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Archive 2694

Archaeology: Book about America’s discovery gets it all wrong

By Bradley T. Lepper The Columbus Dispatch  •  Sunday September 20, 2015 8:17 AM

Numerous popular books and television programs claim that America was discovered by a variety of Old World civilizations centuries before Columbus.

In the current issue of the journal American Antiquity, Larry Zimmerman, an archaeologist from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, reviews one of those books, The Lost Colonies of Ancient America: A comprehensive Guide to the Pre-Columbian Visitors Who Really Discovered America, written by Frank Joseph.

Joseph writes that there were pre-Columbian visits by Sumerians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Celts and others. An apparently non-facetious blurb on the book’s cover asks, “Who didn’t discover America?”

He wrote that it was this cosmopolitan parade of visitors from the Old World and not the indigenous cultures of America who created virtually all the wonders of this New World, from Ohio’s Newark Earthworks, which encode in their earthen walls a sophisticated knowledge of geometry and astronomy, to the monumental masonry of Machu Picchu.

Why don’t archaeologists take these claims seriously?

Joseph says they “cannot deviate from an academic party line without jeopardizing their professional careers,” and so accept “only those facts that support mainstream opinion.”

The idea that archaeologists might ignore or even hide evidence that deviates from some “ academic party line” would be laughable if it weren’t so insulting.

Scientists have a long tradition of challenging the academic party line. Take the motto of London’s Royal Society, which was founded in 1660 — nullius in verba, which means “take nobody’s word for it.”

As a graduate student, I submitted a paper to a major journal arguing that two of Ohio’s most famous and influential archaeologists were wrong in how they interpreted the statewide distribution of 13,000-year-old flint spear points. After the paper was peer-reviewed, the journal published it.

Opinions, mainstream or otherwise, don’t count for much in science. Evidence is what’s important.

Most archaeologists don’t dismiss the possibility of pre-Columbian contacts. In the June issue of the journal Antiquity, University of Calgary archaeologist Richard Callaghan presented the results of computer simulations of 1,200 voyages of small boats drifting with the currents from northern Africa to the Americas.

About 82 percent of Callaghan’s simulated boats made landfall in the Americas, many in 70 to 120 days. Since watercrafts have been around for at least 8,000 years, Callaghan says there could have been a “significant number” of successful pre-Columbian voyages to America.

Do Callaghan’s simulations lend credence to Joseph’s extraordinary claims about who discovered America? No. Regardless of how likely such voyages might have been, archaeologists require evidence before accepting that they actually happened.

So far, there is no credible evidence for pre-Columbian contacts beyond the short-lived Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.

In the early 19th century, some archaeologists believed that American Indians were too savage and ignorant to have built Ohio’s ancient earthworks.

They speculated that the great mounds and enclosures were the work of a lost race of presumably white-skinned mound-builders. By 1890, however, systematic archaeological investigations conclusively showed that the true mound-builders were the ancestors of America’s Indians.

Zimmerman argues that the racism underlying this mound-builder myth also is behind Joseph’s claims, and it’s still being used to “rationalize injustice to American Indians.”

Bradley Lepper is curator of archaeology at the Ohio History Connection.