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 not-so-dubious) 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 of 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: 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, 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 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.

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 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 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.

A fraudulent religious text from the early USA (and it’s not the one you’re thinking about!)

Title page of Rafinesque's The American Nations

Title page of Rafinesque’s The American Nations, Volume 1

In 1836, a French scholar, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840), published the first of two volumes titled The American Nations: Or, Outlines of Their General History, Ancient and Modern, Including the Whole History of the Earth and Mankind in the Western Hemisphere, the Philosophy of American History, the Annals, Traditions, Civilization, Languages, &c., of All the American Nations, Tribes, Empires, and States. At the start of Chapter V, on page 121, he laments that “We have but few real American Annals, given in the original peculiar style” and goes on to list a few traditional accounts. On the next page comes a bombshell: “Having obtained, through the late Dr. Ward of Indiana, some of the original Wallam-Olum (painted record) of the Linapi tribe of Wapahani or White River, the translation will be given of the songs annexed to each: which form a kind of connected annals of the nation”. In other words, he claims to have obtained a document of prime importance for the early history of the Americas. He asserts that the people of North America “did possess, and perhaps keep yet, historical and traditional records of events, by hieroglyphs or symbols, on wood, bark, skins, in stringed wampuns &c.; but none had been published in the original form”.

The front page of Rafinesque's manuscript of Walam Olum

The front page of Rafinesque’s manuscript of Walam Olum (from the University of Pennsylvania Library)

He says in a footnote that “These actual Olum were at first obtained in 1820, as a reward for a medical cure, deemed a curiosity; and were unexplicable. In 1822 were obtained from an other individual the songs annexed thereto in the original language; but no one could be found by me able to translate them. I had therefore to learn the language since, by the help of Zeisberger, Hekewelder and a manuscript dictionary, on purpose to translate them, which I only accomplished in 1833. The contents were totally unknown to me in 1824, when I published my Annals of Kentucky; which were based on the traditions of Hekewelder, and those collected by me on the Shawanis, Miamis, Ottawas &c.”. Rafinesque proposes to place this newly translated record before the public.

The document Rafinesque revealed to the world is known as Walam Olum (also spelled Walum Olum or Wallam Olum), which allegedly tells the story of the Lenape people of an area known as Lenapehoking, now part of the north-eastern United States of America. According to Rafinesque, the Walam Olum consists of “3 ancient songs relating their traditions previous to arrival in America, written in 24, 16 and 20 symbols, altogether 60. They are very curious, but destitute of chronology. The second series relates to America, is comprised in 7 songs, 4 of 16 verses of 4 words, and 3 of 20 verses of 3 words. It begins at the arrival in America, and is continued without hardly any interruption till the arrival of the European colonists towards 1600. As 96 successive kings or chiefs are mentioned, except ten that are nameless: it is susceptible of being reduced to a chronology of 96 generations, forming 32 centuries, and reaching back to 1600 years before our era. But the whole is very meagre, a simple catalogue of rulers, with a few deeds: yet it is equal to the Mexican annals of the same kind. A last song, which has neither symbols nor words, consisting in a mere translation, ends the whole, and includes some few original details on the period from 1600 to 1820”. The songs were recorded as symbols on the bark, apparently a mnemonic writing system, with a total of 183 pictographs.

Rafinesque’s chronology, derived from assigning each named chief to a generation and assuming three generations to a century, is as follows:

About 1600 years before Christ passage of Behring strait on the ice, lead [sic] by Wapalanewa, settlement at Shinaki.

1450. Chilili leads them south, and the Tatnakwi separate.

1040. Peace after long wars under Langundewi at the land Akolaking.
800. Annals written by Olumapi.

750. Takwachi leads to Minihaking.

650. Penkwonwi leads east over mountains.

460. The first Tamenend great king on the Missouri

60. Opekasit leads to the Mississippi.

About 50 years of our era, alliance with the Talamatans against the Talegas.

150. Conquest or expulsion of the Talegas.

400. Lekhihitan writes the annals.

540. Separation of the Shawanis and Nentegos.

800. Wapalawikwan leads over Alleghany mountains to Amangaki.

970. Wolomenap settles the central capital at Trenton, and the Mohigans separate.

1170. Under Pitenumen arrival of Wapsi the first white men or Europeans.

Here, at last, was an outline chronology for the pre-Columbian history of North America. Not only did it confirm that at least some of the Native Americans had arrived from Asia by crossing ice at the Bering Strait, but it also confirmed the story of Noah’s flood. Here was an indigenous American tale that linked its people with the Bible!

