Amazing Discovery Number 3 That Won’t Make You Question Anything

And so we come to the next Amazing Discovery that will only make the most gullible and credulous question everything. This one – the “Hidden Character Stone” – is so bizarre that I frankly don’t understand how anyone could believe the claims made for it. So, here we go with a continuation of Spirit Science’s silly list.

3: The Hidden Character Stone

This stone is located in a scenic area in Zhangbu village, China. This incredible carving is thought to be a staggering 270 million years old?! There are different versions of the writing that essentially translates to “Communist Party of China”.

Zhangbu (掌布乡) is a village in a tourist area in Pingtang County (平塘县), Qiannan Buyei and Miao Autonomous Prefecture (黔南布依族苗族自治州) in Guizhou Province (貴州), south-west China. It was the subject of a promotional Exposition in June 2002, aimed at encouraging amateur photographers to visit the area. Encouraging people in a rapidly urbanising country like China to get out into rural areas and appreciate the natural beauty of the countryside, its food and its traditions is obviously a good thing. However, in the aftermath of the Exposition, a carving was found on a rockface that is the source of this story.

The "Hidden Character Stone"

The “Hidden Character Stone”, Zhangbu (China) [Source]

The story was first reported in The People’s Daily under the byline of Liang Heng (born 1946), Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper. It subsequently appeared online at Xinhuanet on 2 December 2003, which credits a former Party Secretary for Zhangbu, Wang Guo-Fu (王国富), with the discovery, made while cleaning straw from a crack in a fallen boulder. The headline, 2.7亿年“中国共产党”字样地质奇观惊现贵州 (“Geological wonders 270 million years old, with words ‘the Chinese Communist Party’, discovered in Guizhou”) makes the claim repeated by sources in the west about the date of the inscription and is presumably its source. The Xinhua News Agency is the official press agency for the People’s Republic of China. As such, its public pronouncements are geared towards upholding the public views of the Chinese Communist Party, for which it is often seen as a mouthpiece. It also produces newspapers for circulation only among Party officials. These news sources contain high quality investigative journalism and include stories translated from foreign sources, demonstrating that the Xinhua agency is capable of excellent reportage. We should note, though, that the story about the “Hidden Character Stone” was circulated for public consumption. This is not to say that it is unreliable, of course: it simply means that the story was seen to be in line with officialdom’s world view.

Allegedly, what Wang Guo-Fu discovered was a group of six letters that had not previously been seen on a rockface that appears to be one side of a cleft in the rock. It is unclear why the text had not been seen before. The accounts of how it was first recognised are slightly contradictory. An (unnamed) geologist who visited the site in August 2003 is supposed to have determined that the letters formed before the rock split. He (or she!) is said to have been invited by authorities in Pingtang County and to have written a detailed report about their investigation. The geologist is claimed to have established that the spilt boulder (which many sources wrongly call a “megalith”) had fallen from a cliff above the Zhangbu river valley; the source of the rock is supposedly visible as an indentation in the hillside. The fall split the rock in two, revealing the words. The characters are said to be composed of fossilised sponges, crinoid stems, brachiopods and other fossils. No artificial carving could be detected and the fossils are said not to have been stuck artificially to the rock, which is relatively fossil rich.

Not all accounts mention this study in August 2003. Instead, most focus on a team of geologists, including Li Ting-Dong (李廷栋), Liu Bao-Jun (刘宝君), Li Feng-Lin (李鳳麟) and Gu Jing-Yi (賈精一), that is said to have examined the inscription between 5 and 8 December 2003. They found the rock to be a Qixia Formation of middle Permian date (298,900,000 ± 150,000 to 252,170,00 ± 60,000 years ago); this is presumably the reason that the letters are claimed to be 270,000,000 years old. This is illogical, of course. One cannot use the age of a rock to date an inscription on its surface!

There are numerous problems with the accounts of the discovery. Firstly, the original geologist is unnamed in any source. Although science does not work from authority, we nevertheless need to know whether or not this individual was a professional geologist with palaeontological experience. It would be good to know if they had expertise in examining inscriptions. What are their qualifications? Do they have a professional reputation for reliability? In other words, can we be sure they are not a crank? Not providing a name raises the possibility that there never was an investigation by a geologist in August 2003, although I am inclined to accept that there was.

Secondly, where is the report? Without the technical details contained in it, we cannot know if the anonymous geologist’s pronouncement is backed up by data. What are the grounds for asserting that the letters had formed by the distribution of fossilised creatures inside the rock? What tests were conducted to show that the fossils were not added the one side of the crack? Is there evidence from the opposite rock face that the fossils formerly occupied hollows on that side? Does the unlettered part of the rock face show any evidence for tooling to remove fossils?

Thirdly, accounts vary about the date at which the boulder fell from the cliff. Some accounts suggest that it happened recently (in 2001), others that it was 500 years ago (both dates are given in the same article!), yet others do not give a date. This is not to suggest that the rock has not fallen: it merely suggests confusion about when it happened.

Finally, if the geologist who visited the site in August 2003 had undertaken a study as comprehensive as claimed, why was it necessary to send in a team of fifteen geologists just five months later? If this initial report were reliable, would it really take a whole team to carry out a second investigation? I have the impression that the larger team was sent in precisely because the initial report – which does not appear to be publicly available – could not be verified or made outlandish claims.

The "Hidden Character Stone" in its wider context

The “Hidden Character Stone” in its wider context [Source]

There is a less well circulated photograph showing the text in its broader context. This makes it clear that elements of the description given through Chinese media are inaccurate. The cleft in the rock is clearly weathered: there are lichens growing on it that are unlikely to have formed since 2001 (if we accept that as the date at which the boulder fell and cracked) or the “discovery” of the text in 2003. Being able to see both sides of the rock enables us to deduce that the “letters” are in a fossiliferous stratum within the rock. The fossils on the opposite face from the inscription do not form letter-like patterns and are distributed at random. More damningly, the rock face around the six characters is smoother than elsewhere within the cleft. In other words, it looks to have been cut back, leaving the characters standing proud from the rock.

What about the content of the text? It consists of six characters, each said to be about a foot (0.3 m square): 中國共產党亡. According to Google Translate, they read simply “Chinese Communist death”. The translation given on most websites is “Communist Party of China perish”. However, the news reports from Xinhua and other mainland Chinese sources give only the first five characters (中國共產党) and translate them as “Communist Party of China”, which is clearly a more congenial message for the Party to convey. What I find especially hard to understand is that these same news outlets show photographs depicting all six characters. The present day Communist Party of China seems a lot less effective at photographic manipulation than it did under Mao Ze-Dong. Perhaps the greater availability of cameras (especially on mobile ’phones) makes it less easy to remove uncomfortable scenes.

Several features point to this not being of any antiquity: mention of the Communist Party of China (founded 1921) is obviously no earlier than the twentieth century. Equally, the left-to-right direction of the text is a feature that we would not expect before the twentieth century. One commentator has suggested that the text was created in the 1930s by early revolutionaries who painted the slogan on a rock face, the dye in the paint reducing erosion that reduced the surrounding limestone surface. One objection to this view is that at least one (and possibly two) of the characters are in Simplified Chinese Characters (简化字), first promoted in the 1950s during a drive to increase literacy rates. However, at least one of the symbols in the text, 党 (“Party”), is in the Simplified system, the traditional symbol being 黨. However, there is evidence for the Simplified version being in use in the 1930s. The suggestion, which was made anonymously on an internet forum, seems plausible enough.

