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.


Rapa Nui: the island of statues

Satellite view of Rapa Nui

Satellite view of Rapa Nui (from Flash Earth)

The isolated volcanic island of Rapa Nui (better known in English as Easter Island, as it was first visited by Europeans on Easter Day 1722) is best known for its enormous statues, known as mo‘ai in the local Polynesian language. Although usually described as monolithic, they are not strictly monoliths, as they consist of separate elements: the main body, from the base of the torso to the over-sized head, is the principal part, with some topped by a red pukao (usually translated as “topknot”, although they may represent feathered headdresses) and the eye sockets filled with a composite eye consisting of white coral and red or black pupils. Some 887 such statues are known to exist, although 394 of them remain in the quarry where the tuff from which most are made was quarried.

The mystery of the mo‘ai

Restored mo'ai at Ahu Ko Te Riku

Restored mo‘ai at Ahu Ko Te Riku (source)

The principal “mystery” of the mo‘ai is why there are so many on so small an island. Rapa Nui, which is a Chilean territory, has an area of only 163.6 km2 (63.1 square miles) and is unlikely ever to have supported an especially large population. According to Barbara West, the early seventeenth-century population was around 15,000 people but had dropped to under 3,000 by the time of the first European contact (although this may be an under-estimate). The reasons for this catastrophic drop are not known, but suggestions include the effects of over-population, the effects of deforestation and the effects of rats. These would have caused the loss of agricultural products, the inability to build fishing vessels and a decline in the number of birds. The result was starvation, death and possibly cannibalism. It has been suggested that warfare became endemic in the century before the first European contact, but this is not supported by archaeological evidence, which suggests that after colonisation around 1200 CE, the population grew rapidly until the ecological disasters of the seventeenth century; inter-group violence seems only to have developed in the time between the visit by Jacob Roggeveen (1659-1729) in 1722 and the next European contact, on 15 November 1770, when two Spanish ships, the San Lorenzo and Santa Rosalia, stopped at the island. When Commander James Cook (1728-1779) visited the island in 1774, he reported that some of the statues were no longer upright. By then, violence had clearly begun and the last report of any remaining standing mo‘ai was made in 1838.

Enter the spacemen

Probably the best known “alternative” explanation for the erection of the mo’ai is that of Erich von Däniken, who devotes Chapter 8 ‘Easter Island—Land of the Bird Men’ of Chariots of the Gods? to them. It’s a thankfully short chapter of only seven pages in the paperback English translation. After rehearsing complaints that there were not enough people on the island to erect the statues (he claims that “the island can scarcely have provided food for more than 2,000 inhabitants”), he announces that “[c]onnexions between Easter Island and Tiahuanaco automatically force themselves upon us”, to which the only response can be “why?” The principal reason is that it gives the author the chance to pad out this short chapter with a discussion of the South American Viracocha, the Maya, Stonehenge and Sacsayhuaman that occupy considerably more space than Easter Island.

Aliens erect an oversized moai

Aliens erect a ridiculously oversized mo‘ai, as hinted by von Däniken (source)

After that, we don’t actually get any answers or hypotheses. It is all innuendo: “I refuse to think that the artists of our great past were… stupid… I am convinced… I am also convinced… I base the reasons for my scepticism about the interpretation of the remote past on the knowledge that is available today.” We are not vouchsafed any of his daring hypotheses about who built the mo‘ai and why, just a suggestion that, somehow, alien space travellers were involved. Never mind, because in Return to the Stars, we have Chapter 9 ‘Easter Island: an Inexhaustible Topic’, in which he dismisses the experiment carried out by Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) in the 1950s, demonstrating a means of carving and moving a mo‘ai. But, at last, we are given von Däniken’s considered opinion, based on ten days’ “research” on the island:

A small group of intelligent beings was stranded on Easter Island owing to a ‘techincal hitch’. The stranded group had a great store of knowledge, very advanced weapons and a method of working stone unknown to us… The strangers hoped they would be looked for, found and rescued by their own people. Yet the nearest mainland was some 2,500 miles away.

Days passed in inactivity. Life on the island became boring and monotonous. The unknowns began to teach the natives the elements of speech; they told them about foreign worlds, stars and suns. Perhaps to leave the natives a lasting memory of their stay, but perhaps also as a sign to the friends who were looking for them, the strangers extracted a colossal statue from the volcanic stone. Then they made more stone giants which they set up on stone pedestals along the coast so that they were visible from afar.

Until suddenly and without warning salvation was there.

Then the islanders were left with a junk room of just begun and half-finished figures. They selected the ones that were nearest completion and year after year they hammered doggedly away at the unfinished models with their stone tools.