The initial reception of the Walam Olum

Constantine Rafinesque

Constantine Rafinesque (1783-1840)

When Constantine Rafinesque first published The American Nations in 1836, it was largely ignored. His reputation had originally been as a botanist, although it had begun to suffer as accusations of monomania in constantly seeking new species were made against him (interestingly, his much criticised opinion that in botany “[e]very variety is a deviation, which becomes a species as soon as it is permanent by reproduction” was an interesting prefiguring of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection). His earlier foray into antiquarian speculation, Ancient Annals of Kentucky and Antiquities of the State of Kentucky (1824) was later criticised by Samuel Foster Haven (1806-1881), Librarian of the American Antiquarian Society, as unreliable.

Edward Hicks's "William Penn's Treaty with  Lenape Chiefs at Shackamaxon, 1682"

Edward Hicks’s William Penn’s Treaty with Lenape Chiefs at Shackamaxon, 1682, painted c 1830×40 (Gilcrease Institute of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma)

Although critics found that the story appeared too be too good to be true, the general (if grudging) consensus of scholars was that Rafinesque had discovered a genuine and extremely important account of the history of the Lenape people. Its dissemination was largely accomplished through its reprinting and championing by the antiquary Ephraim George Squier (1821–1888) in 1849. Not everyone was convinced, though: the ethnographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793–1864) wrote to Squier expressing his view that the Walam Olum was a fraud. Despite this, the anthropologist Daniel Garrison Brinton (1837-1899) published a new translation as part of his The Lenâpé and their legends: with the complete text and symbols of the Walam Olum, a new translation, and an inquiry into its authenticity in 1885. Brinton concluded that it was a genuine text on the grounds that “what Rafinesque certainly had not the ability to do, was to write a sentence in Lenape, to compose lines which an educated native would recognize as in the syntax of his own speech, though perhaps dialectically different”. He concluded:

It is a genuine native production, which was repeated orally to some one indifferently conversant with the Delaware language, who wrote it down to the best of his ability. In its present form it can, as a whole, lay no claim either to antiquity, or to purity of linguistic form. Yet, as an authentic modern version, slightly colored by European teachings, of the ancient tribal traditions, it is well worth preservation, and will repay more study in the future than is given it in this volume. The narrator was probably one of the native chiefs or priests, who had spent his life in the Ohio and Indiana towns of the Lenape, and who, though with some knowledge of Christian instruction, preferred the pagan rites, legends and myths of his ancestors. Probably certain lines and passages were repeated in the archaic form in which they had been handed down for generations.

A study published by the Indiana Historical Society in 1954 with contributions by Charles F Voegelin, Paul and Eli Lilly, Erminie Voegelin, Glenn Black, Georg Neumann and Paul Weer, Walam Olum or Red Score: The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians attempted to bolster the claims for genuineness. Reviewers were not impressed and the issue remained controversial. In 1975, the Canadian artist Selwyn Dewdney (1909–1979) concluded in The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway that the Walam Olum was a genuine birch-bark written record, but his work was not well received and he was accused of relying on outdated generalisations. In 1992, Joe Napora published a new translation, citing Dewdney’s work as an inspiration. However, by then, the story was unravelling.

Doubts grow

Early doubts about Walam Olum were based around Rafinesque’s inability to produce the original bark records and the failure to trace their background. The “late Dr. Ward of Indiana” from whom Rafinesque had allegedly procured the original records in 1822 proved impossible to identify, no-one of that name being registered as a doctor in the state in the early 1820s. Although Daniel Brinton acknowledged this, he managed to trace “an old and well-known Kentucky family of that name, who, about 1820 resided, and still do reside, in the neighborhood of Cynthialla. One of these, in 1824-25, was a friend of Rafinesque”. This is a desperate attempt to vindicate Rafinesque’s claim.

As anthropologists began to study the Lenape in the twentieth century, they found that it was difficult to confirm knowledge of the stories contained in the Walam Olum. In a study published in 1934, Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin (1903-1988), wife of the translator of the work in the 1954 Indiana Historical Society volume, was unable to point to any firm parallels between Rafinesque’s text and Lenape traditions. By the 1950s, scepticism had increased to the point where, in 1954, the anthropologist John G Witthoft (1921-1993) accused Rafinesque of plagiarising the Walam Olum from existing printed texts in the Lenape language and Lenape-English word lists.

By the last decades of the twentieth century, scepticism in the authenticity of Walam Olum had become the default position among anthropologists. However, it was the work of David M Oestreicher, an expert on the Lenape, that finally destroyed any lingering ideas that Walam Olum might be a genuine text (or at least contain genuine elements of Lenape tradition). Returning to Rafinesque’s manuscript, he noticed a curious feature that had not previously been remarked upon: although the English ‘translation’ was written out without alteration, Lenape words were sometimes crossed out and altered, usually to provide a better translation for the English words. In other words, this was not a Lenape text that Rafinesque had translated into English (which is what he claimed in his 1836 publication) but an English text that he had translated into Lenape. This is an utterly damning revelation.