Looked at dispassionately, this little bit of text is quite clearly a silly hoax, presumably created either by someone who dislikes the current régime in China or by an early counter-revolutionary. Its discoverer, Wang Guo-Fu, is most unlikely to be the hoaxer. As a former Village Secretary, to have created it and then brought it to the attention of the state media would have spelled trouble for him. No, he seems genuinely to have discovered something that presumably amazed him. Perhaps he did not see the last character, which, it has to be said, is less convincingly the shape of the relevant glyph than the others. It is also an object lesson in the state manipulation of physical remains: the site is widely promoted as a tourist venue, supposedly because the text demonstrates that the Communist Party of China exists through divine providence or ineluctable historical dialectics, preordained 270 million years ago. Yet the text itself seems to have originated as an expression of anti-Communist sentiment. Only by ignoring the last symbol is it possible to view it as supportive of the Chinese government!

10 Amazing Discoveries That Will Won’t Make You Question Everything

Sometimes, just the name of a website is enough to make my heart sink. So, when my partner began reading out the name of a page that a mutual friend had ‘Liked’ on Facebook, I had an awful feeling of déjà vu: Spirit Science. As if to confirm my worst fears, the Welcome page includes this gem of wisdom:

Spirit Science is about the harmonic merging of things that previously we have believed did not fit together. Things such as “Spirit” and “Science”, perhaps “Democrats” and “Republicans”, or even all the way to Dance and Mathematics.

It’s not just the New Age claptrap or the USA-centric view of the world that disturbs me about this. My initial reaction was “how can anyone believe that there isn’t a link between Dance and Mathematics?”. My second reaction was “I understand the words and I understand the grammar, but do these sentences actually mean anything?”. What on earth is “harmonic merging”? It appears to have something to do with “the blending of Male and Female energies”. Okay, it’s now more than 40 years since I studied physics at school, but I don’t recall energy being gendered. Wikipedia doesn’t seem to know about it, either, so it must be really cutting-edge knowledge. Never mind. The page our friend had ‘Liked’ was 10 Amazing Discoveries That Will Make You Question Everything. Bahkti had brought it to my attention because he thought that I ought to write something about it. The image at the top of the page shows the remains of the Antikythera Mechanism. That’s no bad thing. Showing people that the Classical world produced intricate gearing that could be put to use to make an orrery is good. If the list of “Amazing Discoveries” is going to be of this sort of object, then it could serve a useful purpose, even if it is embedded in a site stuffed to the brim with New Age nonsense. I should have known better.

Spirit Science’s “10 Amazing Discoveries That Will Make You Question Everything

What are the true origins of humanity? There are so many ancient artifacts from the past that still perplex us today. How did ancient civilizations create such intricate and advanced technologies? There are so many mysteries surrounding humanities past that we are finally becoming aware of. There seems to be a lot more going on than meets the eye… Here is a list of some of the most amazing discovery’s to date! 1: The London Artifact

Leaving aside the appalling grammar</ Grammar Nazi Mode>, if the London Hammer is the author’s Number One “Amazing Discovery”, then I’m afraid that I hold out little hope for the rest of the list. So, bear with me while I deal with just the first two items in the list. I had hoped to be able to deal with all ten, but I have had only two days to do the necessary research and I would like to have some time at the weekend away from my computer screen and reading mostly nonsense!

1: The London Artifact

The so-called ‘London hammer’

The so-called ‘London hammer’

This artifact is speculated to be so extremely old that part of the wooden handle has turned to coal. Coal is known to take millions of years to form, so then how is this possible? How old could this strange artifact actually be?”. The short answer is “probably between 100 and 200 years”. How can I be so sure? Critics will say it’s my arrogance or my closed-minded refusal to accept evidence that goes against conventional views. Nonsense. It’s a nineteenth-century mason’s hammer, just like the one displayed on this page, albeit with a slightly longer head. We actually know a reasonable amount about the circumstances of discovery, too, which give the lie to the claim that “the wooden handle has turned to coal”. For one thing, even the most cursory glance at the photograph of the hammer shows that its handle is wooden and has definitely not turned to coal! Max Edmond Hahn (1897-1989) and Emma Zadie Hahn (née Pearl) (1899-1995), his wife, found it in June 1936 on the banks of Red Creek, south of their home in London (Texas, USA). According to some versions of the story, the discovery took place in 1934; sometimes, Max is called Frank, for reasons unknown. They picked up a rock nodule with a piece of wood sticking out from it, which they found odd. It was sitting on a ledge by a waterfall on the river, not attached to any of the solid rocks around it. There are several areas where small waterfalls exist on Red Creek, the closest being about 10 km south-west of London. Some time later (perhaps in 1946 or 1947), their son George (1921-2011) broke it open. Part of the broken nodule has survived and has an unfossilised mollusc shell partly embedded in it (photograph here). Inside the nodule was a metallic hammerhead, to which the wooden handle was attached. The hammer was clearly of recent manufacture.

A nineteenth-century mason's hammer.

A nineteenth-century mason’s hammer. The resemblance to the “London Artifact” is unmistakable. [Source]