So, there we have it: the mo‘ai were built by bored spacemen! Let’s not be uncharitable in pointing out the foolish idea that the islanders could not speak before the arrival of the aliens, that their fellow space travellers would be looking for them from the sea rather than space, that these technologically sophisticated strangers were without any kind of communications device and needed to erect a marker to reveal their presence… There’s really no need to point out any of this, because it is so utterly ridiculous. I almost have the impression that von Däniken had been forced to write this rubbish because critics of Chariots of the Gods? had complained that he had not come up with his promised explanation. Although some conspiracy oriented websites continue to be True Believers™ in the idea that the mo‘ai were built as a result of alien boredom, there is little mystery about how they were made and transported.

Kon-Tiki and the Peruvian explorers

Despite Erich von Däniken’s dismissal of Thor Heyerdahl’s experiment in which a mo‘ai was moved successfully using only materials available to the islanders before European contact, there is little doubt that Heyerdahl’s well publicised Kon-Tiki expedition was a major influence on the link he alleged between Easter Island and Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco). According to Heyerdahl, similarities between the mo‘ai of Rapa Nui and pre-Columbian statuary in Perú were evidence that the island was settled by migrants from South America, not Polynesia, the mainstream view.

Kon-Tiki, the balsa wood raft that carried six men from Chile to Easter Island in 1947

Kon-Tiki, the balsa wood raft that carried six men from Chile to Rapa Nui in 1947

In 1947, Heyerdahl built a balsa wood raft, which he named Kon-Tiki, one of the alternative names of Viracocha (more correctly, Apu Qun Tiqsi Wiraqutra). It was based on craft in use on Lake Titicaca and it was unclear if the material or the design would be sufficiently seaworthy to undertake the voyage from the coast of South America to Rapa Nui, some 3,510 km (2,180 miles) west from the nearest part of the continent. The voyage was a success and, in that regard, demonstrated that the voyage could have been undertaken in the pre-Columbian period. What it did not do, of course, was demonstrate that such a voyage had indeed taken place.

This is a methodological problem in experimental archaeology: showing that something is possible is not the same as showing that it happened. This is the problem with the so-called ‘batteries of Babylon’, where experiments have shown that they can be used (with a little modification) to produce an electric charge but we have no evidence for the use of electricity in Parthia. Indeed, in the case of the Kon-Tiki expedition, none of the other evidence supports the idea that the people of Rapa Nui came from South America. Thor Heyerdahl was an extreme diffusionist, who believed that virtually all cultural similarities had a single origin and were therefore spread by settlement. In a bizarre twist on extreme diffusion, Wayne Herschel has proposed links with Göbekli Tepe, a site in eastern Turkey dating from the tenth millennium BCE. When did a chronological gap of eleven milleninia ever matter to Bad Archaeologists?

Despite his unusual ideas about the origins of Rapanui cultre, Thor Heyerdahl carried out the first systematic archaeological work on the island, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to carve the statues from the volcanic tuff using stone pounders and the transport them using locally available materials. His pioneering work has demystified the mo‘ai and enabled subsequent archaeologists to concentrate on understanding the culture of the island’s inhabitants.

Rapa Nui as a surviving element of a sunken continent

I wish I didn’t have to include this, but I do… The idea that there was once a continental landmass in the Pacific Ocean, called Mu, has been so thoroughly debunked that it feels like a waste of time dealing with it. Nevertheless, it has formed part of Graham Hancock’s ideas about an advanced civilisation during the latter part of the Pleistocene, that left behind all sorts of clues to its existence in later cultures. The traces of the civilisation itself are lost beneath the ocean waves as a result of rising sea level in the Holocene. Needless to say, Hancock’s ideas have not met with widespread approval from the archaeological community and he now appears to have backed down from some of his more extreme claims.

Why were the mo‘ai erected?

The builders placed the statues on stone platforms (ahu) close to the sea-shore, facing inland. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the earliest were put up soon after the arrival of the settlers, around the middle of the thirteenth century CE and that they continued to be made for the next two hundred and fifty years. Their style is Polynesian, but their size is unprecedented; the ahu on which they were erected are also a Polynesian type (although, strictly, Polynesian ahu are elements within a marae, the term for the platform proper). Other elements of Rapa Nui culture show links with Polynesian culture: the language belongs to the East Polynesian Group, with close similarities to Marquesan and Māori, while the traditional religion was a form of ancestor worship, that statues representing important ancestors. The indigenous inhabitants’ myth of origin traces their homeland to an unknown island called Hiva, which is thought to be the Marquesas, which is unsurprising, given the linguistic affiliation.

In short, we know when, how and why the Polynesian islanders constructed the mo‘ai of Rapa Nui. We understand a great deal about the technology and materials that were available to them and why the island is now so barren and thinly populated. Jared Diamond has even suggested that the competitive spirit that led to the erection of the mo‘ai may have been an important element in the environmental catastrophe that seems to have overwhelmed Rapa Nui in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These days, even advocates of ancient alien contact seem unwilling to deny the very human origins of the mo‘ai.

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.

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”.