David Oestreicher was also able to demonstrate that the date 1833 on the manuscript was itself fraudulent and that Rafinesque had worked on it between December 1834 and January or February 1835 in an attempt to win the Prix Volnay of the Institut Royal de France. The Institut had announced a prize for the answer to a specific question: Déterminer le caractère grammatical des langues de l’Amérique du nord connues sous les noms de Leni-Lenape, Mohegan et Chippaway (“to determine the grammatical character of the North American languages known by the names of Leni-Lenape, Mohegan and Chippaway”). To win the prize would have established Rafinesque as an historian and linguist of the highest order, after the poor reception of his Ancient Annals of Kentucky and Antiquities of the State of Kentucky. He backdated it to a time before the publication of some of the sources on which he had depended, to avoid accusations of plagiarism and forgery. His submission, Examen Analytique des Langues Linniques de l’Amérique Septentrionale, et surtout des Langues Ninniwak, Linap, Mohigan &c avec leurs Dialects ou Mémoir sur ces Langues & leur structure grammaticale (“Analytical examination of the Linnic languages of North America, and particularly of the Ninniwak, Lenape, Mohican etc. languages with their dialects, or, Memoir on these languages and their grammatical sturcture”), failed to win him the prize. Instead, the Prix Volnay went to Pierre-Étienne (Peter Stephen) du Ponceau (1760-1844), for his Mémoire sur le système grammatical des langues de quelques nations Indiennes de l’Amérique du Nord (“Memoir on the grammatical system of the languages of several North American nations”).

This was not the end of the story, of course. Having put so much effort into the composition of Walam Olum, Rafinesque seems to have been unwilling to let it disappear into obscurity and, as a result, he incorporated it into a work of history that ought to have set alarm bells ringing. His chronology includes the arrival of the first Europeans in North America c 1170, which is clearly meant to refer to the fictional story of Madoc, a supposed Welsh prince who has been claimed as a twelfth-century European voyager to North America. Discussion of the story of the “Welsh Indians” was current in the early nineteenth century and, around the time that Rafinesque was composing Walam Olum, had been completely debunked. A further element that ought to have been noticed but was not was the way in which Rafinesque blithely brought Atlantis into his discussion of migrations into North America. Despite all the tell-tale signs that Walam Olum was a product of a nineteenth century scholar of European origin, anthropologists and archaeologists were for too long unnecessarily willing to overlook them.

The Walam Olum today

While the Walam Olum is now considered by serious historians, anthropologists and archaeologists as nothing more than a literary curiosity of the early nineteenth century, albeit one with a baleful influence on the study of Lenape culture for the next century and a half, it is still discussed in New Age circles. New translations continue to appear and popular writers still lend it a credence it plainly does not deserve. Its story has been incorporated into the epic poem Brotherly Love by Daniel Gerard Hoffman (born 1923) that was turned into an oratorio by Ezra Laderman (born 1924).

One thing that is immediately striking about the story of Constantine Rafinesque and Walam Olum is its similarity to the story of Joseph Smith (1805-1844) and The Book of Mormon. In neither case could the publishers of these allegedly sacred texts produce any evidence that they had existed outside their imaginations; in both cases, the works explained the mystery of the peopling of the Americas that had inexplicably been overlooked in the Torah; in neither case does the work’s chronology match what can now be deduced using archaeological techniques. Although Rafinesque had denounced The Book of Mormon as a hoax, one is left wondering if its publication in 1830 had inspired Rafinesque in the methods of literary forgery. Like all such successful forgeries, it told a message that had willing listeners, confirming their beliefs and prejudices.

Update on the “Starchild skull”

The so-called “starchild” skull

The so-called “starchild” skull (source Wikipedia)

On the main site, I’ve added a page on the so-called ‘starchild’ skull. I originally wrote a short post about it here in January 2010; it is worth visiting this older page for the comments! The skull seems to arouse all sorts of irrational passions among its proponents…

What the new page attempts to do is to analyse the data in a more thorough way than the original blog post. This is difficult because the only access we have to any of the data is filtered through the distorting lens of Lloyd Pye, the “curator” of the skull. None of the scientists who has carried out tests has ever produced an independent scientific paper giving the results because the tests have been privately commissioned. This must cause us concern, particularly when Mr Pye starts playing number games and extrapolating wildly from the results. His analyses show none of the caution we would expect from a scientist, although he is always careful to label his analyses as “provisional”.