That ought to have been the end of the story. A nineteenth-century quarryman or rockhound dropped a hammer near a waterfall on Red Creek. However, it came to the attention of the Young Earth creationist Carl Baugh (born 1936). It is unclear if Baugh was alerted to the hammer by an article by Walter Lang (1913-2004) in the Bible-Science Newsletter 21 (6), 14, ‘Modern hammer in Silurian rocks’, or vice cersa. Lang appears to be the first to claim that the hammer had been studied by metallurgists at a laboratory in Columbus. This has widely been taken to mean Battelle Memorial Institute, a claim directly rebutted in the February 1985 issue of Creation Ex Nihilo. According to Lang, the scientists “were convinced that the rock itself could not have been formed except where there was a great deal of water and pressure” and that the handle had been “partly coalified… under pressure with water and volcanic action”. If The Battelle Institute did not supply the data, where did Lang get the opinions? Might they have come from Baugh? Baugh runs the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose (Texas, USA), which opened in 1984 as the Creation Evidences Museum. The hammer was one of its principal exhibits from the outset; Baugh is believed to have purchased it in 1983. It was Baugh who dubbed it the “London Artifact”, which means that all claims using this term go back ultimately to his authority. He is widely regarded with scorn, even by other creationists, for his promotion of dubious and even fraudulent objects. Baugh has tried to use the hammer to show that rock could form in a very short time (like Young Earth creationists everywhere, he ridiculously attributes the formation of the geological column to the effects of Noah’s flood), that people at the time of Noah were skilled metallurgists and that the Ordovician rock from which he claimed it had come could not be anything like as old as science asserts. He continues to promote objects that have long since been debunked. This includes the London Hammer, about which the Creation/Evolution Journal (5 (1) (Winter 1985), 46-7) devoted two pages to a rebuttal of Baugh’s claims by the anthropologist John R Cole. This was in the year after his Museum opened, yet he ignored the criticism. The nodule in which the hammer is embedded is the real source of the claims of antiquity. If it is genuinely part of the local geology, then it potentially provides evidence either for the recent formation of the rocks – as Baugh would like – or it provides evidence for human (or human-like) technology in the very remote past indeed. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that the nodule was ever part of the bedrock (which, incidentally, is Cretaceous, not Ordovician in date). Remember, it was found on a ledge near a waterfall. This is the key to understanding the object. The nodule is not bedrock, but a concretion made from once dissolved carbonate minerals that precipitated out as the water evaporated. In other words, the nodule could easily be of nineteenth-century date. Instead, we see the claim for (relative) antiquity parroted on websites, sometimes with reference to a book by Hans-Joachim Zillmer, Darwin’s Mistake: Antediluvian Discoveries Prove Dinosaurs and Humans Co-existed (Frontier Publishing, 1998). Most of these sites call him simply Hans and then proceed to mangle his surname in ways that show a blatant disregard for copyright laws in their authors’ use of cut-and-past facilities. Zillmer makes a great play of the chemical composition of the hammerhead, reporting that it consists of “96.6% iron, 2.6% chlorine and 0.74% sulphur”; this is the analysis that is often wrongly attributed to the Battelle Memorial Institute. Those dependent on this unsourced analysis have tried to claim that this is an impossibly pure form of iron and that iron cannot be combined with chlorine. This claims are nonsense. For one thing, steel contains 98-99.8% iron, while many iron ores (such as biotite) or meteoritic iron naturally contain chlorine, so it’s not a question of adding it. Finally, the idea that the handle has turned to coal is just plan silly. It is quite visibly wood, although the ends apparently show a little carbonisation. Carbonisation is a process that can happen to vegetable matter, especially wood, on heating. It is not “partly coalified”. If anything, it’s on the way to becoming charcoal. No, the London “Artifact” is not an “Amazing Discovery That Will Make Me Question Everything”!

2: The Fuente Magna Bowl

Fuente Magna: a bowl with a cuneiform inscription

Fuente Magna: a bowl with a cuneiform inscription, allegedly found in Bolivia [Source]

This is one of the most controversial artifacts in South America. It is a large stone bowl, similar to a container for making libations, baptisms or for purification ceremonies. Found by a villager near Lake Titicaca, the engraved writing lining the bowl is thought to be Sumerian!”. If this is a genuine archaeological discovery, then it is potentially one of the most important ever discovered in the Americas, which would justify calling it “The Rosetta Stone of the Americas”. Its supposedly Sumerian cuneiform inscription would demonstrate contact between the Old and New worlds millennia before the Vikings. Fuente Magna, by the way, means “Great Source” and it is not clear that it is a placename. I wonder if it is a Spanish name for the bowl itself; in fact, some websites (obviously translated by an automated algorithm from Spanish) treat it as the name of the object.

The location of Hacienda Chúa

The location of Hacienda Chúa, according to Bernardo Biados and Freddy Arce [Source]

The first thing to note is that we do not have a proper findspot for the bowl. It is supposed to have been found by a worker on the Chúa Hacienda, which belonged to a family named Manjon and is said to be 75-80 km from La Paz. According to Yuri Leveratto (Crónicas indígenas del Nuevo Mundo, second edition 2010, Lulu, page 55), the Chúa Hacienda lay on the northern side of Lake Titicaca. Websites describing the bowl sometimes refer to the findspot as an ex-Hacienda and sometimes capitalise it as CHUA, as if it is an acronym (such as for the Complejo Hospitalario Universitario de Albacete), which it is not. Reporting some research undertaken by Bernardo Biados (an “Independent Education Management Professional”) and Freddy Arce Helguero (a prominent Bolivian pseudoarchaeologiost, who died in 2011), who travelled to Chúa in 2000, no trace of the Manjon family could be found. However, an old man of 92, named Maximiliano, recognised the Fuente Magna bowl from a photograph. He called it el plato del chancho (“the pig bowl”), explaining that it had been used as a food-bowl for pigs until it was taken to the Museo de Metales Preciosos (also known as Museo del Oro) in 1960. The problem with this account is that it is based on the recollections of an old man whose full name is not recorded, made forty years after the event.

Maximilian (born c 1908), alleged discoverer of the Fuente Magna bowl

Maximilian (born c 1908), alleged discoverer of the Fuente Magna bowl [Source]

Unfortunately, this is as far as we can get: Google’s links containing Manjon, Chúa Hacienda and Bolivia almost all link to pages discussing the Fuente Magna bowl. None link to a Chúa Hacienda owned (or formerly owned) by a Manjon family in Bolivia. That is worrying, when we do not have a contemporary account of the bowl’s discovery and rely on the memories of an old man interviewed forty years after allegedly making his discovery. One has to question whether his recollections are correct: if he used it as a pig feeder, that suggests it was complete, yet we are told that it had to be “restored” (which seems to mean stuck back together) in 1960. This makes me wonder if Maximiliano’s plato del chancho was an entirely different vessel. Worse, the accounts of the discovery are contradictory. Many of them show tell-tale signs of being translated from a Spanish original by a computer program, perhaps Google Translate. The principal confusion is over the date, which is given variously as the 1950s, 1958 or 1960. Also, some writers claim that it is stone, others that it is ceramic. The bowl apparently first came to the attention of the archaeologist Max Portugal Zamora (1907-1984) some time after its discovery. Zamora was the director of the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia Tiwanaku in La Paz from 1936, where he became an expert on the archaeology of the Andean Altiplano and pre-Columbian parietal art. His published works (see the bibliography in his obituary) show no evidence for an interest in the bowl until 1975 (published as ‘La Fuente Magna’, Hoy (Suplemento L.P. 6 – VII), 8), although a number of websites assert that he “restored” the bowl in 1960. The recognition of cuneiform writing is attributed to Mario Montaño Aragón (born 1931), which he published in Raíces semíticas en la religiosidad aymará y kichua (Biblioteca Popular de Ultima Hora, 1979). The details of discovery appear to come directly from Aragón’s account (unless they come from Zamora’s paper, which I have not seen).

A sample of the supposed cuneiform inside the bowl

A sample of the supposed cuneiform inside the bowl [Source]

Much of the recent interest in the bowl appears to stem from work by two people: Hugh Bernard Fox (1932-2011), an anthropologist at Michigan State University and poet, and Clyde Ahmad Winters, an Afrocentrist scholar (who believes that the Olmecs “were the descendents of the Atlanteans that formerly lived in ancient Libya”. Fox disagreed with Aragón’s assessment of the writing as cuneiform, preferring to see it as Phoenician. Winters, on the other hand, sees it as proto-Sumerian. Obviously, both can’t be right! It is also possible, of course, that neither is right. Despite identifying the inscription as Phoenician, Fox neglects to translate it. Winters’s translation reads:

[Right side] (1) Girls take an oath to act justly (this) place. (2) (This is) a favorable oracle of the people. (3) Send forth a just divine decree. (4) The charm (the Fuente Magna) (is) full of Good. (5) The (Goddess) Nia is pure. (6) Take an oath (to her). (7) The Diviner. (8) The divine decree of Nia (is) , (9) to surround the people with Goodness/Gladness. (10) Value the people’s oracle. (11) The soul (to), (12) appear as a witness to the [Good that comes from faith in the Goddess Nia before] all mankind. [Left side] (1) Make a libation (this) place for water (seminal fluid?) and seek virtue. (2a) (This is) a great amulet/charm, (2b) (this) place of the people is a phenomenal area of the deity [Nia’s] power. (3) The soul (or breath of life). (4) Much incense, (5) to justly, (6) make the pure libation. (7) Capture the pure libation (/or Appear (here) as a witness to the pure libation). (8) Divine good in this phenomenal proximity of the deity’s power.

