Is pseudoarchaeology racist?

The Great Serpent Mound

The Great Serpent Mound (Ohio, USA) (Source)

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.


Print by Nicolas de Larmessin depicting the King of Mwene Mutapa

Print by Nicolas de Larmessin I (c 1638-1694) depicting the King of Mwene Mutapa (Source)

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)

The cover of the hardback edition of von Däniken's Signs of the Gods (1979)

The cover of the hardback edition of von Däniken’s Signs of the Gods (1979)

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.

Why racism?

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.

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  1. Sometimes truth is hard but true. Daniken, Hancock etc are wether racists or are writing or have written in a racist manner. And by the way desribe them an other as psudoarch. that is also a from of racismn … Change the educational System, give back to the owners of America, the “Native” Tribes, their land, and I believe that you are not an racist. However. at present we have two dominate races: The white and yellow skinned …

    1. Given that I neither live in an American country nor have any influence on American politics, that’s not something I am able to achieve!

      However, your point that the European colonisation of the Americas was founded on racist premises is absolutely correct. The Europeans based their entire system on treating Native Americans as a lesser form of humanity and, sorry to say, that view persists among some of their descendants. The situation doesn’t seem quite as bad today in South America, where people of indigenous origin can rise to become presidents of their countries, but I suspect that we are a long way from seeing an Inuit president of Canada or an Ojibwa president of the United States.

  2. Of course it isn’t racist, except when they recycle past claims to make a buck and repeat the assumptions from when the suggestions were first made. Graham Hancock’s wife is black and Thor Heyerdahl married a Peruvian.

    And why on earth would someone be racist on behalf of aliens, anyway?

    In reality Bad Archaeology merely recycles old claims made by hyperdiffusionists, namely observations of superficial styles such as stepped pyramids in Mexico, Babylonia and Cambodia or reed boats in the Andes and Egypt. Though these kinds of claim are largely debunked (even though there may be limited truth in them – ie. Betty Meggers) the observations of material culture were not ‘racist’ and, if they were, it is not relevant to the strength or weakness of evidence.

    Accusations and shaming language ate not the same things as debunking. And attacking someone’s real or presumed intentions is a logical fallacy. Accusations made so that people will discount what someone says, is another fallacy (‘poisoning the well’.)

    People should not really write things that accuse others of an agenda, only to slip in an agenda of their own.

    I really don’t want to defend people like Hancock, but pieces with this tone misrepresent opponents and detract from evidence itself.

    1. The point I’m making in this post is that the assumptions underlying the arguments are in themselves racist. I don’t think that I’m guilty of poisoning the well: the idea here is not to undermine the authority of the pseudoarchaeologists in question but to examine their unstated assumptions (which are too often based on the logical fallacy of argument from incredulity). Yes, Bad Archaeology does tend to recycle the claims of the hyperdiffusionists, but their arguments were also based on an assumption of racial superiority. The claims may be “largely debunked”, but you wouldn’t know that by reading the numerous forums that discuss these topics among the “alternative history” crowd. What I’m trying to do is to provide a view from a more mainstream archaeological perspective.

      I don’t use “shaming language”, as you put it: I am using the very words of the pseudoarchaeolgists themselves. If they can be hoist with their own pétards, then so be it. The von Dänikens of this world are in the minority of Bad Archaeologists for expressing these ideas openly, but this highlights the more widespread problem of implicit racist attitudes among more “sophisticated” (and probably more widely accepted) writers like Hancock.

      My only “agenda” is to expose Bad Archaeology for what it is. This piece is not evidence-based (unlike most of the blog or the main site) because it is an opinion piece, inspired in part by re-reading Hancock’s Signposts of the Gods, about which I am in the process of posting detailed, evidence-based refutations. The major inspiration, though, was the appalling chapter in von Däniken’s Signs of the Gods (a book with a coincidentally similar title to Hancock’s work, although that is the only similarity). If you read most of my posts and replies to comments, you’ll see that I am generally someone who insists on evidence and how it can be interpreted.

      I certainly don’t feel that I’ve misrepresented anyone. Can you cite examples? If so, I’ll happily post a retraction or clarification.

  3. See youtube user blokcom. We have stated before that Graham Hancock is genuinely racist and that pseudoarchaeology is also generally racist towards natives.

  4. Interestingly, races in a biological sense have turned out not to exist. At least they are not the sharply bordered and genetically homogeneous groups racists tend to imagine. Instead there are populations gradually changing into each other. Furthermore, genetic differences are larger within the populations than between them.

    Erich von Däniken seems to believe the different “races” to have arisen independently of each other. That may have been plausible once upon a time. However, genetic evidence has pretty much disproved it. It has instead turned out the entire humanity descend from a group of 20,000 or less which survived the supervolcano Toba about 73,000 years ago. All these lived in Sub-Saharan Africa where the present-day human species evolved. Neanderthals and Denisovans have also contributed to the present human gene pool. But it is a very small contribution compared to what was one imagined. No humans alive today have more than 4% Neanderthal genes or 6% Denisovan ones. However, these two species interbred considerably more than we did with them.

    According to the blogger’s colleague (and countryman) Ted Oaks the human brain has not evolved for at least 100,000 years. I find his claim completely credible. Artefacts made by anatomically modern humans tenmillenia ago are as skilfully made as ones made by hand today. Also, he points out that if stone age humans really where as stupid as some people think their ancestors would not have gotten there in the first place. Have Erich von Däniken ever considered this? Or does he think the alien transported humans all over the world? Why would they have done that? There are no monuments in for example Australia.

    1. Actually Lena, von Daniken DOES believe aliens transported humans all over the world IIRC. It’s been decades since I was young and foolish enough to believe his twaddle, from memory I think that human diffusion via ETs was included.

  5. Thank you for your explanation. Modern Archaeology teaches the human forages walked or paddled to reach most of the world. In the later case they would have used raft or outrigger canoes. After the needle was invented about 40,000 years ago they could also have used something comparable to an umiak:
    Madagascar, New Zeeland and most other distant islands in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific were originally populated by stone-age farmers sailing catamarans. The ancestors of these island’s natives were actually fantastic navigators. Unfortunately, racists like Erich von Däniken can’t imagine that.

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