoarchaeology. Only those on the far right will admit to a belief in such overtly racist attitudes.
Overt racism in von Däniken’s Signs of the Gods? (Prophet der Vergangenheit)
It was thus with growing shock that I read Chapter 2 (“Man Outsmarts Nature”) of Erich von Däniken’s (1979) Signs of the Gods. I had given up reading his books after According to the Evidence: my proof of man’s extraterrestrial origins (Beweise), published in 1977. In that book, large parts of Chariots of the Gods? were rehashed and I had the impression that I was reading the early draft of that book, which is widely suspected of being rewritten by Wilhelm Roggersdorf (real name Wilhelm “Utz” Uttermann (1912-1991)). If these passages really had come from the first draft of Chariots?, I could understand why the commissioning editors at Econ-Verlag wanted it rewritten: they are appalling! The publication of this book in 1977 came after many of the bits of “evidence” used in Chariots of the Gods? had been thoroughly debunked, yet here was von Däniken recycling them after admitting in interviews that they were not what he claimed.
It was the cover of Signs of the Gods? that drew me to it in a second-hand bookshop, which is a view inside a Maltese temple. The book contains an entire chapter devoted to Malta (Chapter 3: “Malta—a Paradise of Unsolved Puzzles”) and, as I know something about Maltese prehistory and its amazing temple complexes, decided that I would find out how von Däniken had misrepresented them. That was the least of my problems with the book.
Instead, it was the discussion, beginning on page 58 of the English translation, of the “race” to which “our ancestors—let’s call them Adam and Eve” belonged. Straight away we are plunged into absurdities:
- “The evolutionists say that man descends from monkeys. Yet who has ever seen a white monkey? Or a dark ape with curly hair such as the black race has?”;
- “…I am not concerned with comparisons within the major races, but only with solving the problem of how the first major races originated”;
- “Were the extraterrestrials able to opt between different races from the beginning? Did they endow different human groups with different abilities to survive in different climatic and geographical conditions?”
- ”Today it is assumed that primitive men had dark skins.”
- “Was the black race a failure and did the extraterrestrials change the genetic code by gene surgery and then programme a white or a yellow race?”
- “Nearly all negroes are musical: they have rhythm in their blood.”
- “I quite understand that I am playing with dynamite if I ask whether the extraterrestrials ‘allotted’ specific tasks to the basic races from the very beginning, i.e. programmed them with special abilities.”
- “I am not a racialist… Yet my thirst for knowledge enables me to ignore the taboo on asking racial questions simply because it is untimely and dangerous… why are we like we are?
Once this basic question is accepted, we cannot and should not avoid the explosive sequel: is there a chosen race?”
This is noxious stuff, no matter how much von Däniken may plead “I am not a racialist”! He is clearly aware that he is transgressing the bounds of good taste and manners, but presses on under the pretence of courageously asking what others dare not. This is a typical ploy not just of racists but of any person who holds extreme views. We have all, unfortunately, encountered the sort of person who begins a statement with “I’m not racist, but…”. Erich von Däniken’s racism is quite obvious from his naïve (stupid and offensive) premise that “the black race” was a failed first attempt at creating humans.
Other authors in this genre are perhaps more canny. They realise that such obvious racism will offend and alienate a significant part of their readership, who, for the most part, consist of reasonably educated and generally non-racist readers. Instead, they will point to the peasant economies of the peoples whose monuments thy wish to promote as mysterious, moving on to the idea that because there are insufficient numbers of people and they have a low level of technological achievement, the ancestors of people living by these monuments today cannot possibly have been responsible for their construction.
In part, this is a reflection of the discredited view that human history follows a linear progression from technologically unsophisticated to sophisticated; only the destruction of a civilisation can lead to the loss of a highly-developed technology. This is not the view of mainstream archaeologists, who understand that complex societies can collapse for a variety of reasons. This sort of systems collapse will impact on many, if not most or all aspects of society. A highly organised state system that is able to manœuvre large numbers of people for construction projects can disappear almost overnight. Bad Archaeologists are unwilling to do the background research into the societies that produced the monuments they present as mysterious, so either they do not appreciate the evidence for ancient complex societies or they deliberately withhold this evidence from their readers. What is more pernicious, though, is that while they can accept that locals (Greeks, Romans and so on) were responsible for the ancient monuments of Europe, they are unwilling to countenance the same explanation for people on other continents, especially Africa and South America.
We saw in last week’s critique of Part II of Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods that he is very keen to make the representatives of his “Lost Civilisation” (Wiraqocha in this instance) white skinned. Hancock does not appear to be in the least bit racist, but his insistence on the “white” skins of his civilisers leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially when the evidence that these folk heroes and gods were white skinned is dubious. Erich von Däniken, by contrast, is in a wholly different league. The racism he expressed in 1979 is obvious, despite his denials, and is a great deal more offensive. However, I feel that the differences are of degree and of self-awareness: Hancock’s implicit racism comes across as naïve, whereas von Däniken’s knowing racism appears nasty.
What is particularly worrying is that the ideas of these authors (and others in the same genre) have been put to use by the political far right, for whom the supposed superiority of the “white race” is a given. Never mind that definitions of “race” are complex and highly contested. There is no consensus on whether “race” is a biological given or a social construct; most biologists, though, recognise that human genetic diversity does not cover those aspects that are traditionally associated with racial characteristics. Race has been characterised as an artefact. By contrast, Bad Archaeologists feed the view that “race” is determined by genetics, uncomplicated and obvious. They are as scientifically illiterate in human biology as they are in archaeology.