That is not the end of the matter. Yet another translation, attributed to Alberto Marini runs:

The Lord of Serenity with the light gathers and herds together the large animals and the goats and the kids (weakened by lack of fodder, or wandering in search of food) to the open fields for rest.

Marini suggests that “[i]n this context, “rest” appears to mean slaughter, for sacrifice or butchery, and to convert their hides to leather for apparel”.

Real proto-cuneiform

Real proto-cuneiform: it’s very different from the “writing” on the Fuente Magna bowl [Source]

As with the question of the language, here we have two supposed authorities producing quite different translations, allegedly from the same original language. Again, both can’t be right (and I have a suspicion that neither is correct). Supporters of the bowl’s authenticity claim that it is evidence for transatlantic contacts before the Vikings. It sits alongside other supposed evidence, such as the (probably non-existent) Paraíba stone, the Newark “Holy Stones” and the Los Lunas inscription. What the supporters cannot agree on was the date of the hypothesised contact. Was it c 3000 BCE, as Clyde Winters would have it? Or was it in the middle of the first millennium BC, as Hugh Fox believed? Why is the rest of the iconography of the bowl like that of the Tiwanaku culture, about 600-950 CE? What can we make of this very confusing tale? For one thing, no Sumeriologist has accepted that the symbols on the interior of the bowl are “proto-Sumerian” (by which the authors promoting the Fuente Magna bowl presumable mean Sumerian hieroglyphs or proto-cuneiform). Indeed, these symbols seem to be part of the general iconography of the pre-Columbian Altiplano cultures and bear only the vaguest resemblance to Sumerian hieroglyphs. They seem real enough. It is the cuneiform that is the most worrying aspect. Despite Hugh Fox’s belief that the inscriptions are Phoenician, no examples of Phoenician cuneiform have been found farther west than Malta. By the time the Phoenicians established colonies in the western Mediterranean basin, they had given up cuneiform and were using an alphabet ancestral to all modern western scripts. And the cuneiform looks very wobbly. Real cuneiform is written in neat rows, not vague panels, as we see on the bowl. That is a feature of proto-cuneiform. It looks to have been executed by someone who has seen a cuneiform text and is attempting to copy it onto a surface that they have no skill in working. To put it bluntly, it looks like a fake. The bowl has also been a problem for debunkers. Most seem happy to dismiss it as a hoax having no provenance. This is a little unfair. Whatever we might think of the work of Bernardo Biados and Freddy Arce, they did actually travel to the alleged site of its discovery and interviewed the person who claimed to have found it. This is very different from asserting that “there is no provenience. None. Nada. Zilch. We have anecdotes of it being “discovered””. As we’ve seen, this isn’t quite the case. The provenance may not be secure, but there is at least a likely location. Discussion on Wikipedia that led to the deletion of a page dedicated to the bowl wrongly stated that the script was first said to be cuneiform in 1985, while Jason Colavito has wrongly claimed that “[n]o one paid attention to it until 2000”: we have seen that a book published in 1979 already made that claim. So, Spirit Science, your item number 2 is also not an “Amazing Discovery That Will Make Me Question Everything

The lessons of these objects

The first thing I have learned (actually, had confirmed) is that the web is not a good source of information about controversial archaeological discoveries. The overwhelming majority of websites that discuss these objects simply repeat the same stories, often through the overuse of cutting-and-pasting. Actually finding something different, something that does not merely parrot the original outlandish claims can take a lot of hard work. I have spent the best part of two days to write this post, which I originally believed I could do in a couple of hours. However, it has been worth it, even if I haven’t achieved my target of dealing with all ten items in Spirit Science’s laughable list of Amazing Discoveries That Will Make You Question Everything. To make matters worse, an increasing number of claims come from YouTube videos. Indeed, one is the source of Spirit Science’s silly page. It was posted on 8 October 2012, so I wonder why it took Spirit Science so long to mine it for (mis)information. Spirit Science concludes by saying:

Do you think discoveries like these should be discussed in schools more openly? When we can see the value in showing all angles of humanities past – then we can collectively put the puzzle pieces of Earth’s past together.

[The strange grammar and spellings are in the original]. I am appalled at the laziness of those who repeat the claims about these items. They seem content to trust what any anti-establishment source tells them and yet they are the people who accuse debunkers of being closed minded. Just look at some of the comments posted to Spirit Science’s page or the YouTube video. They are the ones who cannot see that their gurus are leading them astray, that the information they are being given is at best dubious, at worst, fraudulent. They seem incapable of critical thinking. The debunkers are often not much better, I’m ashamed to say. Putting in the time and effort to research objects of dubious provenance and authenticity may be a waste of time, when it’s far simpler just to say “hoax!” and hope that people will believe you. I am often criticised in comments on the main site for not providing all the detail necessary to show an objector that the conventional interpretation of site is correct. Even when I do, they don’t want to know, or will change tack to question something else that I’ve written. Perhaps I am wasting my time. On the other hand, given the sheer numbers of sites that make wrong claims about the past, I feel duty bound to provide a voice of reason. If I am able to correct at least one person’s misconceptions, then I hope that my efforts are worthwhile.

The Paracas skulls: aliens, an unknown hominid species or cranial deformation?

Three Paracas Necropolis Culture skulls, showing different shapes produced by head binding

Three Paracas Necropolis Culture skulls, showing different shapes produced by head binding (Source)

Sources of dubious (and notsodubious) news on the internet have been getting very excited for the past week or so about some skulls from Paracas in south-western Perú. According to these sites, the skulls have been shown to have DNA that proves them not to be modern Homo sapiens but something else. Depending on the slant of the site, they are the remains of either an unknown but earthly species or aliens. Some sites make comparisons with the Starchild Skull, which has been touted as a human/alien hybrid. So just how reliable is the news?


The skulls were discovered by the respected Perúvian archaeologist Julio César Tello (1880-1947) during excavations in 1927-8 on the northern side of the Cerro Colorado area of the Paracas Peninsula. In all, some 429 mummy bundles were recovered from two clusters at a site known as Wari Kayan, a large subterranean structure. The mummies were wrapped in cotton cloths, some of which were embroidered with wool to create elaborate patterns, which are among the best South American textiles ever found. The mummies were then placed in baskets in a sitting position, facing north; as with all South American mummies, their preservation is due to natural desiccation. Almost four hundred embroidered cloths were recovered. All the burials were of males and the quality of their grave gifts suggests that they were of high status; some have suggested that many of the men buried there had been brought for some distance to a special location, although this is not accepted by all.

Tello had previously excavated at Chavín de Huantar and recognised that there were cultural affinities between its products and those found at Wari Karan and suggested that the Paracas Necropolis Culture, as he called it, was related to the largely contemporary Chavín Culture. Comparisons have also been made between the later Paracas textiles and those of the Nasca Culture, suggesting another relationship. The pottery was largely plain and thin walled; it is very similar to ceramics found in the Cañete and Chincha Valleys, to the north of Paracas and is generally known today as Topará style. Similar pottery is also found in the earliest Nasca culture. It is generally accepted that the Nasca culture derives from the Paracas Necropolis Culture.

An example of Paracas Necropolis Culture embroidery

An example of Paracas Necropolis Culture embroidery (Source)

A Paracas Necropolis settlement has been found at Arena Blanca, in the coastal plain below the Cerro Coloarado. It covers an area of some 5- hectares, divided into twenty separate ditstricts, with buildings made from cobbles in dried mud. It inhabitants had cultivated plants, while cotton nets may be evidence for fishing. It appears to be contemporary with the earliest phase of burial at Wari Kayan and after its abandonment, was used as a cemetery by people of the Topará Culture. Further settlements are known in the Ica Valley to the south, where they span the entire period of the Paracas Necropolis Culture (conventionally reckoned to span 1-200 CE, although some prefer to place it earlier).

So far, so good. We have burials from a culture whose cultural affinities are well established and whose chronology is reasonably clear. Now for the part that has led to the recent controversial claims. Many of the high status burials of the Paracas Necropolis Culture have deformed skulls, which are usually believed to be deliberately induced using boards and weights. These result, in extreme cases, in skulls that are elongated into tall conical shapes. No two are alike and all are believed to have denoted high status in Paracas Necropolis Culture society.

The beginning of the controversy

A foetal mummy, illustrated by Rivero and Tschudi

A foetal mummy, illustrated by Rivero and Tschudi

For many years after their discovery, the Paracas Necropolis Culture burials were regarded as ordinary Andean mummies, whose high status males exhibit the cultural deformation of the skull practised by a number of pre-Columbian New World societies. Enter David Hatcher Childress, a well known promoter of some very Bad Archaeology indeed. In a 2012 book, The Enigma of Cranial Deformation: Elongated Skulls of the Ancients, co-written with Brien Foerster (described as a “Canadian-Peruvian anthropologist” by Amazon, although it would be more accurate to describe him as a tour operator), Childress suggests that the phenomenon is not one of cranial deformation. Quoting a nineteenth-century doctor, John James von Tschudi who claimed to have seen a seven-month term foetus with a head as elongated as its mother, Childress claims that this is evidence for a separate race or species.

What is not made clear is that they are quoting from the book Antigüedades Peruanas (1851) by Mariano Eduardo de Rivero y Ustáriz (1798-1857) and Johann Jakob von Tschudi (1818-1889) or, rather, its 1855 English translation by Francis Lister Hawks (1798-1866), who also managed to “translate” the authors’ names (as, indeed, does the original Spanish edition, where Dr von Tschudi is given the forenames Juan Diego!). Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. Until one reads Antigüedades Peruanas and discovers that this is in a chapter dealing with racial typology and phrenology and that Tschudi is reinforcing a typology of three Amerindian races he first proposed in Archiv für Pysiologie in 1845. The type to which they attribute the elongated crania are described as Aymaran, and the presence of a large wormian bone at the parietal/occipital interface is said to demonstrate the primitive nature of this people: se halle en una seccion del género humano, un fenómeno anómalo constante que falta en las demas, pero que es característico en los animales rumiantes y carnívoros (“there is thus found in one section of the human race a perpetual anomalous phenomenon, which is wanting in all others, but which is characteristic of the ruminant and carnivorous animals” in Hawks’s translation). Because of the high incidence of such bones among the indigenous peoples of the Andes, they are sometimes known as Inca bones.

The engraving that shows the foetal mummy (curiously found in the English translation but not in the Spanish original) does not depict the extreme of cranial deformation that Childress claims is genetic in origin: while the skull appears dolichocephalic, it appears to be entirely in the range of normal human foetuses. Moreover, although Rivero and Tschudi claim that it was found within the womb of a pregnant mother, the engraving does not show a foetus in a natural position, but in the position of a typical Andean mummy. It also appears to be wearing a kilt. In other words, there is a degree of deception in their account. It appears that Childress and Foerster cannot adduce any recent discoveries of neonatal or foetal mummies displaying supposedly congenital or hereditary skull deformation of this type.

Enter Lloyd Pye

Brien Foerster managed to persuade Juan Navarro Hierro, director (and owner) of the Paracas History Museum (sic: on the sign outside the museum, the name is given first in English, then, smaller, in Spanish) to part with some tissue samples. He claims that he did this because “[t]he only way to establish the actual age, and possible genetic origins of the Paracas people is through DNA analysis of the skulls themselves”. Dating human tissue by means of DNA analysis is such a new technique that I can find no other use of this remarkable development in any other archaeological investigation. Of course, there is no such dating technique: this is Brien Foerster displaying his ignorance of archaeological dating techniques!

Where did he choose to send the samples? To some prestigious university department, well known for its work on ancient DNA? No. Instead, he chose to send them to Lloyd Pye (1946-2013), a crank who believed in ancient astronauts, the extraterrestrial origins of humanity and, worst of all, touted the “Starchild Skull” as an alien/human hybrid. Why? This suggests that, far from being a dispassionate researcher, Brien Foerster has a preconceived agenda and it’s one that involves aliens. Although his original page lists his affiliation as “University of Victoria, Biological Sciences, Department Member”, his association with the university is as a graduate, not a member of faculty. [Update 11 April 2015: he has a new page that more honestly describes him as an undergraduate.]

A Paracas skull: note the dimple toward the top of the head, which is a product of head-binding, depressing the suture between the parietal plates that Brien Foerster claims does not exist

A Paracas skull: note the dimple toward the top of the head, which is a product of head-binding, depressing the suture between the parietal plates that Brien Foerster claims does not exist (Source)

On his website, Brien Foerster makes a number of claims about the skulls from Paracas, citing Lloyd Pye as an authority. He refers to “5 physical factors, pointed out by Lloyd Pye and myself, which are not at all common to Homo sapiens”, of which he lists two: “the presence of 2 small holes in the back of the skull” and “only one parietal plate, where there should be 2”. This is backed up by a photograph, although it appears to depict a skull with no cranial deformation.

The “small holes” are the parietal foramina, perfectly normal features of the human skull (he does say that Lloyd Pye believed that they might be “natural”, so why are they flagged up as a factor “not at all common to Homo sapiens”?). There are few photographs that show the top of the Paracas skulls, but it is obvious that the frontal bone (the bone behind our foreheads) is stretched enormously; it is also evident that the sagittal suture (between the two parietal bones) begins very high up on the skull on those few photographs that show this element. Either Brien Foerster is entirely ignorant of the normal features of the human skull, or he is deliberately deceiving a readership he expects of be ignorant of these features.

It gets worse

Just when you thought that this story couldn’t possibly take off, Brien Foerster managed to put out a release on his Facebook page on 12 February 2014 hinting about initial results from his DNA tests. This is what has set the internet of dubious news stories talking excitedly. This is what Brien Foerster quotes:

Whatever the sample labeled 3A has came from – it had mtDNA with mutations unknown in any human, primate or animal known so far. The data are very sketchy though and a LOT of sequencing still needs to be done to recover the complete mtDNA sequence. But a few fragments I was able to sequence from this sample 3A indicate that if these mutations will hold we are dealing with a new human-like creature, very distant from Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans.. I am not sure it will even fit into the known evolutionary tree. The question is if they were so different, they could not interbreed with humans. Breeding within their small population, they may have degenerated due to inbreeding. That would explain buried children – they were either low or not viable.

I am surprised that a geneticist would make this statement, but it is presented as verbatim, so we must assume that she/he genuinely wrote it. Let’s analyse what they are saying. Firstly, that Sample 3A “had mtDNA with mutations unknown in any human, primate or animal known so far”. That’s a very far reaching statement. It means that the source of the sample is unrelated to any animal on the planet. Any animal. Think about that for a few moments. The clear implication is that this is a non-terrestrial life form. The only one not to be related to all other animals, be they Bryozoa, Porifera, Acanthocephala, Acoelomorpha, Brachiopoda, Chaetognatha, Ctenophora, Cycliophora, Entoprocta, Gastrotricha, Gnathostomulida, Hemichordata, Kinorhyncha, Loricifera, Micrognathozoa, Nematomorpha, Nemertea, Onychophora, Orthonectida, Phoronida, Placozoa, Priapulida, Rhombozoa, Rotifera, Sipuncula, Tardigrada, Xenoturbellida, Echinodermata, Cnidaria, Annelida, Nematoda, Platyhelminthes, Chordata, Mollusca or Arthropoda. Incidentally, we belong to the phylum Chordata.

A Paracas Necropolis Culture skull with hair

A Paracas Necropolis Culture skull with hair (Source)

Now, this statement troubles me. For a start, there is the skeletal morphology. This morphology shows that the owners of the Paracas skulls were Chordates; more than that, they belonged to the sub-phylum Vertebrata (or Craniata), as they possess a bony vertebral column; more than that, they were members of the superclass Tetrapoda, as they possess four independent limbs; more than that, they belong to the class Mammalia, as they possess hair (which can be seen on some of the skulls); more than that, the skeletal morphology demonstrates that they belong to the Primates, as do all apes, including humans, monkeys, tarsiers, lemurs and lorises. In other words, far from possessing “mutations unknown in any human, primate or animal”, they appear to be human. So what does the mtDNA sequenced from Sample 3A mean?

Well, our anonymous geneticist goes on to classify Sample 3A as “a new human-like creature”. So it’s not actually unrelated to the rest of the animal kingdom. That’s a relief. However, it’s “very distant from Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans”, whatever that is supposed to mean. Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and Denisovans (exact species not yet determined, although members of the genus Homo) are extinct hominins whose distribution was restricted to Europe and western Asia: one would not expect to find them in South America. If the mtDNA of Sample 3A really is “very distant from Homo sapiens”, the only hominin so far known from the New World, does this mean that the geneticist considers it to be another species within the genus Homo or a member of an entirely separate genus? This is something I would expect them to give an opinion on and I find it curious that they apparently have not.

The hominin evolutionary tree, as understood in 2014

The hominin evolutionary tree, as understood in 2014 (Source)

What is even more curious is the statement that “I am not sure it will even fit into the known evolutionary tree”. This is worryingly ambiguous and can be taken in two ways. It might mean that Sample 3A derives from a species whose position in the hominin lineage cannot yet be determined, but which might one day. I suspect that this is not the intended meaning though. Given the thrust of the rest of the statement, I suspect that it is meant to imply that the mtDNA belongs to a species entirely outside the hominin lineage. In other words, it’s leaving open the possibility that we should regard the sample as deriving from an alien. There does not appear to be any consideration given to the likelihood that the odd features of the mtDNA recovered are not “mutations unknown in any human, primate or animal” but a result of contamination (after all, the skulls were excavated in the 1920s and we do not know the conditions under which they have been stored, how much they have been handled, whether any procedures have been used to stabilise them and so on) or errors in the laboratory.

The statement ends with a very worrying pair of sentences: “Breeding within their small population, they may have degenerated due to inbreeding. That would explain buried children – they were either low or not viable.” “[D]egenerated” is a very loaded term: it smacks of racialist theories and I am surprised that a scientist would use it. Be that as it may, it is true that inbreeding within small isolated populations will increase the likelihood of genetic disorders that will led to the eventual extinction of that population. However, it is quite ludicrous to claim that it “would explain buried children”. Has this geneticist no knowledge of pre-twentieth century population mortality patterns? Before the development of modern medicine, infant mortality rates were high; in some societies, fewer than half of all live births would survive more than five years. The burial of children in the Paracas Necropolis Culture is a perfectly normal phenomenon that can be found in many human societies. To claim otherwise is deliberately misleading.

I find the entire statement released by Brien Foerster to be quite unprofessional. It makes unsubstantiated claims; it deals with preliminary results; it contains at least one outright untruth. This is not standard scientific procedure. Let us assume that the mtDNA sequencing has been done properly. The geneticist states that “[t]he data are very sketchy”: so why release them, particularly when “a LOT of sequencing still needs to be done”? It is very unusual for a scientist to “leak” preliminary results in this way, unless they are very certain of their reliability. Doing it with “sketchy” data is inexcusable. Unless there is a hidden agenda…

Assessing the claim

There are so many problems with the statement posted by Brien Foerster, that it is difficult to see why anyone would take it seriously. For a start, it sits in glorious isolation from any archaeological data. The Paracas Necropolis Culture is not the product of some mysteriously isolated group of non-human creatures: its position within the broader cultural development of prehistoric Perú is well understood. The cranial deformation seen in mummies from the Wari Kayan cemetery fit into a known pattern, termed the Aymara deformity, which is produced by wrapping the skulls of infants tightly in circular bands. This exerts pressure along a transverse axis, through the mastoid region and the region just above the insertion of the nuchal ligament on the occiput. This can cause the skull to appear tri-lobed (as seen in the “Starchild Skull”), although the Paracas skulls exhibit a more conical deformity. The compression may disrupt the normal growth pattern of the skull, particularly along the sutures, and can produce a depression in the sagittal region, exactly as seen in a number of the Paracas skulls. Altering the shape of the skull also alters its volume, despite Foerster’s claim that it does not [edited 19.2.2014 by KJF-M]. Although small variations away from normal volume can be produced, they are not significant. However, while Foerster claims that the capacity of the skulls is too great for Homo sapiens, this is not the case: the Paracas skulls have an average capacity of 1600 cm3 and the human range is up to 1800 cm3 and they therefore fall well within the normal distribution range.

Secondly, the interpretation of the genetic information so far released is said by the scientist carrying out the sequencing to rest on “sketchy” data. Does this mean that further work may modify the interpretation? Is the geneticist allowing themselves a way of retracting the interpretation of further work shows the mtDNA to belong to a perfectly ordinary Amerindian type?

I was initially reminded of another DNA related story, the announced discovery of Bigfoot DNA in 2013 by Melba Ketchum. Although some early analyses of Brien Foerster’s statements regarding the Paracas DNA implicated Melba Ketchum, this is not the case, although Foerster has said that he is working with her, while she has hinted that she has been working with elongated skulls. It thus appears that she is not the anonymous geneticist who wrote the bizarre statement posted on Foerster’s Facebook page. As happens so often with this sort of work, Brien Foerster is asking for donations to carry on the work (the site shows as of today (15 February 2014) that one donor has given $1000, twenty have given $100, twelve have given $50, while there are 38 donations of smaller sums).

In summary, this is a non-story. There is nothing at all unusual about the population of the Paracas Necropolis Culture, apart from the extreme nature of the head-binding they practised. DNA or no DNA, they are fully human: every aspect of their skulls can be explained in terms of genetics (such as the large wormian bone) and culture (such as the cranial deformation). Any statements to the contrary contain a mixture of deliberate deception, ignorance of anthropology, lack of archaeological knowledge and jumping to wild conclusions using “sketchy” data. They are not evidence for aliens or an otherwise unknown hominin species.

Update 20 February 2014

There is a condition known as craniosynostosis, in which one or more sutures fuses early. The most common form is sagittal sysnostosis, which is found in about half all cases and suppresses growth in the lateral plane of the skull, compensated by a disproportionate growth in length, resulting in a long, narrow skull. In The Enigma of Cranial Deformation, Childress and Foerster publish a colour photograph of a skull from Camacho (Perú) showing exactly this form of sagittal synostosis, which they wrongly claim shows that the individual had a single parietal plate. As with all their other discussions of palaeopathology, all they show is their ignorance of the subject: they are completely unqualified to write an entire book on the subject if they can make such basic mistakes. It’s a shame that the readers of their book are unaware of the depth of their ignorance.

Does fiction become true if it’s repeated often enough? The “alien” of Tuerin monastery

Peter Kolosimo: Not of This World (Sphere, 1971)

Peter Kolosimo: Not of This World (Sphere, 1971)

As a teenager, I was an avid reader of books dealing with ancient mysteries, beginning with Erich von Däniken and working my way through anything that appeared in that section of my local bookshop. I was enthralled but mostly sceptical of the claims made and, as I grew older, I came to realise that very little of this material could be accommodated within what I was learning about real archaeology. Nevertheless, some things stuck in my mind and seemed to hold the promise of genuine mystery. I’ve kept a lot of the books I bought forty or so years ago and I occasionally turn to them for a bit of light reading as inspiration for this blog.

Earlier this week I looked again at Not of This World (1970) by Peter Kolosimo (the pseudonym of Pier Domenico Colosimo, 1922-1984), translated from the Italian Non è Terrestre (1969). It is one of a large number of very similar books that followed in the wake of the unprecedented success Chariots of the Gods?, many of them highly derivative of it. Kolosimo’s book was rather different, with some quite different stories from those of von Däniken. One that really mystified me was the opening subject of Chapter 4, The Sons of the Pleiades, which told the tale of a Mr John Spencer, an adventurer who had fled Manchuria in 1920 and collapsed close to a monastery near Tuerin in Mongolia. Taken in by the lamas to recuperate, he found that he was not the only westerner in the monastery: an American traveller, William Thompson, had been staying there for some months.

This is John Spencer’s story as given by Peter Kolosimo:

One morning the adventurer discovered near the monastery a stone staircase with worn-out steps. Having pushed open a narrow door, without any trouble, he found himself in a polygon-shaped room, though it is not known if it had twelve, thirteen or more sides. On the various walls, Spencer looked at some incomprehensible patterns of a strange sort; but after having examined them thoroughly the design of one of them seemed to make sense. It was the representation of the constellation of Taurus, with which he was familiar for the simplest of reasons, having been born under that sign and carrying with him on his watch-chain an amulet from China with the same sign on it.

He followed the designs with his finger, though without any special purpose—in fact almost playfully. Then as he prodded right at the end of the line, where an incision marked out the Pleiades1 he was amazed to see the wall silently opening. The space in front was dark. Spencer hesitated a moment till curiosity got the better of him. He groped his way forward into the dark and was about to give up the exploration, when he saw a green light in the distance. Then his practical sense compelled him to go back and return with a big stone from outside, which he then used to prop the wall open so that it could not close and trap him.

He did not manage to discover the source of the green light, which seemed to him to come from the sharp corners of the ceiling. He considered it unnecessary to bother further with it and was satisfied that he was going along a narrow and solid gallery where there was no danger of collapse. The tunnel had several branches and Spencer decided to take the right one, although one was much the same as another and he did not want to run the risk of losing his way. Naturally he did not know that this was just the direction indicated by the Pleiades which was high on the right side of the wall open wide in front of him! Finally he reached the end, in a room where the green light was stronger and harsher. Along one wall a number of rectangular boxes were lined up (from 25 to 30 he said himself at the time) which seemed to be suspended about half a metre from the floor. Spence ignored this, thinking it might have supports he could not see, and instead gave his attention to the boxes. He saw at once that they were biers but instead of their impressing him he felt inclined to congratulate himself, thinking that there must be treasure buried with the remains. He found with pleasure that the lids could easily by lifted up, and started his inspection. In the first three he discovered the bodies of monks, clothed like those in the monastery, and in the fourth, lay the body of a woman dressed in man’s clothing which must have been cut at least fifty years ago. In the fifth there was an Indian wearing a cloak of red silk and the sixth contained a man in a costume he reckoned was made in 1700. He then began to consider two other points: that the corpses were in a perfect state of preservation and that they were not all of the same epoch, becoming older the further he went towards the walls of the end of the room.

In the propenultimate box lay a man “wrapped in white bedclothes” and in the last but one was a woman whose origin he could not establish. Of the longed-for necklaces, etc., there was not the slightest trace. Spencer was annoyed and when he lifted the last lid he was rooted to the spot with amazement: the body of a man was inside, dressed in a sort of silver mail and who in place of a head had a ball of pure silver, with round holes where the eyes should have been and an oval thing full of small holes in lieu of a nose—and there was no mouth!

Spencer, recovering from his surprise, was about to touch the object when he changed his mind suddenly as the big round eyes of the dead man were wide open and emitting a horrifying green gleam. So he quickly dropped the lid and ran back shouting to the place he had come from. After about ten yards he had the good sense to stop and think, otherwise he would never have been able to find the exit again. He returned to the exit after a long walk but when he came out he had another shock: darkness had fallen in the valley. “I must have walked for two or three hours all told” he said afterwards. “It is impossible that I could have lost all sense of time to such an extent int here!”

A much perturbed John Spencer returned to the monastery and told Thompson, who did not seem very surprised, but told him off instead and said that he would have to tell the whole story to the priests. Next morning Spencer was called by one of the monks who welcomed him smiling, treating him with a kindness which Spencer hardly dared to believe. “My poor friend” the monk said, “your faver has played a dirty trick on you! Why didn’t you expect to be cured by visiting our holy places?” This fiendliness encouraged Spencer to ask for explanations about the vaults and the “corpse without a mouth”. But the lama shook his head: “There are neither corpses not vaults down there: come with me if you feel strong enough.” They went down to the odd room together and the priest touched a wall with his finger. It opened on to a gallery and the two men walked for not more than ten minutes when they reached a small room containing a table like an altar. On this ledge was was a row of some small biers, with a length of not more than 12-13 centimeters. The priest carefully uncovered them one after the other—they contained perfect statuettes, copies of the creatures discovered by Spence.

“This is what you really saw,” said the monk, smiling. “They are images of people who have enriched the world with their wisdom and so we honour them. It was your fever, my poor friend, which made you think you were standing in front of real sarcophagi. And as you can see, there is no green light but only the yellow from one of our humble lamps.” Spencer did not dare to reply (in certain circumstances he could be the epitome of caution) but he was unable to stop himself asking the priest who the person with the round head might be, the first one in the row. “A high lord who came from the stars” replied the monk, pointing to some lines on the wall behind the altar: once again it turned out to be the Constellation of Taurus and once more Spencer’s glance was directed to the Pleiades!

When Spencer saw Thompson again he said he had not the slightest doubt about the truth of his adventure. “It might easily be that I still had some fever” he said, “but I absolutely reject the idea that I dreamt it all or was the victim of deleriu,. I lost the heel of one of my shoes down in the labyrinth and scratched my hands at least a dozen times when I was feeling the stones for any possible snags. I touched the clothes on that corpse and notcied the veins and wrinkles… the piece of wall which opened was on the left of the entrance whereas the opening the lama stood in front of was almost right in front, slightly to the right… the monk has tried to convince me by showing me a miniature cope of what I actually saw.”

Spencer left the monastery a week later and nothing more was heard of him. William Thompson, however, returned to the United States and told others about the whole episode (reported at that time in a review called Adventure) persuasively saying that Spencer’s assertions were true…

1Spencer did not even know that the Pleiades existed: a point which was later made clear by W. Thompson.

Here we have a thrilling story with circumstantial detail, the names of people and places. To my fourteen-year-old mind, this was like the horror stories I would read to give me shivers at bed time, but with the added thrill of it all being true. At least, that’s what I believed back in 1972, when I first read the story. And it clearly resonates with other people, with it turning up on a number of websites, mostly UFOlogical in nature.

Is there any truth in the story?

Tuerin in the early twentieth century

Tuerin in the early twentieth century

Unlike a number of stories of this sort, we are given data that can be checked, of which some at least is genuine data. There was once a monastery at Tuerin (Чойрын, more correctly transliterated Choirin or Choiryn, now more frequently spelled Чойр, Choir), which is a real place that is the capital of the province of Govĭ-Sümber (Говь-Сумбэр аймаг), Mongolia. It was captured by the White Russian Army in March 1921, during an invasion under Baron Robert-Nikolai-Maximilian Roman Feodorovich von Ungern-Sternberg (Ро́берт-Ни́колай-Максими́лиан Рома́н Фёдорович фон У́нгерн-Ште́рнберг, 1885-1921) allegedly financed by the Japanese, who hoped to limit Soviet influence over Mongolia. Moreover, there was once an extensive monastery (or lamasery) there, known as Choirin Datsan, and described in Elizabeth Kendall’s A Wayfarer in China: impressions of a trip across west China and Mongolia (Riverside Press, 1913):

Tuerin, not a house but a village, built in and out among the rocks. It was an extraordinary sight to stumble upon, here on the edge of the uninhabited desert. A little apart from the rest were four large temples crowned with gilt balls and fluttering banners, and leading off from them were neat rows of small white plastered cottages with red timbers, the homes of the two thousand lamas who live here. The whole thing had the look of a seaside camp-meeting resort.

The lamasery of Tuerin

The lamasery of Tuerin

During the period of communist rule in Mongolia, hundreds of monasteries were destroyed as part of a process of forced secularisation after 1924, so it is unsurprising that there is today little trace of the historic lamasery at Tuerin. In the early twenty-first century, Rinpoche Zava Damdin established a community of 70 monks in a group of gers (felt tents better known by their Russian name of yurts). There is a manuscript drawing of the monastery, the details of which are largely confirmed by an early photograph of the site; a pile of rocks depicted behind the main temple building is identifiable on the ground today. In front of it, there is a small memorial that is a focus for offerings. The ruins (Choiryn Khiidiin Tuuri) are a tourist destination.

We are on less certain ground when it comes to the protagonist of the story, the mysterious and mystified John Spencer, or William Thompson, the traveller who reported Spencer’s tale to the American press. There appears to be no information about them other than in this story. This does not mean that they did not exist, but given John Spencer’s alleged criminal notoriety, it is surprising that he does not seem to have attracted the attention of the world’s media. A Google search for the names (which are relatively common English names) yields too many results to be able to check on them; however, combine them with the word “Mongolia” and the only sites mentioning their presence in the country in 1920 are simply retellings of this story.

Back to the source

Cover of Adventure, 30 April 1922

The cover of Adventure, for 30 April 1922 (source)

What none of the writers who use this story have done is go back to the original source. Every writer since 1970 bases their account on Peter Kolosimo’s, even to the point of noting that the story was first reported in an American publication, Adventure, so one might expect someone to find out a bit more about the publication. If they had actually bothered to do this one little bit of research, or simply made enquiries about Adventure, they would have made an important (and disquieting) discovery: Adventure was a “pulp magazine” that dealt exclusively with fictional tales. Published by the Ridgeway Company, it was being issued three times a month in the 1920s, it reached its peak of popularity under Arthur Sullivant Hoffman (1876-1966), its editor from 1912 to 1927. It was clearly not a journal of record, nor was it a news magazine.

This obviously means that the tale of John Spencer is untrue; it also means that, in all probability, neither John Spencer nor William Thompson actually existed. They were fictional characters in an adventure story designed to entertain and thrill, which is why the tale is rich in circumstantial detail, reports of direct conversations that the writer could never have heard, even the private thoughts of the principal. Details like that make for good fiction but, in a story that is supposed to be reportage, detailing events that actually happened, they cause alarm bells to ring. As with the supposedly private conversation between Bérenger Saunière and Mgr Billard in Le Trésor Maudit, the book that popularised the non-existent mystery of Rennes-le-Château (and, ultimately, inspired The da Vinci Code), the author cannot have known precisely what was said, let alone thought.

While we may allow some journalistic licence in “improving” a story, extensive passages of directly quoted speech ought to have made readers of the story repeated by Peter Kolosimo go back to Adventure to see how much he had embellished the original. Their failure to do so tells us more about their attitudes to research and fact checking than any number of footnotes or references. The lazy repetition of the story told by Kolosimo, the failure to recognise a publication dealing entirely with fiction, the lack of interest in finding out more about Tuerin and its monastery all highlight the sloppiness of writers in this genre. Their uncritical acceptance of what a previous author has to say demonstrates that they are not interested in pushing the frontiers of knowledge through investigation; instead, they are engaged in recycling for profit.